WATERTOWN — The stakes for Armenia seem to be high, less than four years after the disastrous second Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) war in 2020, this time waged unilaterally and with lightning speed by Azerbaijan, resulting in not only ethnic cleansing and the reclamation of Artsakh and the lands that victorious Armenia had held as an insurance policy, but an incursion of more than 200 kilometers (124 miles) by Azerbaijani forces into Armenia proper.

And this victory seems to have only whetted their appetite for more in Azerbaijan.

Prof. Anna Ohanyan, Professor of Political Science and the Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Stone Hill College in Easton, Mass., in a recent interview offered some insights about the situation. Ohanyan, a native of Armenia, has written and edited several volumes on the Caucasus and the role of Russia. In an extensive interview last week, she offered her insightful analysis of the perils and opportunities Armenia is facing, as well as a new post-Ukraine era in the region.

Changed Orientation

Since the end of the 44-Day War in 2020, Armenia’s government seems to be shifting its orientation toward the West, with a particular soft spot for France, rather than Russia and its subsidiary defense collaboratives, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which did not lift a finger to help Armenia when it was attacked.

Ohanyan said it is better to characterize such a foreign policy change as a tilt rather than a pivot.

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“I would describe it as a tilt or strategic tilt, diversification of its foreign policy. And it’s overdue. I am really excited about that,” she said.

Instead, she explained, what happened in the immediate post-USSR period marked a pivot. “The pivoting was happening in the 1990s. Both Georgia and Ukraine integrated their demographic transitions and were heavily geopoliticized. Not only the West and Russia were kind of forcing it and pushing it  … but domestically Georgia tied its democratic discourse to their European path.”

She further explained the foreign policy direction of Armenia.

“Armenia, in my reading, is trying to revisit its role with Russia and that process, I would say, very much started —was instigated — by Russia but it should have happened much, much sooner,” she explained. “I have been looking at the processes of regionalism in the post-Soviet space in the 1990s, early 2000s and scholars point out that there is huge institutional cost to the state” because of this regionalism protection.

She added, “The Armenian state’s dependence on Russia is in such an asymmetrical way. Russia provided a modicum of stability that allowed Armenia to focus on its domestic reforms.”

Still, she added, one could wonder whether Azerbaijan, in the three decades after its defeat in the Karabakh war of 1988-1994 behaved better because of its own domestic challenges, including taking the time to build up its army, oil pipelines, etc. or because of the large shadow Russia cast.

Much has changed, she said, in the past couple of years for Russia domestically, leading it to pursue a different path than the West.

“Russia is increasingly revisionist. It wasn’t revisionist before its invasion of Ukraine. In that respect, there was a lot more overlap in their relationship” with Armenia, she said.

With an emboldened Russia trying to overtake Ukraine, it is challenging the norms in terms of governance and thus is destabilizing.

“Now that Russia is challenging the rules-based world order it is a challenge to Armenia. As a small state, their durability, their existence depends on international rules, order, transparency, liberal principals, human rights. That is where the contradiction between Armenia and Russia lies, pushing Armenia to diversify its relations with western structures and international structures.”

In terms of the Russian-Armenian relationship, she said, relations were not always so cozy. “I always have been saying that this was not a relationship. Russia was always trying to get Azerbaijan to join the Eurasian Economic Union. Great powers like that, they don’t take one state at a time; they are new imperial powers. They claim whole regions. He did not have a preference for Armenia or Azerbaijan. Putin wants the whole region. The reason you see greater coordination between Aliyev and Putin falls very much in line with Russia’s very explicit revisionist role in international politics, trying to change the rules that underpin world order.”

She compared the status of Aliyev in Azerbaijan to that of Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus as “illegitimate powers.”

“Russia comes to their defense and bolsters them,” she said.

“I’m not saying the West and the US are angels, they’re not. That is the unfortunate thing. I wish the US was more consistent in supporting the very order that it created but the system they created has benefited the small states to have stable international environment within which to develop,” she explained.

