By Hrachya Arzumanian
Russian strategic thought seeking to return Armenia and Azerbaijan to the orbit of its project with military tools while cutting off the possibility of another choice for the countries of the South Caucasus did not take into account the existence of an alternative in Azerbaijan. Instead of returning to the Russian project for the revival of USSR 2.0 / Russian Empire within the framework of which it was created, Azerbaijan chose to join the 21st century’s Turkish project to revive the Ottoman Empire. In other words, speaking of Russia’s unconditional tactical victory in the region one should also speak of Turkey’s strategic victory and Russia’s loss of positions. Russia has created the necessary preconditions for conducting irregular and hybrid military operations outside of the theater of operations of the Middle East/North Africa on Russian territory by its own efforts.
Russia, having developed and implemented a project to dismantle the de facto state of Artsakh and form an even tighter dependence of Armenia upon Russia created the necessary conditions for the emergence of a regional power center led by a NATO member in the South Caucasus and its southern borders. Moreover, we are talking about ideologically motivated Turkey (neo-Ottomanism, Pan-Turkism, Islamism), which a number of de-ideologized Russian people are ready to meet with a standing ovation in a number of Russia’s regions and in Central Asia the integrity of which today is maintained exclusively by the idea of conservation of Eurasia within the realities of the 20th century.
Strategic context of South Caucasus before the war
The Artsakh war of 2020 triggered shifts that will unfold in the South Caucasus, formed as a result of the collapse of the USSR and the formation of the post-Soviet space. The end of the post-Soviet period has initiated a transition period within which the South Caucasus will be incorporated into larger and more realistic regions of the geopolitical arena.
Such a development of processes is objective, proceeding from the philosophy of the post-Soviet space, which presupposes the temporary nature of the actors and regions formed as a result of the “geopolitical catastrophe” of the late 20th century. The post-Soviet period was characterized by the extreme weakness of Russia. The Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries used the opportunity presented to them to join the EU, while the South Caucasian countries were unable to make a similar leap forward or deploy their own unifying project which would have made it possible to form an independent Black Sea-Caucasian region.
The restoration of Russia’s military power and the return to revisionist policies and strategies clearly indicates its intention to return its influence in the post-Soviet space in full by pursuing the creation of a hybrid empire of the USSR 2.0 / Russian Empire. Since 2008 over the course of the second decade Russia has been consistently striving not only to maintain economic influence but also to restore military influence and domination in the former Soviet space by formalizing this desire as a new quasi-ideology.
The very intention to regain control over this geographical space, which was partially lost after the collapse of the USSR and the weakening integrity of the Eurasian space, acts as a quasi-ideology. At the same time within the framework of this program it is not possible to talk about the “Reconquista”, which implies a religious / ideological aspect of restoring the integrity of the Eurasian space, as it happened in the framework of building the USSR on the basis of the red idea and communist/socialist ideology.
Moreover, the grand strategy of regaining control over the post-Soviet space is unfolding against the backdrop of the collapse of Eurasianism, which is currently being intercepted by China within the framework of the ideology of Greater Eurasia and the One Belt One Road project, and also partially by Turkey within the framework of the ideologies of neo-Ottomanism, Pan-Turkism and Islamism which are more attractive to the people of Eurasia than the unrealistic concept of Eurasianism that was advocated by Russia.
The transition of Russia to operating exclusively using hard elements of national power should be considered as a failure of prior attempts to develop tools of soft power without which the retention of a single Eurasian space as a space of Russian culture and people was doomed. The task of preserving the functions of an actor in the geopolitical arena without developing an idea/ideology that unites space and time is unsolvable.
Twenty first century Russia has nothing to offer to Eurasia except for hard military power and suppression of people developing their own states. Russia is again turning into a “prison of people”, as Lenin once characterized the Russian Empire, proposing a red idea for overcoming the systemic ideological crisis of the Russian Empire. The unfolding of a strategy designed to mothball the processes in the geopolitical arena in the form of the realities of the 20th century without proposing a positive program or development project leads to its inevitable repulsion by the countries of the post-Soviet space and search for alternative choices offered by other geopolitical and regional centers of power.
For example, Russia’s intention to include the countries of the South Caucasus as autonomous subjects or even regions contradict the intentions of Turkey which also seeks to restore its neo-imperial project that is going beyond the borders of Ataturk’s Republic of Turkey. Turkey skillfully applies a set of ideologies of neo-Ottomanism, Pan-Turkism and Islamism which are attractive to the people of Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa. Turkey’s neo-imperial project of the 21st century turns out to be more stable and viable in the ideological sense than Russia’s which relies on “naked power.” As a result, Turkey’s intention to return the South Caucasus to the orbit of its influence turns out to be formalized with the necessary ideology and attracts responses in the Caucasus and Eurasia as a whole.
The third regional center of power which has interests in the South Caucasus and Central Asia is Iran which is presently focused on the implementation of projects in the Middle East and is not able to take an active part in the unfolding confrontation in the South Caucasus due to its limited resources. At the same time Iran retains the ability and right to influence the states of the South Caucasus and regional centers of power while being an active observer that is capable of undermining the strategic positions of the direct participants in the confrontation while avoiding forceful involvement in the processes itself. Iran’s ideological possibilities in the South Caucasus remain limited and extend only to Shiite Azerbaijan.
