Trepidation and impotence can be read on Armenian faces. Trepidation because the war in Ukraine has the potential to rewrite the rules of the game across the post-soviet space. Impotence because the absolute mess of the last 30 years has paralyzed the actions of the elites now managing the emergency (those in power) and revenge (the opposition). The result: a thick cloud envelops Yerevan, covering, in its gaseous nature, spirits as if Armenia has lost its spine, as if it were no longer a subject of History, but an object.
Four Interconnected Dynamics
Prior to the 2020 Artsakh War, Artsakh’s fate was tied to the OSCE Minsk Group, which acted as a sort of shield which, while fragile, succeeded in preventing external processes from influencing negotiations. The fate of Artsakh was pegged to a prolonged negotiation. Since the November 9, 2020 defeat and the effects of the trilateral statement (Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), all the levees, however, have burst. The fate of Artsakh is now tied to four interconnected dynamics.
The Armenia-Azerbaijan-Turkey triangle. Yerevan and Baku are negotiating the basis for a peace agreement based upon five points articulated by Azerbaijan and accepted by Armenia with the condition of adding the issue of Artsakh’s status. An impasse. On their end, Yerevan and Ankara are negotiating their own normalization without preconditions. Except that since the holdup in the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiation process, the Turkish Foreign Minister has since clarified that normalization of ties with Armenia is contingent on a signed peace agreement between Yerevan and Baku. In other words: preconditions.
The Russo-Turkish partnership, which remains robust despite Ankara’s support of Kyiv, is nevertheless still reversible if Ankara takes Ukraine’s side too openly. If Turkey, which wishes to position itself as a key mediator in this war in the heart of Europe, falls back into the Western fold, and returns, tail between its legs toward NATO, Russia may see itself reexamining it’s partnership with Ankara, rejecting the November 9, 2020 ceasefire statement, and put a stop to its pro-Azerbaijan strategy in Artsakh. If the partnership between Turkey and Russia, both of which are in the midst of a deep economic crisis, survives despite the devastating effects of inflation in Turkey and sanctions in Russia, Azerbaijan, effectively the receptacle of this convergence of Russo-Turkish interests, would be positioned to continue it’s official policy of harassment (if not outright ethnic cleansing through terror) of the Armenians of Artsakh, with Moscow’s support.
The state of conflict between Ukranians and Russians. At the time of writing, Russia has shifted its strategy by concentrating its forces on the Donbas and the Black Sea coast, now the two most strategically important fronts for the Russian General Staff, to the point of allegedly committing war crimes in Bucha and elsewhere across Ukraine. Who knows what will happen in the weeks to come. Whatever it may be, the Ukraine crisis is expected to last as will the sanctions and their effect on Armenia as well as the South Caucasus in general.
Russo-West relations. The effects of Western sanctions (American and European) are now starting to be felt in Russia, particularly among the middle class whose purchasing power and civil liberties have considerably diminished. In this tug-of-war between Russia and the West, the European Union, currently under French presidency has, of its own initiative, relaunched the negotiation process between Yerevan and Baku on the basis of Azerbaijan’s five points but also taking Armenia’s priorities into account. Yet Russia, as voiced by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, warned its Western partners against turning away from the Minsk Group, given these developments with the EU at the forefront of negotiations while France and the United States (the two Western co-chairs of the Minsk Group with Russia) lagging behind somewhat, would be tantamount to selling off the interests of the Armenians in the resolution of this conflict. Yet Washington made clear that it continues to view the Minsk Group as the primary format. Paris’ more nuanced stance is likely due to holding the EU presidency until June.
The stage is thus set: From Azerbaijani provocations along Artsakh’s eastern frontier to the Brussels peace initiative under Charles Michel’s guidance, Artsakh no longer has, in theory, control over its destiny, as if the people of Artsakh had returned to the pre-1988 NKAO era, or of the Volsky Commissions (the period of direct administration from Moscow between December 1988 and November 1989). What a disappointment. What a waste.
Reviving the Minsk Group would at the very least reconstitute the levees around Artsakh, thus insulating it from processes which would otherwise sidestep it to the great indifference of the international community. Still, this would require the West and Russia to find some sort of common ground despite dissension over Ukraine. This is no longer the case since everything now depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine, assuming any outcome would even be observed in the coming months. Because if the Ukraine conflict persists over months and years in this inbetween-two (war and diplomacy), Armenia would remain turkey stuffing, so to speak, deprived of the capacity to impact any regional developments, condemned to sit tight in wait for better days, or even better years. On the other hand, if an outcome is reached in Ukraine over the coming weeks or even months, we could expect Armenia to be faced with three options.
