New Volume on Armenian Strategic Thought after Karabakh War

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The shock of the grave Armenian defeat in the 2020 Artsakh war has naturally led to various efforts to figure out what went wrong and perhaps more importantly, what Armenians need to do to avoid further catastrophes. The collection of articles published as the French-language volume La Pensée stratégique Arménienne, edited by Varoujan Sirapian and published by Éditions Sigest in Paris in 2021 with the assistance of the Tchobanian Institute, is a step in this direction. It is an attempt to promote strategic thinking concerning the military, economy, law, sociology, communications and propaganda, demography and international relations. The 164-page book includes chapters by Sirapian, Nikos Lygeros, Charalambos Petinos, Benyamin Poghosyan, Mher Sahakyan and Yéghia Tashjian.

Each chapter can be read as a self-contained article, with few direct references to the other sections of the book even though there is some overlapping coverage. The authors all seem to be partisans of the creation of a stronger Armenian state in the future to better defend the interests of Armenia and Artsakh and accept the importance of Russia’s role in the region, though some find it less reliable than others.

Sirapian on Defense

The longest contribution is by Sirapian at the start of the book. Sirapian is a frequent writer in the Armenian press in France, North America, Lebanon and Armenia, the author of a number of books, and founding president of the Institut Tchobanian (Alfortville, France). He proposes instead of lamentation an analysis of the causes of the defeat be conducted in order to find means to rectify the situation. The most important Armenian objective should be to move from being an Armenian people to an Armenian nation embracing both diaspora and homeland, according to Sirapian.

Varoujan Sirapian

Among the most important realms requiring strategizing, he says, are the reformation of the army to assure the security of the country, the establishment of a state of law with a reliable independent justice system, improvement of the demographic situation, and inculcation of the notion of obligations and rights for Armenian citizens.

Sirapian stakes out the problems in the approach to such issues in Armenia. He points out that the lack of an independent Armenian state over a period of nearly 600 years, aside from a little over two years at the start of the 20th century, seriously handicapped the creation of strategic political thinking and a political elite to carry it out. The current independent Armenian republic has dozens of political parties but has not succeeded “during these three decades to put into place a sane and democratic political life where ideas (and not persons) can oppose one another without violence in order to arrive at a well-defined objective, even with different methods” (p. 20).

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Even after Nikol Pashinyan’s Velvet Revolution, the level of political discussion primarily has remained on the local level, Sirapian remarks, often full of invectives, with a division between the “old” and the “new.”

Militarily, Sirapian qualifies Armenia’s army as lacking both sufficient training and up-to-date weaponry. Sirapian quotes Dr. Nerses Kopalyan, an assistant professor of political science in Nevada, as pointing out that the doctrine of mutually assured devastation that Armenia relied on to prevent Azerbaijan from attacking was shown to be bankrupt and useless in the April 2016 four-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Sirapian writes that the 2016 war should have been a wake-up call for the former, both indicating Armenia’s military weakness and Azerbaijan’s increased willingness to wage war. The use of new military technology such as Israeli drones and the unwillingness of Armenia’s ally Russia to intervene should have also been a warning to revise Armenia’s strategy.

He proposes that before reconstruction concerning the war losses, Armenia must make its territory secure by reinforcing its army through new weaponry, technology and cadres. He points to Israel as a good example to follow, with its choice to be feared rather than loved, as per fourth Israeli prime minister Golda Meir well-known statement. Armenia must develop its own military-industrial complex, investing in military research and development, and create a professional modern army, Sirapian states. As part of the reform process, he agrees with Kopalyan that an independent and apolitical truth commission is necessary to investigate the errors and failures of the 2020 war.

In the realm of international relations and diplomacy, on the one hand, Sirapian repeats the adage that states do not have friends — they only have interests (p. 8). While interests may change over time, somewhat contradictorily, he also qualifies certain states or peoples as “hereditary enemies” of Armenia. He is referring to Turkey and Azerbaijan as states nursing an “immutable” pan-Turkic and pan-Islamic strategic plan for over a century no matter the regime in power (p. 15), with the goal of annihilating Armenia (p.23).

Sirapian criticizes the diplomacy of the government of Nikol Pashinyan. He ventures that, for example, a recognition of the Artsakh Republic by Armenia, could have been more useful than merely provocative statements by Pashinyan such as “Artsakh is Armenia. And that’s it” (August 2019).

