The 2020 Artsakh War exposed a number of myths and misconceptions in Armenia and among Armenians toward the West. This article reviews some of those misconceptions, discusses the necessity to reassess relations with the West while outlining the scope of current Western engagement toward Armenia and the region. The reader should bear in mind that international geopolitics are going through uncertainty and turbulent times due to the current war between Russia and Ukraine.
Cursory View on Some Armenian Myths About the West
In The Karabakh War of 2020 and Armenia’s Foreign and Security Policies, a White Paper, the authors sum up what the West was and has signified for Armenians in modern times: “The U.S. and Europe, whether taken separately or under the more generic umbrella of the term West, have been an integral part of Armenian history under different names: the Armenian Question, the Armenian Case, Armenian Genocide recognition. At different times, and sometimes all at the same time, the West has been the magic savior, the source of inspiration, and the imagined ally that hardly ever delivered what Armenians expected.” Armenians, from the last quarter of the 19th century until the end of the First World War turned to the West (an aggregate of rivaling imperial and/or hegemonic powers depending on the point in history), with concerns and pleas regarding their religious, social and political conditions within the Ottoman Empire. By the 1960s, well into the Cold War, when the West itself had become home to numerous Armenians who were already well integrated citizens, the “pleading logic” was transposed onto the host countries: Armenians were still making the case to be granted acknowledgement and support on specific issues, particularly regarding the Genocide and its consequences to the political classes of their host states. Admittedly, over time, they also refined and to a certain extent professionalized their activities, gradually moving from militancy to lobbying, inserting their repertoire of collective action within the political and legal systems of the host countries. Even though the rules of the game had changed and Armenians were now abiding by the laws of the Western countries of which they had become citizens, nevertheless political and emotional mechanisms of the communities remained by and large unchanged.
In 1988, the Karabakh Movement emerged in Artsakh and Armenia, subsequently transforming into a national liberation movement with the goal of establishing an independent Armenia. The fact that a national movement claiming independence might be born in Soviet Armenia had not been anticipated and in fact was met with circumspection by some political circles in the diaspora. Armenian communities, however, joined the Karabakh Movement and the cause of Artsakh became the latest addition to Armenian pleas to Western states and political actors.
To re-engage with a real country instead of an imaginary one, the generation of national leaders who led Armenia to independence and Western Armenian communities should have worked out who would do what, based on understanding and respecting each other’s differences, interests and scope of action. This is something they failed to do, and are still failing to do more than 30 years later and in a no less critical situation. Among the key questions that Armenia’s statesmen and diaspora leaders should have discussed thoroughly and comprehensively, including how to coordinate their work, were – and still are: what are vital state interests of Armenia generally and more specifically in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? What was the long-term strategy of Armenia and Artsakh regarding the resolution of the conflict? How is Armenia viewed in a given country – be it a Western one or in Russia? How is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict perceived in the context of that country?
Armenian expectations were seldom based on realistic assessments of what a given actor at a given time pursues as its interest; of what it is ready to give and for what reasons. Not alien to some of these misconceptions is the presence of large diaspora communities in Western countries. Their own lobbying interests and agendas have at times gone over the edge in influencing the Armenian state’s agenda and worldviews. Whereas lobbying is certainly an important asset for a small state as Armenia, it has its own logic and reasons for success or failure. Not distinguishing lobbying from diplomacy is a conceptual error that entails risks and costs. Armenians residing in any given country link their everyday lives, well being and physical security to that same country, a place physically, materially, psychologically distant from Yerevan and Stepanakert. If actions undertaken in Paris or Los Angeles put citizens of Armenia at potential risk down the line, it is the responsibility of Armenia’s state leaders to discuss potential concerns well ahead of the strategic course of action decided by community leaders. Neither the communities (even if there are signs of possible change coming from the diaspora’s non-traditional circles in the last 18 months) nor regrettably the political elites in the homeland had a level of political maturity in this regard.