The first option would see a total Russian victory in Ukraine (an unlikely option). This would mean the capture of Kyiv, the overthrow of Zelensky’s government, the complete occupation of Ukraine, and an end to organized Ukrainian resistance, thus fulfilling all war aims. In this unlikely scenario, one thing is certain; a Russian victory and Ukrainian capitulation would also put an end to the independence of all the surrounding former Soviet states, including, obviously, Armenia’s. No western power would be able to meddle in the now-reconstituted historical Russia.
The second option would see a total Ukrainian victory (an even less likely outcome). This would mean a Russian pull-out of Ukraine, the survival of Zelensky’s government, the liberation of Donbas and the Crimea, an end to combat operations and the signing of a treaty in which Russia would recognize Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. In this scenario, Russia would see its authority and power diminished. Economic sanctions would eventually take their toll on Putin’s regime while a Russian defeat would expose its sphere of influence to being chipped away by neighbouring powers, starting with pragmatic China which covets eastern Siberia, but also ISIS jihadists looking to expand into Central Asia and of course, Turkey and Azerbaijan which would gladly take the opportunity to end their Armenian problem in Artsakh and besiege Armenia in the South Caucaus. Finally, NATO would expand its interests in Eastern Europe.
The third option involves a draw between Russia and Ukraine (the least unrealistic outcome). This would mean, the safeguard of Zelensky’s government in a neutral Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas by Russia and a recognition of a partitioned Ukraine. In this scenario, the Normandy Format could be revived with few alterations. Zelensky’s government could save face, the West would renounce any further eastward expansion while Ukraine would drop its NATO membership bid as well as claims on parts of its own territory which would be subject to international mediation. In this case, Vladimir Putin would be weakened by not being defeated. His regime might even survive this on the condition that it would respect international law. This outcome would nevertheless place him in a fragile position since the West might be tempted to get rid of him once and for all by maintaining sanctions; except if cracks appeared in Western resolve for economic reasons (such as gas supplies), political reasons (respect for sovereignty) and ideological reasons (populism) or even humanitarian reasons (aggravated social crisis).
Most informed Armenian observers place their hopes on the third outcome: a draw. Considering that victory is now an alien formula to war as we no longer win wars as we once did (no decisive victories or political victories) the draw scenario looks most promising. Still nothing predicts a fourth scenario which would combine two of the three previous ones depending on the course of the war.
In any case, total victory or defeat for Russia would place Armenia back toward scenarios inherent to Armenia’s political development: If Russia wins, we could say goodbye to Armenia’s independence. If Russia is defeated, Artsakh risks landing in the grip of the pan-Turkic axis, not to mention southern Armenia. Here, we’re faced with the two pillars of the Armenian Cause, or the dilemma of Hyetadism: which objective should be prioritized? The rights of people (independence) or territorial rights (reunification)? A free and independent Armenia? Or a reunited Armenia?
From this perspective, both familiar and troubling for Armenians, what is left for the “Armenian political elites” to do? Save what’s essential, or get rid of Nikol Pashinyan? Saving what’s essential is the option that the current authorities have, namely to acquire new tools with a view to saving the sovereignty of the Armenian State through normalization with Turkey and a peace agreement with Azerbaijan considering that the fate of Karabakh escapes it since Moscow directly controls Stepanakert, subject to a process of Ossetization. Such an outcome would be difficult for Pashinyan’s government to achieve but not impossible. Difficult because Armenian opinions are used to living with an Artsakh bordering Armenia and with enmity toward Turkey. Not impossible, however, since Pashinyan’s authority is legitimate, bolstered by the polls since 2021. He can, at any moment, call for a referendum to silence parliamentary opposition. In other words, it’s the Sovereign State over Liberation and territorial reunification.
The other option is the Sargsyan-Kocharyan-ARF triumvirate. Its objective is to do anything in its power to overthrow Pashinyan’s government and declare the return of the Old Regime to gain favor from Moscow which, in turn, would engage in good faith to support its Armenian allies, possibly even retroactively cede Shushi and Hadrut back to the Armenians. That’s it. It’s the ARF’s secret plan which one of its deputies, Gegham Manoukyan clumsily blurted out during a televised session: “We’ve already taken Shushi and Hadrut once, we can take them again!” before getting tangled up in confusing explanations to the journalist’s questions of how such a feat could be achieved. In other words, It’s liberation and territorial reunification before the State. Like in 1918, or even 1990-1991…
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I do take issue with this statement: “The Russo-Turkish partnership, which remains robust despite Ankara’s support of Kyiv, is nevertheless still reversible if Ankara takes Ukraine’s side too openly.”
Ankara seems to be fully on Ukraine’s side except for not economically penalizing Russia (so far).