The security context in Armenia for the month of January underwent three important developments. First, the relationship between Russia and Armenia further deteriorated, as Yerevan has all but conceded that not only is Russia no longer a reliable regional partner, but it also has failed to serve as a reliable ally diplomatically and in the realm of security. Second, Armenia continued utilizing the diplomatization of its security, as it has enhanced its asymmetrical bargaining toolkit to meliorate its diplomatic capabilities. And third, the contours of an evolving Russo-Azerbaijani axis were more cogently revealed, as Moscow and Baku deepened their collaboration to curtail Armenia’s Western pivot and impede the West’s endeavor of becoming a geopolitical center of power in the region. The deterioration in the Russo-Armenian relationship has been defined by Russia’s growing indifference to Armenia’s complaints over the blockade of the Lachin Corridor, Russia’s political support for Azerbaijan in the United Nations, Moscow’s penchant to engage in bothsideism and even blame Armenia for the stagnation in the peace negotiations, and Russia’s profound frustration over the new European Monitoring Mission that Yerevan requested from Brussels. The growing fracture between Yerevan and Moscow, buttressed by Russia’s refusal to meet its security obligations and Armenia’s subsequent decision to pivot West, has altered the alliance structure of the South Caucasus: Moscow and Baku have reconfigured and aligned their interests to form a Russo-Azerbaijani axis in the region. These developments create the potential of further exasperating Armenia’s security dilemma, and while relying on diplomacy is a stopgap measure, Armenia must develop a new security strategy defined by the “porcupine doctrine.”
Armenia’s Security Context
Armenia’s Government all but conceded that Armenia’s security alliance with Russia has failed to meet the country’s minimal security objectives, forcing Yerevan to rely on its own “diplomatic toolkit” to address the crisis in the Lachin Corridor. Prime Minister Pashinyan articulated the new security dilemma that has developed due to Russia’s strategic indifference: “it turns out that the Russian military presence in Armenia not only doesn’t guarantee Armenia’s security but on the contrary creates threats for Armenia’s security.” This triggered a sharp response from Moscow, qualifying Yerevan’s posturing as “absurd,” but at the same time indirectly confirming the decay in relations and the fact that Russia’s role as security ally has become all but artificial. Yerevan reaffirmed the growing fracture in the relationship by canceling the CSTO’s military exercises that were to be held this year, declaring it inexpedient and not aligned with Armenia’s interests.
To address its security needs, and more specifically, the blockade of the Lachin Corridor, Armenia has resorted to two steps. First, it has internationalized the blockade, much to Russia’s and Azerbaijan’s displeasure, by calling for an international fact-finding mission, while at the same time cultivating diplomatic support from the United States and the Europe Union. Contextually, while the collective Western condemnation of the blockade by Azerbaijan has been unequivocal, the Russian response has been the opposite, refusing to condemn Azerbaijan, while at the same time working against the internationalization of the crisis. Second, Armenia secured the continuation of Europe’s physical presence in the country, with the establishment of the European Union Mission in Armenia (EUMA) under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), a step that adds another layer of experts and observers on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. This approach is designed to diminish Armenia’s dependence on Russia, curtail Azerbaijan’s hybrid and militarized activities along the border, and rupture the prevailing logic that only Russia can exercise a monopoly of presence on Armenia’s borders.
Armenia’s pivot to the West, as an alternative to the collapse of the Russian-led security architecture, is viewed by Moscow and Baku as inherently problematic. For Russia, this is deemed a challenge to its regional authoritarian orbit, while for Baku, a democratic Armenia under the diplomatic protection of the West alters the regional balance of power. To impede such developments, Moscow and Baku have enhanced their strategic partnership into a regional axis, seeking to suffocate Armenia’s Western pivot and hinder the growth of Western influence in the South Caucasus.
The formation of the Russo-Azerbaijani axis has reproduced an emulation in behavior. In the same way that Russia has absorbed eastern territories in Ukraine, so too has Azerbaijan absorbed eastern territories of the Republic of Armenia; in the same way that Russia uses revisionist historical claims to justify its aggression against Ukraine, the Aliyev regime also utilizes the same methods; in the same way that Russia has no consideration for Ukraine’s sovereignty, Azerbaijan as well disregards that of Armenia’s.