An open discussion with successive Armenian state leaders as to their strategies regarding Nagorno-Karabakh and what communities could or should do never took place. If discussions took place, they remained behind closed doors of non-elected community leaders, shielded from critical evaluation and public debate. Equally, a realistic assessment of the interests of each state engaged in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution never took place neither within the concerned communities, nor between Armenia and these community leaders. At the minimum, this exercise should have been done concerning the U.S., France and Russia which were co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group beginning in 1996. It is still an essential exercise to hold if Armenians are to not repeat their mistakes and engulf themselves in a new round of false assumptions which inevitably lead to disappointment and failure for the nation.
Obsessed by “unity”, a void slogan if not a dangerous utopia, Armenians have been incapable of the simplest consensus around what should be indisputable: a sovereign Armenian state. Now, at a critical juncture for the Armenian state and the whole nation, leaders in Armenia and the diaspora communities are again failing to work out a practical consensus based on a realistic assessment of resources and constraints of the Armenian state.
The Larger Geopolitical Context to Armenia’s Foreign Policies
Simple realities need to be repeated. The West is a second- to third-tier player in the South Caucasus region; it thus has second- to third-tier interests in the region.
Armenia, by opting for a strategy of delaying the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and hence not participating in the economic development of the region in any integrated way, is a dispensable partner, even for projects in which Armenia might have been a natural choice of Western countries. In fact, while Armenia chose to isolate itself at the end of the 1990s, which resulted in its increased dependence on Russia during the 2000s (the degree of dependency would have been less had there been multiple options), the region developed without Armenia.
Concerning the broader region, there are many players who matter more for the West than Armenia, in particular NATO member Turkey. The West, or some voices in the West, regularly express outrage at Turkey’s behavior yet never turn its back on it. An illustrative case are the June and July 2022 demands made by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Sweden and Finland to accept their applications to NATO. For all its rogue behavior, Turkey remains an indispensable ally for the West, and in particular in the war between Ukraine and Russia. Before the war, the West hesitated between prioritizing a European strategic autonomy and a reinvigorated NATO, but now, the war has made the choice in favor of NATO. There are multiple lines of fracture in the West, but none undermine the strategic importance of Turkey.
The New World Order proclaimed by President George H.W. Bush after the collapse of the USSR had a very short lifespan. The West insisted on continuing to treat Russia as an enemy and expanding NATO all the way to Russia’s borders, despite an understanding to the contrary.
Armenia chose to develop a strategic partnership with Russia as early as 1992. At the time, Armenia was engulfed in the First Karabakh War with Azerbaijan, and needed constructive relations with Russia to support the war effort as well as ensure a guarantor for its security on its border with Turkey. Over the years, however, that relationship developed not as one of a state with another state with a strategic foreign policy emphasizing the importance of putting independence and sovereignty at its core, but rather as one of a client-patron relationship. The depth and magnitude of bilateral and multilateral ties between Armenia and Russia has long been weakening Armenia’s sovereignty. Decisions made in Armenia over the years with regard to Russia prioritized private economic interests over national interests, and in turn undermined national interests. This dynamic led to a mentality of reliance and laziness, preventing Armenia from producing its own responses to the new challenges of the post-Soviet period. By and large the West has accepted Russia’s hegemonic role in the region for the last 15 years, and its projection of power toward Armenia in particular. In 2008, when the opposition led by Levon Ter-Petrosyan peacefully took to the streets to contest fraudulent elections, Western countries did not extend moral or material support, in sharp contrast with their attitude toward Georgian (2003) and Ukrainian opposition movements (2005 and 2013). In the eyes of the West, and especially to Atlanticists, Armenians might be “very nice people” to quote a former U.S. President in the middle of the 2020 Artsakh War, but they are in the wrong strategic camp.