Dealing with Russia is one of the difficult issues requiring careful thought. Russia is indispensable for Armenia’s defense and survival, Sirapian states, but it also cannot permit democratic societies near its borders in the zone under its influence. Sirapian quotes historian Armen Ayvazyan as summing up Russia’s approach as neo-Byzantine: it weakens its allies in order to oblige them to remain dependent in the Russian orbit.

For Armenia to eliminate its domestic oligarchic political and social structure, which has pillaged the country since independence and led to heavy demographic losses through emigration, Sirapian posits that in the medium term, other allies must be found without breaking ties with Russia. Yet, Sirapian points out, again quoting Ayvazyan, the West, meaning the US, NATO and the European Union, work to weaken Russia by using Turkey as a tool, strengthening the latter as a regional power despite the concomitant menace for Armenia. Furthermore, Russia would not allow Armenia to fully ally itself with a West hostile to it. Instead, Sirapian offers the possibility of complementary military-industrial alliances with India and China.

Many of his suggestions for the Armenian state are commonsense brief notes on topics such as reducing corruption, improving education, rethinking the health and pension systems, creating a tourism ministry, and using “soft power” like the largely unexploited sympathy towards the bloodless Velvet Revolution while neighboring Azerbaijan remains an autocracy.

What are the means to accomplish all this? He offers some proposals that seem sensible, such as to fight corruption in the state budget, give the diaspora a greater voice in the use of the money raised by the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund and add a component of geopolitics to its work, state guarantees for the security of investments from outside the country, invest more in the youth of Armenia, encourage the active participation of the Armenian diaspora in the political and economic life of the republic, proactively support immigration to Armenia and improve conditions so emigration stops.

His chapter raises important questions, but how to accomplish these goals, or at least develop successful strategies to do so, remains for others to detail.

Sirapian in his chapter draws on an unusually eclectic range of sources, not only academicians and politicians but also editorialists and even cartoonists in the diasporan Armenian press and generalist websites (e.g. a website primarily on art providing economic information without sources: https://www.hisour.com/fr/economy-of-armenia-36427/).

Poghosyan on Armenian Foreign Policy

Benyamin Poghosyan

Poghosyan is the founder and president of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies since 2017, and was vice president of research and head of the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Armenia from 2016 to 2019. In his chapter, Poghosyan examines independent Armenia’s foreign policy from 1991 to 2021, dividing it into the periods of President Levon Ter-Petrosian (1991-1998), Presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan (1998-2018), and finally the period of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Among the errors of the past he points out is the inability of Armenia and Artsakh to populate the latter’s territories on a large scale, which left a geostrategic void which Russia was able to exploit for its own national interests and ultimately establish its troops on Azerbaijani soil as a lever of influence on the latter. Pashinyan’s rejection of Karabakh negotiation plans discussed prior to his coming to power in 2018 and forceful statements had a negative effect on negotiations concerning Artsakh, while his government did not make any new proposals concerning the modified stage-by-stage plan offered by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2019 and 2029.

Poghosyan indicates that aside from its military failure in 2020, Armenia remained diplomatically isolated. Its sole ally, Russia, only provided it enough arms during the war to prevent Karabakh from being totally overrun, but benefited from its defeat, which forced Armenia to finally accept Russian peacekeeping forces. Artsakh thus was turned into a Russian protectorate though it was allowed formally to keep its army and government.

Poghosyan makes some recommendations for Armenian strategy under the current circumstances. He first observes that Armenia will not be able to change the new arrangement in its favor at least during the medium term, which means that any changes that would be produced in this period would be in favor of Azerbaijan. Consequently, Armenia must maintain the current status quo to prevent the expulsion of Armenians from the remaining territories at present under Russian control.

In the longer term, up to 15 years, the status quo is unacceptable for Armenia because it means the slow death of Karabakh, whether through massacre or the forced displacement of the Armenians of the region. In this period, Armenia must modify the status quo in Karabakh in its favor. At the minimum, Poghosyan writes that this would mean pushing Azerbaijan outside the borders of the former autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh and enlarging the corridor connecting it to Armenia.