Joining ICC

Another major change in Armenia was the ratification of the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute and its official membership in that body. In March 2023, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia, she said, “wants Armenia to say verbally, we’re not going to arrest Putin if he arrives [in Armenia]. It’s not like it gives Putin a guarantee, but it gives Putin the language to weaken … the international, liberal, rules-based order of which ICC is an important pillar,” she said.

“If you talk to any legal scholar they will tell you. … Armenia will get a slap on the wrist” if he visits and is not arrested. It would be understandable for any major country why Putin would not be arrested by Armenian authorities. And as a result, she stressed, the fallout would be minimal. “Putin will take that, parade it around and say ICC doesn’t mean anything,” she said.

Joining the ICC might also deter Azerbaijan from aggression, she added.

“Armenia’s joining of ICC increased the cost for [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev doing Putin’s bidding in Armenia,” she said. “There is scholarship as to how ICC membership affects. Membership of autocratic states,” she added.

Silence During Blockade and No Punishment

Many in Armenia and Artsakh were frustrated with world bodies, including the EU and the UN, which rather than condemn the 10-month blockade imposed by Azerbaijan on Artsakh starting in December 2022, instead would often ask “both sides” to agree to behave better.

Ohanyan said they still act as a deterrent for bad behavior, usually.

She explained, “That’s in the mind of every Armenian,” she said. “Overall the way international organizations work, their powers are very slow and normative. They do have a powerful constraining effect on international politics, sometimes described as norms teachers. They establish norms, [however] their weakness is enforcement.”

“The compliance with international law is voluntary. [Yet] if international law did not exist, the map [of the world] would look completely different. You would not have over 200 states. You would be stuck in a medieval ages, think of countries being divided by empires and imperial politics. International law has elevated the voice of small states,” she explained.

Thus, she said, “the core of Armenia’s diplomacy should be to work to strengthen these international organizations.”

At the same time, she said, “the enforcement is lacking.”

Part of the problem, she stressed, was that international law is focused on the concept of “territorial integrity” and as far as many of those bodies were concerned, Nagorno Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan, with Armenians the minorities.

“Any minority group you take, they don’t have the same protections that the states do,” she said. “Aliyev said ‘I am protecting my borders.’ Essentially he copied Putin in the Chechnya conflict and perfected it,” she said. Thus, she said, the use of force is ok with Russia and human rights don’t matter.

She stressed that despite a common perception, those world bodies result in a safer world. Since World War II, “state to state wars have nearly disappeared,” she said, with some major exceptions. The stakes, she said, are much higher.

She did praise the European Union monitoring missions to Armenia after the war, as well as the US, to protect the border. “It’s hugely important. It needs to be elevated. It’s just not enough.”

OSCE vs 3+3 Forma

Upon the end of the first Karabakh war, Armenia and Azerbaijan participated in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, tasked with reaching a permanent peace agreement. The three co-chairs of the Minsk Group were representatives from the US, France and Russia.

Aliyev, she said, was always against it.

“Aliyev has been very systematic in corroding the OSCE Minsk group. He closed the OSCE branch in Azerbaijan a while

back. It’s much more obvious now. The cat is out of the bag now. He’s derailed the Western tract of diplomacy because this is the tract in which he is least comfortable, is most fearful, because he is a leader that committed an ethnic cleaning, massive corruption, [and holds] political prisoners.”

She said that for Aliyev, one example that causes him fear is that of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, who was convicted at a trial by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for committing genocide in Kosovo.

“They negotiated with him before they dragged him” to the Special Tribunal, she said.

“This can be used in the peace process. Aliyev has been consistently sabotaging the Western tract, the OSCE, as well as the more recent Western support, because Western support is based on norms against conquests, non-use of force, while Russia does not have those requirements,” she  noted.

Ohanyan still called the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group weak, because it consisted of sporadic meetings. “It was always celebrated as a format where Russia and the West talked, but it was not strong,” she said.

Whether the 3+3 format, consisting of Russia, Iran and Turkey on one side and Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan on the other, is good for Armenia or not, depends on one’s point of view, Ohanyan explained.

“On the one hand, if you look at other regions, it is important for Armenia to champion and participate in regional integration formats,” she said. “Armenia’s foreign policy does need to have a regional statecraft dimension.”

