Ankara, Turkey – Since the Armenia-Azerbaijan war erupted again on September 27, 2020, Armenia has suffered significant military setbacks at the hand of Azerbaijani forces.
Not only has it lost most of the originally Azerbaijani-inhabited territories it occupied in 1993, Azerbaijani forces have made inroads into Nagorno-Karabakh, capturing the strategic and symbolic city of Shusha on November 8, 2020.
Armenia seems to have been taken by surprise, something that is particularly puzzling given its increasingly assertive and belligerent rhetoric against Azerbaijan in the past several years.
Why did the conflict not play out the way Armenia’s leadership imagined? The reason lies in a series of grave miscalculations, whereby Armenia’s leadership misread almost everything about this conflict: the broader international environment, the Russian response, Turkey’s role in the conflict, as well as the domestic dynamics of their adversary, Azerbaijan.
A deep paradox was always built into the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
Armenia has a third of Azerbaijan’s population, lacks its natural resources and key geopolitical location.
But it won the war in the early 1990s, largely because of two factors: Azerbaijan’s internal turmoil and Russian backing for Armenia.
These factors helped Armenia win control over Nagorno-Karabakh as well as much larger territories surrounding that enclave, home to almost 750,000 Azerbaijanis who were forced to flee.
But today, everything changed and Armenia lost.
After the Nagorno-Karabakh War, the long-term damage resulting from Armenia’s miscalculations are plain to see.
While part of the damage is physical, even more significant is the mental damage: Armenia’s feeling of military superiority is now broken, and its feeling of isolation palpable.
How did Armenia so badly miscalculate its war with Azerbaijan?
These developments suggest at least four grave miscalculations on the part of Armenian leaders.
First, the rhetoric of “liberated territories” reflects a deliberate attempt to take advantage of the weakening of international law and institutions.
For two decades, Azerbaijan had centered its efforts on using diplomacy and international pressure to undo Armenia’s attempt to change international borders through military force.
A weakening international order appeared to give Armenia a free hand to maintain its control over these lands indefinitely.
What the Armenian leadership neglected to see is that this same international order also deterred Azerbaijan from abandoning diplomacy and pursuing a military solution.
In 2019, President Ilham Aliyev noted that a world was emerging where “might is right,” intimating that Azerbaijan would act accordingly if it could not achieve its goals through diplomacy.
Similarly, Armenia did not realize the implications of its failure to achieve international recognition for its occupation of Azerbaijani territory.
As recent events have made clear, as long as the fighting remains centered on internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory, there is little that western or other powers will do aside from issuing habitual calls for restraint and negotiations.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Armenia failed to internalize the fact that it could not take Russian support for granted.
Russian influence over Armenia had grown so strong that Vladimir Putin saw little risk in also courting Ilham Aliyev and working to draw Azerbaijan into the Russian orbit.
Students of Russian strategy had long understood that Russia viewed its influence on Armenia as a lever to achieve influence over Georgia and Azerbaijan, both of which carry much greater geopolitical significance.
Several years ago, Russia began selling large amounts of weaponry to Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan certainly paid higher prices than Armenia, but this move should have caused Armenian leaders to fundamentally question their strategy of dependence on Russia, as Russia also worked hard to entice Azerbaijan to join Russian-led organizations like the Eurasian Economic Union.
Like a poker player with a bad hand, Armenia instead raised the stakes in a rather transparent bluff that Azerbaijan ultimately decided to call.
While it remains possible that Russia will step in and rescue Armenia, it is highly unlikely.
Putin deeply distrusts Pashinyan and the way he came to power, and appears content to see him slapped in the face—perhaps in the hope that the ancien régime will return to power in Armenia.
It is notable that President Ilham Aliyev this past August moved to purge the remaining pro-Russian forces inside his government and openly complained to Putin of Russian military supplies to Armenia.
Putin’s cautious approach may reflect a need to play nice with Azerbaijan in order to retain some levers of influence over the most strategically important country in the Caucasus.
Armenian leaders may have fundamentally failed to see that Russia, for all its bluster, is a declining power globally as well as regionally.
While things could change, Russia so far appears to see little benefit from intervening decisively in this war, and even appears to seek to use the flareup to insert Russian peacekeepers into the conflict zone.
All in all, Armenia was much more isolated than its rhetoric would have suggested. Third, Armenian leaders failed to correctly analyze the growing linkages between the South Caucasus and the West Asia, and particularly Turkey’s role in the region.
Since 2015, a powerful nationalist force has been ascendant within the Turkish state, and increasingly sets the parameters of Turkish foreign policy.
President Erdogan has been pushed in a more nationalist direction, which has led Turkey to challenge Russia both in Syria and in Libya.
For Armenia, the fact that Turkish drones outsmarted Russian air defenses, at least in the Libyan case, should have led to considerable alarm and signaled the need for great caution.
In spite of clear warning signs, like Erdogan’s February 2020 statement that Karabakh matters as much to Turkey as it does to Azerbaijan, Armenian leaders failed entirely to anticipate the shift in Turkey’s position on the conflict.
In fact, through steps like their embrace of the Treaty of Sèvres this summer, they accelerated that shift.
Finally, Armenian leaders failed to grasp the recent internal transformation of Azerbaijan.
For many years, President Ilham Aliyev was hamstrung by the presence of various oligarchs around him.
But in the past several years, Azerbaijan’s leader has embarked on a far-reaching purge seeking to make the state more efficient.
Aliyev was liberating himself from the shackles of the regime he took over from his father seventeen years ago.
Armenian leaders appear not to have understood that Aliyev’s more assertive approach would affect Azerbaijan’s most pressing problem, the unresolved conflict over and the occupation of Azerbaijani territories, although Aliyev had many times signaled his great frustration over this situation.
It is now clear that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan—who lacked political experience before being thrust into a position of power as leader of street protests in 2018—failed to comprehend the geopolitics of his country and region.
But he was also constantly undermined by Armenia’s previous leadership, which in turn was aligned with the leadership in Karabakh, and maintained privileged relations with Russia.
This created a highly unstable situation, in which Pashinyan sought to outbid his rivals by adopting an increasingly hardline nationalist position to consolidate his power.
Indeed, his call for unification was perhaps mainly targeted at the leadership in Karabakh and intended to shore up his popularity among Armenians there as well.
If so, then he grossly underestimated the impact his words would have in Azerbaijan.
The parties have signed a cease-fire deal that cements Azerbaijan’s military victory while maintaining some level of Armenian control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The long-term damage resulting from Armenia’s miscalculations outlined here is plain to see.
Weakened as Pashinyan already was, it is difficult to see how he emerges unscathed from this episode, and calls for his resignation are mounting.
More deeply, whether Pashinyan stays or goes, it remains to be seen whether Armenia will learn from this misadventure and embark upon a serious attempt to sue for peace.