Azerbaijan clearly will not withdraw from the territories it has taken in 2020 without a new war, Poghosyan says, and Armenia does not have the means now or in the medium term to wage such a war. However, as the current borders are unacceptable, Poghosyan finds that Armenia must at least declare that Azerbaijan is occupying parts of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh. He suggests it must clarify its position on what the borders of Karabakh include for the sake of negotiations because potential ambiguity can both increase the uncertainty as to the future of Karabakh and lead to further emigration of the Armenian population there.

Armenia must also avoid allowing Azerbaijan to use the process of the delineation and demarcation of Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan as a tool to force Armenian acquiescence in its control over Karabakh, Poghosyan states. It must announce that the process of border setting does not cover the frontiers adjacent to Artsakh territories occupied by Azerbaijan and must militarily prevent all Azerbaijani attempts to penetrate Armenian territory with its soldiers.

Thirdly, Poghosyan recommends that Armenia must proceed in opening transportation routes between it and Azerbaijan as per the November 10, 2020 trilateral declaration while clearly stating that if Azerbaijan does not renounce its menaces to open a “Zangezur corridor” by force, Armenia will refuse to furnish Azerbaijan any routes towards Nakhichevan via Armenian Syunik. It can instead propose other itineraries to allow as per the November 10 agreement, communication between Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan proper.

Poghosyan concludes by suggesting that better mechanisms must be developed to allow greater participation of the the diaspora in domestic Armenian politics.

Tashjian on Relations with India

Tashjian, a graduate of the American University of Beirut with a degree in public policy and international affairs, received his bachelor’s degree in political science at Haigazian University. He is currently the regional officer of Women in War, a think tank, and an analyst on regional security issues. Tashjian writes on Armenia’s relations with India, which were primarily in the realm cultural and scientific cooperation until recently. He suggests India can help balance the Azerbaijani-Turkish-Pakistani axis of cooperation internationally. India faced this trio in its Kashmir conflict and Turkey and Pakistan helped Azerbaijan in the 2020 war against Armenia, thus there is a natural alignment of interests. Indian media expressed strong support for Armenia during its war and even prior to the war, in March 2020, Armenia signed a contract worth $40 million for the purchases of Swathi Weapon Locating Radars from India.

Most significantly, Armenia is included in the Indian vision of an International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which can strengthen Armenia’s economy, security and geopolitical position. The corridor will link the Iranian port of Chabahar and the Indian Ocean to Eurasia and Helsinki, passing through Armenia. India, Iran and Russia are the prime participants in this project, which leaves out Pakistan and also is seen as a counterweight to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Armenia previously has been deliberately left out of all regional transportation projects. Tashjian recommends the Armenian government play a more active role in developing its domestic routes, such as the North-South road, which would facilitate communication between Iran and Georgia and a railway linking Armenia and Iran.

Azerbaijan, in theory, is in a more advantageous position than Armenia as a transportation partner in INSTC, with more active modernization of its infrastructure and construction of new roads and railway routes. Armenia, however,  has an advantage as a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, allowing access to that market, unlike Azerbaijan. Recent shifts in political alliances, Tashjian notes, can also help Armenia. He cites some experts who find the Azerbaijani encroachments on Armenian soil in Syunik in 2021 were an attempt to destabilize Armenia as a potential transportation partner in the Indian initiative. They point to the strong Iranian and Indian governmental statements against these attempts (and in Tavush).

Finally, Tashjian recommends a greater Armenian diplomatic presence in India, and more cooperation with India against the Turkish-Azerbaijani-Pakistani axis, such as a joint center on security issues to share information and combat terroristic activities, along with joint anti-terrorist military exercises. Armenia can buy more modern weaponry from India. He also suggests the creation of an Indian-Armenian forum to encourage Indian investments in the information technology, tourism and industrial sectors of Armenia’s economy. Armenia must also, he writes, speed the construction of the North-South corridor by engaging with India more and finding new commercial partners to make investments in it. Armenia can thus through collaboration with India break out of its commercial isolation imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan and play a greater role in international commerce and politics.

Sahakyan on China and Russia

Mher Sahakyan’s paper provides a similar analysis of Armenian-Chinese relations, taking into consideration the Russian role in the region. Dr. Sahakyan is the founder and director of the China-Eurasia Council for Political and Strategic Research, in Armenia. He is the 2020/2021 Asia Global Fellow of the Asia Global Institute of Hong Kong and founder of the annual international conference Eurasian Research on Modern China and Eurasia. He holds a PhD in international relations from China’s Nanjing University and is now a lecturer at the Russian-Armenian University and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) of Armenia. He is author of the book China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Armenia.