The West is engulfed in chaotic times. The current war in Ukraine is bringing the world to a new, post-Western, historical era. The liberal-based world order is in disarray, including in the West. International geopolitics have become volatile and fragmented over the last two decades. A new formula may emerge from the current war but it is unclear on which commonly agreed rules it will be based. The West is not a homogeneous entity, even with the cohesive effect of the war in Ukraine. The U.S. and Europe are divided when it comes to responses to Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. On the one hand there is a fierce Atlanticist camp comprised of the US, UK, and a majority of Eastern European countries, fearing that Russia is simply reconstituting the Soviet Union and another camp (France, Germany, Italy, etc.), keener on finding a modus vivendi with Russia, taking for granted that there cannot be a renewed regional security without Russia’s participation. When the war in Ukraine ends, the victors are not going to be clear cut even though it is evident that Russia will be weaker. But to what extent and how rapidly remains to be seen.
The global liberal paradigm is waning in favor of a multipolar world, but it is an oligarchic-polar (a plurality of strong states competing and cooperating within one pole) world that relies on state actors having relatively balanced interdependent relations. Russia favors a Eurasian pole, in which China is the main power and where regional key players are numerous and would include India, Turkey, Iran, and Israel. It is likely that Armenia will have to find its place in the Eurasian pole in the coming years. It, however, must find ways to do it that are beneficial.
What Can We Expect From the West?
The West does not constitute, and does not wish to be a factor in reversing the results of the 2020 Artsakh War, nor does it want to change the terms of the November 10, 2020 trilateral statement that ended the war. The current situation is not too different from what the West, along with the rest of the international community, had always wanted. They had hoped, however, that it would be achieved through negotiations, without so much death and destruction.
Even though they may not be ready to antagonize Azerbaijan and Turkey, the U.S. and Europe appear to have decided to use the unresolved issues stemming from the war to return as actors spearheading conflict resolution in still dynamic post-war developments. The U.S. and Europe may be helpful if Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh formulate reasonable policies to achieve realistic goals. While this renewed endeavor by the U.S. and Europe to be engaged is a positive element for the Armenian side, Armenia should be careful not to look at it neither as a party equivalent to what Russia and Turkey in tandem represent nor as a strategy that can lead to a fundamental change in the conditions imposed on Armenia by the 2020 ceasefire statement.
The EU has an interest in seeing a reliable, stable, and secure Armenia and South Caucasus region and as such, has made diplomatic pushes on Armenia-Azerbaijan relations. Armenians also vitally need stability. The EU is being engaged to facilitate the discussions on the key issues of border delimitations, connectivity, and the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh.
It will be easier for the West to strategically realign with Russia on a number of issues that include Nagorno-Karabakh if Europe is able to emerge as a strategic player in the current war between Russia and Ukraine. There is still the possibility that the U.S., Europe and Russia may find the space to envision converging interests in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
Currently, the EU is not cooperating with Russia on Nagorno-Karabakh but it is keeping open the possibility of cooperation. This is essential for Armenia in the short-term. The Nagorno-Karabakh issue has always been the exception in which Western and Russian interests converge. Border delimitation and connectivity are partly technical and partly political issues––they are complicated, will require time to address, but they are possible.
While the OSCE Minsk Group is in a coma, it is not dead. For now, it can remain that way, perhaps being revived in the future depending on the evolution of broader trends and regional developments. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are no direct contacts among the co-chairs of the Minsk Group. From the Armenian point of view, the Minsk Group is important as it has institutional memory of past negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia-Azerbaijan relations that are important to continue.
Today, consolidating Nagorno-Karabakh’s security is a priority. And while Armenians do not have a contingency plan for the end of the Russian peacekeeping mission, it might be worth exploring the acquisition of a UN mandate for an international peacekeeping mission with the Russians constituting the majority of troops in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia has always sought international legitimacy for its troops abroad, however, the war in Ukraine has excluded the attainment of such a mandate. This does not mean that Armenian diplomatic efforts should cease in this regard.
What Armenia should ask for is continued and increased assistance from the West to strengthen its state institutions, and to make them more efficient and more democratic. Armenia has a thriving civil society and has made progress in becoming an elective democracy since 2018. The democratic nature of Armenia’s political culture is also progressing, but state institutions are lagging behind. Europe, whether on a bilateral basis or on a multilateral basis, is an essential factor in continuing progress on that front.
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