“Right now the South Caucasus is a fractured region, highly geopoliticized, with very weak regional markets, very poor regional connectivity between societies, as a result it makes it difficult to continue building state institutions,” she explained.

A positive aspect of 3 + 3 is to “dilute Russia’s voice” because you have Iran and “it’s good to create regional format.”

She added, “At the same time, many, many analysts and I share this concern, that this is a way to push the US out of the South Caucasus and this is very dangerous for Armenia,” she said.

A lot of works remains to be done to understand the role of South Caucasus for Europe and US.

Turkey is not exercising the role it should ideally in the region, Ohanyan said. Instead, she said, Turkey “ranks very low” in “responsible stewardship” in the region as the major actor.

“Russia’s slow imperial decline is a historic opportunity for Turkey to play that role, which obviously is scary for Armenia. But Turkey is not taking that role. It continues to do Aliyev’s bidding, while continuing with its militarized foreign policy. On paper it looks like  Turkish foreign policy is so strong and impressive. … but in reality, Turkey would be stronger when embedded in liberal world order,” she said.

Azerbaijani Price

Ohanyan said that for many countries in the region, a false choice is presented as either democracy or security. Armenia, she said, has shaken that off, while Azerbaijan has not. As a result, she said, the citizens of Azerbaijan will pay the price in the long run.

“The conflict was used as a way to justify the delay for liberalization. The Armenian people have pushed against that false dilemma. The Azerbaijanis are stuck there. They are going to pay the price for it by allowing Aliyev to do that,” she said.

“Armenia’s challenge is how do you negotiate with a leader of a country of a personalized authoritarian system. We have known for a while that Aliyev is not negotiating,” she said.

Instead, she said, Armenia can show that it has something to offer for “all kinds of stakeholders in the region.”

For example, she expanded that Armenia could reach out to Georgia, or even to the Azerbaijani civil society, letting the people there know the benefits of “open regionalism.”

She did call out European diplomacy with regard to Azerbaijan as “lazy.”

“I realize it’s a big word but I think there is a myth that Azerbaijan offered so much to Europe in terms of energy security,” she said. “With the Russian invasion, Europe organized so quickly to reduce its dependence on Russian oil. Aliyev declining oil reserves are not even making a dent on European dependence on Russian oil.”

Ukraine War and Its Ripple Effects

The Ukraine War waged by Russia changed so much in the world. Asked if it was miscalculation, Ohanyan had much to say.

“On the one hand,” she said, “everyone thought if Russia invaded, it would take over Ukraine within 2-3 weeks. No one thought that Russia would do it because again  it was a war of conquest and we saw how … America’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq turned out. … [They were] different but still invasions but they were costly.”

She added that Russia and the Soviet Union experienced the high cost of invading Afghanistan.

By invading Ukraine, Russia was “crossing the Rubicon” as a war of conquest “as opposed to salami slicing Ukraine which it has been doing.”

She said, “That kind of Russia was compatible with Armenia but a Russia that changes borders, we already see the ripple effects on Armenia” and thus the increased distance politically.

Now, she said, Aliyev is using the same language as Putin to claim “Western Azerbaijan.”

“It was a huge strategic blunder for Russia,” she said. In fact, she said, she had given a couple of interviews before the full-scale invasion, saying that she did not think an invasion would happen because it was not in the interest of the Russian state. “It turned out the Kremlin was not doing its homework. Not only Russia lost its centrality but Russia miscalculated how much the West would unite and speak with one voice,” perhaps because earlier incursions on Crimea and Georgian territories did not meet resistance.

She said regardless of how the war there ends, the cost to Russia has been staggering. Not only has Russia weakened its position in Eurasia, but it has hampered its role worldwide.

“Russia was the middleman between China and Europe, two engines of the world economy. Russia was uniquely positioned and had a huge expansive market in Europe selling it soil. Not only Russia lost that makes but now it has to sell it oil below market prices and has lost its edge as a bridge. All of that connectivity is moving down. The costs are enormous,” she explained.


Russia itself has 178 border points which are not delineated. “Border delineation, or the lack of it, is very common around the world. It is a technical issue. You bring your maps, agree on the maps you use. It should not be done under coercion. It is usually the work of cartographers, civil engineers, to make sure the borders don’t cross through settlements. OSCE has the largest experience with it,” she said.

