By Grigor Hakobyan
Azerbaijan has unexpectedly begun large-scale military exercises along both lines of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Artsakh and Nakhijevan. In fact, this is the third large scale military exercise in a row while the new year has barely begun. The offensive nature of these military exercises and the number of military personnel, and hardware involved overshadows the upcoming meeting between the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and their ministers of foreign affairs Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Elmar Mammadyarov organized by the cochairs of OSCE Minsk Group.
The steps undertaken by Azerbaijani military closely mirror the events of 2016 which lead to the resumption of the conflict in the region subsequently known as the Four Day War. Consequently, many political and military observers from Armenia and abroad anticipate serious provocations from Azerbaijan which may easily unfreeze the conflict once again with all its disastrous consequences for everyone involved unless the international community seriously reprimands the Azerbaijani side and immediately puts a political pressure upon Aliyev’s government to stop its aggressive actions on both lines of contact.
According to reports coming from Artsakh the military hardware that was brought in to the front line during prior exercises for the past twelve months has not been completely pulled back, yet additional military hardware considered to be from Azerbaijani reserve has been brought in to take part in this exercise thus rudely violated parts of 1994 cease-fire agreement between Republics of Armenia, Artsakh and Azerbaijan which required each side to inform the other side before the start of any military exercise whenever more than nine thousand military personnel, more than two hundred fifty tanks, more than five hundred armored vehicles and more than two hundred fifty artillery systems (100mm or more) are taking part.
Last year following the results of parliamentary elections a new government lead by the Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan took the helm of the country amidst global jubilation over a successful and bloodless revolution that unseated the former Armenian strongman Serj Sarkisyan and his Republican Party. In the beginning it wasn’t clear what the foreign policy of Armenia will be and whether the government of Nikol Pashinyan will stay true to his promise of pursuing a foreign policy that will propel the national interests of Armenia and not of another state and contribute to the security of the Republic of Armenia and Artsakh.
Recent public remarks made by Mr. Pashinyan during his meeting with the Armenian community of Iran and much stronger public remarks made by Armenia’s Minister of Defense and the director of Armenia’s National Security Service implying a change in military strategy and foreign policy have indicated that the government is very much pursuing Armenian national interests which include the establishment of an everlasting Armenian state that is secure and prosperous. Building of a strong military and economy will allow the Armenian state to exercise a dynamic foreign policy in defense of Armenian national interests against all threats.
In the political arena the former governments of Armenia (1994-2018) have led a defeatist foreign policy by agreeing to Madrid Principles and various modifications of thereof which require the Armenian side to cede a number of liberated territories in exchange for a piece of paper that didn’t guarantee the security of Armenian states. According to this approach Azerbaijan was going to get back five to seven liberated regions while Armenia didn’t get anything tangible in return, thus jeopardizing the security of Armenian nation for many decades to come.
Due to illegitimate nature of prior governments that led Armenia since 1996, all three presidents have agreed to this defeatist approach in exchange for securing their power and having international organizations recognize their legitimacy as heads of state. However, the Four Day War of 2016 and Armenia’s Velvet Revolution of 2018 has changed the realities on the ground which OSCE Minsk Cochairs are refusing to acknowledge by pedaling such a nonstarter as the Madrid Principles for the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. The Madrid Principles have died in 2016 when Azerbaijan attacked the Armenian towns and villages in Artsakh using indiscriminate violence toward civilians and committing war crimes on the battlefield.
