When Insecurity Breeds Security: Reflecting on Armenia’s Security Dilemma

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

In the realm of security, Armenia suffers from a crisis of leadership. More than any other sphere, those responsible for the country’s security are inducing more insecurity. This is not due to malice or ill-intent, but rather by failing to be capable, reliable and professional leaders. One year after the collapse of Armenia’s security architecture, and the ill-designed policies and doctrines that for 30 years led the country towards the path of catastrophe, that same security architecture remains in the hands of a defeated military elite. The house that the architects designed and built collapsed, yet those same architects have been left to assume the responsibility of rebuilding. This is an exercise in self-negation. This remains Armenia’s security dilemma: the current military leadership cannot only not win another war, but by virtue of the failure of the military system they have constructed, cannot secure the physical security of the country. And this is not, by any means, a political statement, but rather, an honest and objective reflection upon the continuous preservation of an institutional status quo that has been defined, since 2016,[1] by debacle and dereliction. The political leadership, unequivocally, shares its immense burden of failures, but this reflection is specific to the security sector and the continuous security dilemma that haunts the country.

Why has Armenia’s Armed Forces struggled to reform, modernize, compete with its main enemy, guarantee the dignity of service, and maximize its capabilities in protecting the country? Why have the military brass failed to redesign, alter and adapt to the growing power, enhanced capabilities, the doctrinal and strategic sophistication of its enemy, and the growing power imbalance that they knew and conceded was developing? These reflective questions are not specific to one general, defense minister or administration, but rather, these are collective and wide-ranging questions that get to the heart of the matter: why has the main institution that is supposed to uphold the country’s security architecture been a combination of failure, incompetence, negligence and misinformation? Armenia’s security dilemma is not simply a geopolitical and resource dilemma; it is also an institutional dilemma. More than a year after the 2020 Artsakh War, one thing remains clear: the institutional status quo remains unshaken, the defeated generals shrug off their failures, the infrastructure remains debilitated and the Armenian soldier bears the entire burden of a failed security system. How can this be corrected? To change a failed system, it is necessary to change its failed leadership.

Armenia’s social, bureaucratic and institutional way of thinking remains imprisoned by the concept of “experience”. It is an axiom of any institutional discourse within Armenia when it comes to addressing or developing metrics of quality: a given individual’s experience. Such “experience”, of course, is devoid, generally speaking, of quality, achievements or accomplishments. By virtue of time, and acting as loyal placeholders, the upper echelon of Armenia’s military have produced the narrative that experience remains the number one quality for leadership. But what has this experience produced for Armenia’s security, or achieved in military advancement? Outdated training, inchoate policies, doctrines devoid of military science, and a robust track record of embezzlement and corruption better qualifies the oeuvre of Armenia’s top military caste. It is this false notion of “experience” that is used to justify their continuous presence, their preservation of the status quo, their opposition to reforms, and a collective inability to improve and advance the country’s security system. As the 2020 Artsakh War revealed, their failure in performance exposed their paucity of capability. So what does this “experience” matter, when that which such experience is supposed to achieve fails abysmally? Therein lies Armenia’s security dilemma: those who are responsible in producing security are actually the underlying causes of insecurity.

In reflecting upon the security dilemma that has hung over the head of Armenian society for the last year, one may pose a simple question: what has been done to improve the country’s security? The achievements have been limited, for the inability to implement robust institutional reforms within the security apparatus have produced ad-hoc and at times extempore outcomes, as the institutional status quo has succeeded in strangling wide-ranging revisions and improvements. But even within such circumstances, four main areas have undergone improvement. First, there have been important improvements in arms procurement, specifically to the quality and diversity of arms that Armenia purchases, as well as beginning the process of procuring more advanced armaments. Second, there has been a certain degree of improvement with respect to training, especially the training of new recruits and general preparations for combat. Third, extensive resources are being applied to improving special forces regiments, including modern armaments as well as advanced strategic training. And fourth, there has been a continuous increase in the military budget, which is expected to translate into the growth of Armenia’s military-industrial complex, and more specifically, the aerodynamics and robotics sectors.

These limited improvements, however, must be qualified within the broader context of the precarious security environment that the country finds itself in, and one in which the country’s military leaders and security architects have failed to find solutions. These failures are prevalent and continuous in three broad areas. 

First, the military leadership has failed to enhance, at the most minimal level, Armenia’s deterrence capabilities. The general defense and security doctrine of Armenia until the 2016 Four Day April War relied on the concept of “mutually assured devastation,” contending that Armenia’s deterrence capabilities were sufficient to make any aggression by Azerbaijan too costly. This policy failed in 2016, and provided Azerbaijan with sufficient data to conclude that Armenia lacked the deterrence capabilities necessary to rebuff or counter Azerbaijan’s aggression. The consequences of the 2020 Artsakh War clearly demonstrated this. The outdated military doctrine of the Armenian Armed Forces, and the underdeveloped defense policies that shaped Armenia’s security architecture demonstrated that Armenia’s deterrence capabilities failed. The continued incursions by Azerbaijan into the Republic of Armenia reify this failure. With Armenia’s deterrence capabilities mainly depleted after the 2020 Artsakh War, military leaders have failed to undertake important doctrinal changes or find innovative solutions that can enhance the country’s deterrence capability.