Russia and Azerbaijan perceive Armenia’s democratization and growing pivot to the West in the same light as Russia has perceived Ukraine’s. In the case of Ukraine, it has invaded the country to deny its Western pivot. In the case of Armenia, it has enabled Azerbaijan’s invasion and works with Baku to deny Armenia’s Western pivot. The Russo-Azerbaijani alignment is evident in five clear cases: Russia’s refusal to fulfill its treaty obligations to Armenia; Russia’s refusal to allow the CSTO to assist Armenia against Azerbaijan’s invasions; Russia’s diplomatic support for Azerbaijan at the UN Security Council; Russia’s enabling of Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin Corridor; and the united Russo-Azerbaijani front against the deployment of the European Union’s monitoring mission.
In the case of the Lachin Corridor, the contours of the Russo-Azerbaijani axis are quite observable in the political cover that Russia has been providing to Azerbaijan. Promoting Baku’s talking points and unsubstantiated claims, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov declared that they are “studying” the information provided by Azerbaijan “that the Armenian side delivered mines along this corridor,” and that “these mines were used to mine the territory near the Azerbaijani positions in violation of the agreements.” Considering the fact that Russian peacekeepers thoroughly control the Lachin Corridor, and noting Yerevan’s aversion to any re-initiation of fighting, Moscow’s discourse is designed to enhance Azerbaijan’s narrative.
In the case of the EU monitoring mission, Russia not only opposed the EU mission as being “counterproductive,” but it aligned its opposition with Azerbaijan, claiming that Baku did not consent to the mission, even though the mission is within Armenia’s sovereign territory and remains outside of Azerbaijan’s purview. Baku mirrored Russia’s hostility to the deployment of the EU monitoring mission, with President Aliyev expressing his discontent along the same lines as Moscow. In this context, whereas the United States and Europe vigorously supported the establishment of EUMA, thus demonstrating an alignment of interests between Armenia, America, and Europe, the Russo-Azerbaijani axis presented a united front in opposing the establishment of EUMA, with Russia going as far accusing Armenia of having “degenerated into an appendage of the United States and NATO.”
The Porcupine Doctrine and the Need for a New Security Strategy
Azerbaijan’s incursions into Armenia-proper since May of 2021, its large-scale invasion in September of 2022, and the recent blockade of the Lachin Corridor, are specific acts designed to complement a broader security doctrine towards Armenia: conflict persistence as an extension of Baku’s ontological insecurity. Azerbaijan’s objectives are not and cannot be specific to Nagorno-Karabakh, as its incursions into sovereign Armenian territory demonstrate, as its claims of a “Zangezur Corridor,” which Aliyev himself concedes he artificially concocted, clearly indicate, and as the regime’s recent claims of a “Western Azerbaijan” make abundantly clear. In this context, the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh, as envisioned by the Aliyev regime, is but one step in part of a broader security doctrine: continuity of conflict and stunting Armenia’s ability to rebuild. But this strategy remains commensurate with the type of regime that runs Azerbaijan, and to expect anything less from an irredentist dictatorship amounts to strategic naivete. Guided by a strategy of deterrence-by-denial, Armenia must develop a “porcupine doctrine” to deter Azerbaijan’s objectives and the destabilizing designs of the Aliyev regime.
Conceptually, porcupine doctrine is a strategy of asymmetrical defensive warfare that focuses on fortifying a state’s vulnerabilities in order to be able to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses. As such, porcupine doctrine rejects the logic of attempting to match the strengths of the aggressor state if a persistent power parity exists. Rather, instead of matching the strengths of the enemy, defense strategy must revolve around exploiting the enemy’s areas of weakness. The strategic objective is to structure a country’s defenses in such a formulation that the strengths of the enemy become operationally diminished, and should the aggressor state seek to attack, the unacceptably high costs and risks would render an invasion against a porcupine state unfeasible. The specific tenets of the doctrine entails the logic of “a large number of small things,” where defensive capabilities, similar to the quills of a porcupine, are numerous, stealthy, sharp, and strategically mobile. Each defense capacity, designed to target the vulnerabilities of a stronger opponent, serve as metaphorical porcupine quills that render the strengths of the aggressive actor proportionally ineffective. A porcupine doctrine does not only enhance the survivability of the attacked state, but it also denies the set objectives of the aggressor, thus serving the broader security doctrine of deterrence-by-denial.
While a porcupine doctrine is defensive by nature, it also reserves limited offensive capabilities for robust counter-attacks. In essence, the porcupine approach is not simply a defensive deterrence strategy, but rather an “active deterrence alternative” that allows for two developments: preemptive defensive capabilities and surgical targeting of vulnerable targets. The broader strategic objective is to exponentially enhance the costs of an invasion by developing “preventive deterrence,” which both denies the aggressor’s objectives, while also increasing the risk propensity of military failure.