Recent statements made by high ranking Armenian leaders Nikol Pashinyan, David Tonoyan (Minister of Defense) and Artur Vanetsyan (Director of National Security Service) have publicized the actual stand of Armenian people on this issue that the international community needs to take into consideration before proposing any new formulas for the resolution of this conflict. Any proposal that jeopardizes Armenian national security is a nonstarter. Among the OSCE Minsk Group cochairs, Russia doesn’t have the moral authority to demand from the Armenian side the surrender of any piece of its territory unless it is willing to do the same with Crimea and Kuril Islands, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In fact, as an “ally” of Armenia it is supposed to make contributions to the security of Armenian state and not peddle some kind of conflict resolution formulas that clearly jeopardize the existence of Armenian nation and its statehood. Furthermore, as an “ally” Russia is under moral obligation to stop selling weapons to Azerbaijan just like the United States is not selling weapons to Iran due to its alliance with Israel. As indicated previously the realities on the ground have changed due to the Four Day War of 2016 and the Velvet Revolution of 2018. The present government of Armenia is fully legitimate and enjoys the support of the majority of its citizens and the global Armenian diaspora. It is under no obligation to follow the path of the previous failed regimes that agreed to the infamous Madrid Principles demanding the surrender of Armenian security in exchange for empty promises.
The Four Day War of 2016 has shown that the present government of Azerbaijan under Aliyev’s leadership is untrustworthy and intentionally genocidal towards the Armenian people. Moreover, Armenia is surrounded by warmongering states of Azerbaijan and Turkey which have committed massacres, genocides and war crimes against the Armenian people and other ethnic/religious minorities during WW-1, 1988-1994 Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the Four Day War of 2016, therefore the Armenian side cannot afford to surrender any of its territories while jeopardizing its own security in the process; in fact, Turkey and Azerbaijan are the ones that need to surrender territories to Armenia which they have illegally seized and occupied in 1921 and in 1994. Furthermore, Azerbaijan is still keeping hundreds of Armenian civilians captive since 1988-1994 conflict and continues to deny any access to them by members of the International Committee of Red Cross, UN and OSCE.
Present military exercises taking place in Azerbaijan in a very close proximity to the lines of contact is a sign of military escalation because they involve long range missile systems such as Belorussian Polonez MLRS (200km firing range) and Israeli Lora MLRS (300km firing range). The use of such devastating missile systems by Azerbaijan is a trigger wire for the Armenian side to have their own long-range missile systems: Scud B, Tochka-U and Iskander along with the air force on a stand-by. Furthermore, the Armenian front-line positions have been reinforced with additional military personnel and equipment including autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems which will allow the Armenian front-line troops to withstand a potential Azerbaijani attack of any magnitude and launch a counter-offensive deep into Azerbaijani territory if necessary. Sable rattling by Azerbaijan cannot be ignored and must be condemned immediately. The resumption of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict cannot be allowed to happen as tens of thousands of lives will be at stake. Furthermore, no side can guarantee a quick victory without incurring large number of casualties and significant damage to its economic infrastructures.
Armenian people know from their history that permanent peace or long-lasting peace is not an attainable goal for them as long as the governments in Azerbaijan and Turkey have not given up on their genocidal policies targeting the Armenians and other ethnic/religious minorities in the region for total extermination. Consequently, it is only appropriate for Armenia to upgrade its military capabilities, expand its military alliances and maintain militarized society closely resembling Israeli defense model. Recent acquisitions of Su-30SM multi-role fighters from Russia is a step in the right direction. Majority of Armenian air force equipment is outdated and in need of replacement as such additional acquisitions of combat aircrafts is needed. Furthermore, developing effective cyber-warfare capabilities and means of electronic warfare are of utmost importance and cannot be underestimated.
Additionally, the government of Armenia should consider permanently arming civilians residing in border towns and villages to develop an additional layer of defense if the frontline positions were ever breached again by Azerbaijani armed forces as it happened during the Four Day War in 2016, in villages of Talish and Madaghis. Moreover, the Armenian government should adopt the American model of National Guard Reserve to prepare the majority of its population for the worst-case scenarios where they will have to fight on more than one front and possibly against two countries at once, Azerbaijan and Turkey. Only superior military capabilities, growing economy and dynamic foreign policy can secure the existence and prosperity of Armenian people in their homeland for many decades to come.