Sahakyan lays out the means of Russian political and economic influence in Armenia, including various treaties, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Eurasian Economic Union, military aid, trade, the soft power of media, Armenian immigrants working in Russia, educational institutions, and various other types of aid. Despite this close relationship, Sahakyan points to the various types of Russian military and economic relations with Azerbaijan, and its failure to militarily intervene during the 2020 Artsakh war as undermining Armenian confidence in its relationship with Russia, just as the Velvet Revolution and subsequent changes in Armenian actions concerning Russia internationally led to some Russian mistrust of its ally. Nonetheless, Russia and the CSTO prevented a full invasion of the territory of the Republic of Armenia during the war.

Sahakyan concludes that the Russian relationship remains important for Armenia as a source for below-market-price weaponry, for defense against any potential Turkish attack on its territories, especially as some ten years are required for Armenia to recover from its military losses of 2020, and for access to the Russian economic market. Thus he recommends Armenia normalizing its relations with Russia as its principal ally despite the aforementioned issues.

He also observes that Russia is working with China to create a political and economic eastern axis, in which Armenia has the possibility to participate. Unlike its four neighbors, Armenia has failed to obtain similarly vast Chinese investments in its economy. Furthermore, China began to send trains full of merchandise using the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway route and the Bosphorus underwater tunnel to Europe from 2019. Sahakyan suggests Armenia taking concrete measures to attract such investments and to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative in particular so as not to be excluded from potential opportunities for economic growth.

To this end, he proposes the creation of a research group including representatives of various Armenian ministries, businessmen and universities, as well as the president of the Armenian community in China, to investigate both the Belt and Road Initiative and Chinese Go Global investment strategy. In particular, since Armenia has fallen behind technologically as much as 40-50 years, Sahakyan feels that joining Russia in participating in the Chinese digital Silk Road, which attempts to connect with various countries to produce Chinese technologies, will help Armenia catch up. China is ready to share its experience in the realms of 5G, big data, artificial intelligence, digitization of the economy and cybersecurity.

Such cooperation, Sahakyan continues, can also help Armenia advance in the military realm. He therefore recommends creating a joint Sino-Armenian technological university in Armenia, where initially Chinese professors can be invited to teach. After 15-20 years, Armenia gradually will be in this fashion catching up technologically and creating its own specialists and innovations.

In the health realm, China already has sent 100,000 doses of its Sinovac vaccine against covid. Sahakyan recommends Armenia ask Beijing to set up production of this vaccine on Armenian soil and then export it to the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union and Middle East. Aside from economic gain, this will guarantee Armenians access to vaccines and the opportunity to learn from Chinese health specialists.

If Armenia’s transportation routes are unblocked as a result of the November 2020 trilateral agreement, China could use Armenian railways as part of its Belt and Road Initiative and China will feel more secure in investing in Armenia without fear of losses through a new war. Sahakyan recommends Armenia first becoming a regional member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and after obtaining some loans, investing in its North-South route, which will increase Armenia’s abilities to participate in the China-Central Asia-West Asia-Economic Corridor (CCAWAEC).

Currently Armenia has a negative trade balance with China, exporting minerals and importing various manufactured items and food. Sahakyan recommends negotiating with China so the latter augments its purchases of a variety of goods.

On a broader scale, Sahakyan recommends changing the focus of Armenian state diplomacy from obtaining recognition of the Artsakh Republic and of the Armenian Genocide, in both of which he feels it failed, to developing the economy and science in Armenia by obtaining new investments, technologies and infrastructure projects. In this way, he concludes, Armenia can quietly build a strong state capable of defending its interests and that of Artsakh. He states that Armenia must be realistic, as it has no way to defeat Turkey and Azerbaijan together, and retake Western Armenia and Cilicia, or further territory for a Kura-Arax republic. Instead, he writes that it must establish normal relations with all of its four neighboring states by finding peaceful solutions to its problems, and focus on improving its educational system.