Second, there has been a systemic failure to reform Armenia’s military education system. Armenian military academies remain outdated, limited in resources, insufficient in quality instructors, and lacking in scholarly research and military science. Due to negligence and incoherent policy-making by the military brass, Armenia’s military academies lack state-of-the-art military facilities, academic rigor, advanced strategic and tactical training, preeminent experts and instructors, and quality research. The relative low-quality of Armenia’s military academies have become a burden on the junior officer corps, who have shown much promise as military planners and strategists. However, the rigid and at times tyrannical hierarchy that determines officer placements and promotions, and general problems of internal nepotism, have hampered Armenia’s military education system.

Third, Armenia’s military leaders have profoundly failed to develop and enhance the country’s asymmetrical and hybrid warfare capabilities. The relative power disparity between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not only specific to distribution of material resources and symmetrical warfare. For the last 10 years, Azerbaijan has been improving its asymmetrical and hybrid warfare methods, while Armenia has been lagging behind within this security sphere. While Azerbaijan’s hybrid war doctrine is underdeveloped, and their operational capabilities in asymmetrical warfare unimpressive, they still proved more effective than that of Armenia’s, which was, to a large extent, non-existent. In this context, one of the biggest failures in Armenia’s defense and security policy has been the lack of a robust hybrid warfare doctrine. More specifically, there has been a failure to formulate a doctrine of nonlinear warfare as a crucial instrument in the arsenal of the Armenian security doctrine. Strategies of nonlinear warfare that utilize economic, political, psychological and cyber assaults against enemy threats or targets have been absent. A year after the war, the military leadership remains inert on this issue, neither formulating a new doctrine or proceeding to develop an alternative.

Finally, one of the greatest failures of the military leadership has been one that everyone is aware and conscious of, but have struggled to address: the culture in the military. For such an exceedingly patriotic society, avoiding military service has become normalized, and the rationale for this has been straightforward: no one wants to serve in a system that is inherently exploitative, despotic and devoid of respect for the soldier. For the longest time, and even to today, the military elite have very little respect for the dignity and integrity of the individual soldier. A culture of institutional indifference and systematized cruelty has been qualified as a culture of discipline. Yet, as we have all learned, hazing, oppressing, bullying and abusing a conscript does not make a soldier. A culture of demoralization and slavish subservience is hammered into the soldier, where the warriors of a nation are reduced to obsequious subjects to a ruthless and self-serving military caste. The outcome of such a culture has produced what it has produced: an intolerable status quo that suffocates innovation and growth, while obstructing the younger generation of officers from challenging and altering this status quo.

These reflections are not by any means political or politicized assertions. These are objective inquiries into the reality that shapes and defines the military leadership that is responsible for the country’s security. In this context, no one is suggesting punishment or retribution for failures in command. That is outside the purview of what is being assessed here. Rather, what is being contended is that the current military leadership with its unjustified claims of “experience”, must retire. When the team keeps losing, the coaches must be changed. What is being proposed here is a process of performance review of the military elite, and a mechanism of retiring those generals who remain impediments to reforming and innovating the military. 

A combination of severance packages and negotiated retirements must be implemented, so that the military leadership can undergo a generational shift. A generation of younger officers must replace the “experience” of the current status quo-driven leadership. Inherent to this discourse is the fact that Armenia does possess excellent young officers who do understand such concepts as “innovation,” “hybridity,” and “strategic eclecticism,” to say the least. Armenia does have a healthy cadre of high-quality junior officers that do not suffer from tunnel vision or institutional stagnation. But the hierarchy and structure of the status quo oppresses the growth of such talent, and the security of the country has suffered for it. Thus, Armenia can no longer fall into the “experience” trap, and in order for our insecurity to actually breed security, a generational shift must take place within the upper echelons of the military. To this end, Armenia’s security dilemma has been birthed by a complex mixture of geopolitical nightmares, predatory neighbors, self-inflicted failures and a systemically negligent military leadership. Unless Armenia addresses the latter problem, it will remain at the mercy of all the other preceding problems.


1- The losses and systemic problems during the 2016 Four Day April War remains the only cogent case study since 1994 in which the collective capabilities and operational competence of the Armenian Armed Forces were tested in the field of battle.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Issues of sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence were at the forefront of many conversations this past year and the fragility of statehood that many had taken for granted was now, more than ever, glaringly and painfully apparent.
Reflecting on the past year, a number of self-evident truths have revealed themselves. In this magazine issue entitled “Reflection” we look back on security as one of the country’s biggest challenges; how to reconcile the golden age of Armenian tech with the fractured society of post-war Armenia and how the arts and culture scene reacted to these pressing issues.