Other centers of power
The geopolitical centers of power represented by the United States, Europe and China at this stage have limited themselves to the status of observers in the unfolding process of reformatting of the South Caucasus because the processes taking place do not require their direct involvement and doesn’t conflict with their interests. Moreover, they do not threaten their strategic positions in the region. Concurrently they retain room for maneuver and the ability to move to a more active policy later on in the future after the active phase of the transformation of the South Caucasus is completed and a favorable environment for such involvement develops.
Georgia entered the period of active transformation of the South Caucasus in a state of disappointment with the impossibility of quickly entering the orbit of the European Union and under the security umbrella of NATO or the United States. Hopes to find an alternative to the post-Soviet reality quickly encountered the West’s inability to extend direct and dominant influence over the region, meeting resistance from revisionist Russia which clearly identified the South Caucasus as its sphere of vital interests during the 2008 Georgian-Russian war.
Georgia’s “hanging” between the Soviet/post-Soviet and Western projects led to its “immersion” in the neo-imperial project of Turkey which has traditional interests and influence in several regions of Georgia. In the context of the failed push to the West the laws of geo-economics are gradually pulling Georgia into the orbit of Turkish influence which has now become dominant. Georgia, bound by economic and military obligations with Turkey and Azerbaijan has nowadays become part of the Turkish neo-imperial project.
The dependence of Georgia on the goals and intentions of Turkey in the region was clearly demonstrated during the Artsakh war which cannot but cause the alarm of the Georgian political elite which is facing the threat of Georgia losing its own sovereignty. In an effort to avoid the threat of inclusion in the USSR 2.0/Russian Empire, Georgia found itself drawn into the neo-imperial project of Turkey and not the European Union which leads to the necessity to form a response to the forgotten threats to the Georgian statehood and people.
Armenia in the form of the Republic of Armenia recognized by the international community and the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, due to objective and subjective factors-primarily of military nature, found itself in the orbit of Russian domination within the framework of the regional security system of the South Caucasus. The need to stand up militarily against Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey as a result of the historical memory of the Genocide in the Ottoman Empire forced Armenia to make a choice in favor of a close alliance with Russia which acts as a guarantor of its security and that of the military-political balance in the region.
Armenia is the only country in the region that has deployed a Russian military base and border guards on its territory. The reluctance of other geopolitical centers of power to extend their security umbrella to the South Caucasus in the post-Soviet period practically left Armenia without an alternative choice.
Attempts to build other vectors of development were rigidly suppressed. One can recall the shooting of the parliament and the highest political leadership of Armenia on October 27, 1999, a sharp rejection of the European vector of development and the entry of Armenia into the Eurasian Economic Union overnight on September 3, 2013, as well as the Velvet Revolution of 2018 which ended with the military defeat of Armenia and Artsakh.
It is also necessary to emphasize the subjective factor of the highest military-political leadership of Armenia that formed within the framework of the USSR and post-Soviet values, psychology, methods of governance, etc., which led to the preservation of the situation after the first Artsakh war of 1992-94 and unwillingness to look for alternatives for development led to the degradation of the country. The post-Soviet leadership of Armenia followed the Russia’s path of methods and patterns of managing the post-Soviet transition period known for the formation of a predatory oligarchic system focused on plundering the national wealth and Soviet economic heritage.
Attempts to form a different systemic trajectory of development, among other things, turned out to be limited by the Artsakh problem and the unfinished war. Armenia due to the lack of significant natural resources and geopolitical factors, and exclusion from international communication projects was unable to steadily develop.
Being in a state of existential war, the top military-political leadership of Armenia was not engaged in preparing the country for overcoming the limitations of the post-Soviet period and development but in the preservation of the post-Soviet reality. At the same time Armenia thoughtlessly built a national security system focused exclusively on Russia. For example, Armenia did not bother to create its own institutes of higher military education and training of NS (National Security) personnel which in the overwhelming majority of cases took place on the basis educational institutions in Russia. Armenia has chosen an unambiguous geopolitical orientation and entered a state of a new war with the state apparatus of the post-Soviet space affected by nepotism that is prone to stagnation and degradation.
The results of the April 2016 war showed the Armenian society the real condition of its statehood, making it inevitable for the society to demand changes and abandon the post-Soviet development model. The Velvet Revolution of 2018 under the slogan “reject Serge” (reject the old) was a response to the stagnation of the Armenian society and its unpreparedness for war clearly showed the unacceptability of the post-Soviet logic and grammar of forming the power elite.
However, the new government formed on the wave of demands for radical democratic changes did not take the path of initiating systemic reforms (revolution). The “Velvet Revolution” turned into a partial change of power and an imitation of changes. Armenia approached the war of 2020 with the old system of command and control of the army and the NS (National Security) system in general. Moreover, the personnel of the NS system and the army had serious psychological problems with an inexperienced political power that did not really intend to reform the country; which as it turned out just wasted critically important two years on the unfinished transit of power and didn’t initiate the necessary reforms, including in the military sphere. Armenia entered the war with a misaligned system of governance and deep contradictions.