Instead of turning more to the West, Sahakyan suggests Armenia strengthen its relations with Russia (and the CSTO and EEU) and China. The US has shown that it considers Turkey as the principal country to have influence in the region. There is also only so far Armenia can get close to the US without upsetting its relations with Russia. The EU is interested in Azerbaijan’s oil and gas so the latter country will have more influence in Brussels in the future, while Turkey has a special relationship with Germany, the principal country of the EU. French gestures of sympathy are morally helpful but Sahakyan stresses that today it is only Russian soldiers guaranteeing the security of the Armenian population in Artsakh and the sovereign borders of Armenia. Armenia must take its place in the bloc of the East while developing its relations with the West as much as possible. Armenia must also resolve its problems with Azerbaijan so it will not be used as during this past war as a tool in Russian-Turkish geopolitics.

Petinos: On an Expansionist Turkey

Charalambos Petinos is a historian specializing in Byzantium and the geopolitics of the Mediterranean. His contribution to the present volume concerns Turkey’s relations with its neighbors and international institutions. He depicts an expansionist Turkey under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attempting to return to the role and the territories of the Ottoman Empire. Turkish foreign policy, Petinos claims, follows a long-term approach, setting goals and waiting patiently to realize them, sometimes for decades, as in the case of Cyprus.

It takes advantage of general perturbations in international affairs to act while other powers are distracted, he says. In the case of the 2020 Artsakh war, the covid-19 pandemic and a complicated US presidential election provided its opportunity. Furthermore, he concludes that Russia allowed Erdogan to attack Armenia in the hope of turning Turkey against NATO, yet in the end NATO implanted itself in Azerbaijan by means of Turkey. Thus an unfinished pax Russica of several decades was replaced by a pax Turcica.

He warns Armenians that Turkey, having succeeded through that war to insert its military into the South Caucasus, will await the right moment, notwithstanding the current presence of Russian forces, to take control of the strategic corridor between Nakhichevan and the rest of Azerbaijan, in order to connect Turkey to the latter, and ultimately to Central Asia. He suspects a third step in the future will be to seize part of southern Armenia, probably using Azerbaijan as its intermediary.

Petinos uses Turkish actions in Cyprus as an example and warning for Armenians. He states that Azerbaijanis and Turks will populate the regions of Artsakh they have seized and attempt to efface the Armenian identity of these areas, just as they have done in the part of Cyprus they have occupied. The ultimate goal in both cases is to control the entire territories of the two regions.

Petinos also cites the precedent of northern Syria, where Turkey brought in Syrian Arabs and other Sunnis, to settle in place of the expelled Kurds. In Artsakh, Syria and Libya, Turkey also brought mercenaries to fight its battles.

He concludes that the Artsakh situation is not part of a territorial conflict but a war of extermination of Armenians which had begun under the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century. The Azerbaijani museum celebrating the victory exhibits the racism from which this war sprang. His view of Turkey is not that different than that of Sirapian.

Petinos makes his own policy recommendations. First, he thinks Pashinyan, whom he characterizes as incompetent, must resign in order to calm the domestic political Armenian scene, and to strengthen relations with Russia. Armenia has no other choice but to work closely with Russia in order to create a strong Armenian state, as no other states have shown a willingness to intervene concretely. In fact, in the current situation, Armenia has become so dependent on Russia that Petinos even wonders whether Armenia is truly an independent country.

Armenia must develop education and research, he recommends, and create jobs to attract the youth to stay and not emigrate. It must also fight corruption and reinforce the state of law. Its diaspora must strengthen Armenia, including through immigration and economically. Think tanks must be used to develop Armenian soft power alongside hard power of the state. These recommendations are made without specifying how they can be achieved in practice.

Conclusion

The volume concludes with a brief contribution of under two pages by Nikos Lygeros, professor of mathematics, linguistics, epistemology, geostrategy and strategic management at the Universities of Athens, Thrace and Kavala and the Polytechnic School of Xanthi. He is a professor of strategy, geostrategy and topostrategy at the Police Academy of Greece, School of National Security of Greece, the Hellenic Air Force Academy, and several other institutions. He encourages Armenians to develop its strategic thought for the future, based on studies of geography, relationships and networks, and taking into account chronology (“chronostrategy”).

The volume presents many interesting ideas and some concrete recommendations for action. However, it serves primarily as an introduction to Armenia’s international issues, which require more extensive analysis, perhaps through monographic works. The lack of coordination between chapters leaves readers with questions. For example, neither Tashjian nor Sahakyan discuss potential problems if Armenia collaborates with both India and China on their respective major projects, as the global ambitions and plans of both great powers are rivals in many areas.

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