What would a porcupine doctrine look like for Armenia? First, instead of operating on the failed Russo-Soviet military doctrine that Armenia has adapted for the last 30 years, it must restructure the operational structure and mobility capacity of its Armed Forces. Second, instead of purchasing weapons to match the types of weapons Azerbaijan has procured, Armenia must purchase weapons that will allow it to target the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the Azerbaijani army. Third, defensive capacities must be redesigned for asymmetrical capabilities, as opposed to the traditional and outdated trenches and modality of defense that make Armenian soldiers and weaponry sitting ducks. And fourth, Armenia must develop innovative tactics that are commensurate with a porcupine doctrine, a modality of training and combat-readiness that allows for preemptive defensive capabilities.
To achieve the changes necessary in order to adapt and transition to a porcupine doctrine, Armenia’s military, strategic, and tactical thinking must be aligned with the following three objectives.
Objective 1: Operational scope of military units, from the squadron level all the way to the battalion level, must be redesigned to allow for mobility and operational flexibility commensurate with asymmetrical defensive capabilities. The static nature of Armenia’s Armed Forces, the outdated design of its chain of command structure, the incoherence in its logistical operations, and the systemic sluggishness of tactical communication on the battlefield remain incompatible with active preventive deterrence. Armenian forces need to be organized and trained to effectively employ battlefield tactics specific to porcupine strategy. Combat readiness, as understood in Armenia’s current military doctrine, must definitionally be altered, as combat readiness must now be defined by preemptive defensive operations.
Objective 2: Considering the resource disparity between Armenia and Azerbaijan, especially the gap in military spending, Armenia cannot and should not attempt to match the types of weapons that Azerbaijan purchases. Rather, Armenia’s arms procurement must be designed to meet the demands of its porcupine doctrine, as opposed to falling into the trap of engaging in an arms race. In this context, Armenia cannot fall into the same trap as it did in the past, purchasing, for example, expensive Iskander systems from Russia, or sets of SU-30 planes, none of which provided Armenia any strategic advantage in the theater of war. A porcupine doctrine dictates that instead of purchasing a few large weapons systems or military aircraft, one must purchase a “large number of small things.” Thus, Armenia, for example, cannot consider purchasing the same type of Lora missiles that Azerbaijan purchases from Israel, or the expensive drones that Baku receives from Turkey. Not only has such an approach resulted in a bigger gap and disparity in military capability, but it has actually played into Azerbaijan’s hands: Armenia has ended up having the type of defenses, and the types of weapons, and fought the type of war that remains favorable and plays to the advantages of Azerbaijan. A porcupine doctrine will alter this configuration, allowing Armenia to purchase a diversity of weapons for a diversity of security objectives with a diversity of tactical flexibility in targeting Azerbaijan’s weaknesses.
Objective 3: Armenia must redesign its architectural approach in the field of effective defenses. In order to have a deterrent effect, Armenia’s forces and weapons systems must be deployed in a distributed manner that is resilient to attack; communication networks must be made resilient to enemy eavesdropping; and reconnaissance capabilities must be enhanced to buttress the effectiveness of defensive maneuvering. Overarchingly, Armenia must develop a comprehensive strategy on how to deploy large numbers of small things in a distributed and survivable way to both curtail losses from an initial attack, as well as to reserve the capacity for a robust counter-attack.
Cognizant of the disparities in resources, weaponry, funding, and quality of training, Armenia cannot engage in the same modality of warfare that Azerbaijan engages in. Rather, Armenia must devote its finite defense resources to mobile, distributed, affordable, and lethal capabilities that could leverage its advantages while exploiting the vulnerabilities of Azerbaijan’s military. The logic is quite straightforward: Armenia cannot fight Azerbaijan the way Azerbaijan fights Armenia. This only plays into Azerbaijan’s strengths, while further exposing Armenia’s vulnerabilities. By adapting a porcupine doctrine, Armenia can alter this configuration and no longer fall into the trap of engaging in a type of conflict that is favorable to Azerbaijan. By virtue of altering this domain of favorability, Armenia will automatically force Baku to think twice. The Clausewitzian offensive principle of war posits that the strongest form of defense is a powerful capacity for offense. This is not what Armenia nor the porcupine doctrine subscribe to. Rather, the subscription is to a different maxim: the strongest form of defense is a powerful capacity for resilience.
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