She noted that there are parts of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan that are not precise because of the additional territories from Azerbaijan that Armenia was holding as insurance policy from Azerbaijan.

Ohanyan noted that she understands that Armenia and Azerbaijan need to start work legitimately on the border. “But what Azerbaijan is doing is using that as an excuse to maintain a constant security threat over Armenia and that is exactly what Russia likes which is the reason the CSTO did not respond to Azerbaijan.”

Ohanyan stressed, “It needs to happen but Russia is not going to be the one that will do it,” she said. Instead, she said, the OSCE or UN need to do it.

What Could Have Been

Could things have been done to change the disastrous outcome? When asked, Ohanyan said it is hard to know.

She added that some suggest that Armenia should have settled the issue when it held the upper hand in the 1990s, “should have implemented various agreements, should have been more cooperative, given Aliyev more of the surrounding territories,” but added, “I am not convinced.”

She did suggest, however, that the current peace process “be elevated, go on the offensive, pulling in and identifying actors” in the region.

“The type of state that Azerbaijan was becoming, it’s a petro-state. It’s an authoritarian state. It’s a declining state that derives legitimacy from external territorial claims, from unresolved armed conflicts,” she added.

In Armenia, she said, government after government miscalculated and relied on Russia, hoping Russia would come to their defense. “It was a huge miscalculation but that war took place during Covid, when Turkey had an ‘activist foreign policy’ carried out and continues to carry out similar attacks in the middle east, largely chasing the Kurds. This happened as part of that string. Under Trump, even Europe was very nervous. Trump basically gave Turkey the green light to do what it wanted to in the Middle East and it spilled over into the Caucasus.”

She further explained, “Another driver for Aliyev to engage in this war was declining oil prices. Studies do show that countries that are losing their oil reserves are more likely to start wars.”

One mistake by Armenia and Artsakh’s negotiators was that the latter was not directly at the negotiation table.

She stressed, “The Nagorno Karabakh voice needs to be much, much louder. Letting Armenia or Russia to do its diplomacy is not sufficient. If you look at cases where claims of national self-determination have been successful, in all of those cases, the actor itself carries out the diplomacy.”

Armenia speaking for Karabakh “delegitimized Nagorno Karabakh’s claims, saying that Armenia is an expansionist state, even though Armenia didn’t recognize Karabakh as a state.”

What will happen with Karabakh ultimately is another issue that is hard to foretell, she said.

Even if all the Armenians were to move back to Karabakh, they would still be facings unchanged Azerbaijani policies, which are ones they cannot possibly live with. “Violence is on the table,” she said, adding it applies not only for any Armenians returning to Karabakh, but for the Azerbaijani population itself. “Armenians would not move at this point, under this particular state, so Armenia’s joining of ICC is important.”

She added, “I would not say it is a pipe dream” but added “Armenia’s diplomacy needs to be offensive. Now it is very defensive.”

Will Azerbaijan Attack?

It is possible, she said, the same way a Chinese attack on Taiwan or a Russian attack on Moldova is possible, but it’s not definite.

“The rhetoric in Armenia, this fear factor on steroids is insane,” she said. “Overall I do not see Azerbaijani invading Armenia. It is still an international border and the fact that Aliyev is image sensitive, particularly considering that  he lost so much political capital after the ethnic cleansing, he was able to use the West against Russia very successfully. Aliyev and Lukashenko are similar in terms of the choices they are making but what is interesting is that Aliyev worked hard to make Azerbaijan the COP 29 [UN Climate Change Conference] host. That means that he is conscious of the image of Azerbaijan. He could try salami slicing Armenia but there would be a stronger response. I do not see that it is in his interest to do anything … because his economy is very fragile. Even the threat of sanctions will have a hugely destabilizing effect.” …

Ohanyan is the author of  The Neighborhood Effect: The Imperial Roots of Regional Fracture in Eurasia, Networked Regionalism as Conflict Management  and Russia Abroad: Driving Regional Fracture in Post-Communist Eurasia and Beyond.

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