Ideologically, the very proclamation of the idea of a change of power as a result of democratic elections, and not of consensus in the ruling elite was in deep contradiction with the logic of the formation of power in Russia. The existence of a democratic Armenia came into conflict with the intentions of implementing the imperial project of the USSR 2.0/ Russian Empire by the Russian state. Moreover, the new power elite of Armenia, due to its limitations and lack of experience, did not realize the depth of the contradictions present while making unsuccessful steps designed to prove Armenia’s commitment to its obligations in the framework of collective and bilateral alliances with Russia.
Azerbaijan which lost in the first Artsakh war turned the task of military revenge and hatred towards the Armenian people and Armenia into a national idea and ideology of state building as well as an essential element of national identity. By relying on large-scale supplies of modern offensive weapons from Russia as well as the help of a natural ally of Turkey and Israel, Azerbaijan has carried out rearmament and modernization of its armed forces while widely utilizing the experience and knowledge of the military development of Turkey, which at one time also made a similar leap in the middle of the 20th century after joining NATO. The authoritarian style of governing the country, corruption and lack of democratic freedoms turned out to be insignificant factors. Azerbaijan has become another example of the possibility of accelerated military modernization and reform on the basis of an authoritarian system of government and society.
Azerbaijan approached the next war with Armenia as an ideologically motivated country seeking to destroy the Armenian statehood, with natural and situational allies ready to provide the necessary assistance in the military campaign and in the diplomatic arena. Azerbaijan and its natural allies Turkey and Israel, having carried out geopolitical “reconnaissance by force” in 2016, were waiting for a favorable international environment to initiate a new war that pursued their own interests: local for Azerbaijan and regional for Turkey and Israel.
Thus, we can talk about three groups of actors involved in the Artsakh war of 2020: those interested in the war and transformation of the region – Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Israel; not interested in the war and changes-Armenia and limited in their choices – Georgia; and active and passive observers – Iran, Europe and the United States which despite having interests in the region choose the position of active or passive neutrality.
In the given situation of Armenia’s regional and geopolitical loneliness and the motivation of the opposing side the war in the region became inevitable. The new government in Armenia was unable to take into account the changes taking place in the world, the readiness of Russia and Turkey to use forceful methods of changing the geopolitical landscape in the region through the dismantling of the regional security system of the South Caucasus. Having declared its intention to abandon the post-Soviet logic of formation of power and politics, Armenia turned out to be not ready for the aggressive steps of regional actors and Azerbaijan who were no longer interested in maintaining the status quo of the post-Soviet period also.
The Armenian authorities made strategic mistakes and found themselves outside the established regional context, while not wanting to abandon the post-Soviet style of governance and not taking steps to find new allies, etc. Precious time that could have been spent on accelerating the elimination of the most serious failures in the military posture of Armenia, the initiation of systemic reform/revolution was spent by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on squabbles and banal retention of power.
Strategic context after the war
The Artsakh war led to radical changes in the South Caucasus which is becoming part of a larger region with no longer a post-Soviet logic. As noted earlier, the war became possible as a result of the alignment of interests of regional centers of power – Russia, Turkey and Israel who agreed with the possibility of reformatting the region by force.
It is important to realize that within the framework of the Artsakh war, Russia acted precisely as a regional and not a geopolitical center of power. Russia and Turkey used the experience of cooperation in the Middle East, where despite having competing interests these centers of power were able to form a situational alliance which allowed them to play a dominant role together with Iran, to achieve their goals. In the South Caucasus Russia and Turkey have resorted to the experience gained in the framework of the Astana process in the Middle East but without the involvement of Iran to use the region as a sphere of cooperation and confrontation among themselves.
The results of the war fit into the grand strategy for the implementation of the USSR 2.0/ Russian Empire project, when as a result of the war lost by Armenia Russia gained a direct military presence in Artsakh and the ability to project military power in the region and upon Iran. This goal was set already in 1994, after the first Artsakh war but remained unrealized due to the resistance of Artsakh and Azerbaijan. As a result, Russia was able to achieve direct binding of Azerbaijan, Armenia and indirect binding of Georgia to the Russian imperial project which allows it to assess the results of the war as its success and victory for the near future.
The results of the war allowed Turkey to secure a diplomatic, political and military presence in the South Caucasus and Artsakh, a success that was not achieved even within the Ottoman Empire. The need to take on the main burden in organizing and conducting a military campaign led to the dominance of the Turkish military machine in Azerbaijan. Moreover, Turkey was able to deploy ideologically motivated jihadists in the South Caucasus, whose use as a military tool was tested in the theater of operations in the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey got the opportunity to operate an ideologically important military tool for itself in the South Caucasus and in the vastness of Eurasia by taking full control of the Azerbaijani statehood.
The Azerbaijani society expressed its readiness to unite with Turkey which allows one to talk about the actual unification of the two Turkish states and the transition from the ideological slogan “one nation – two states” to closer interaction and the slogan “one nation – de facto one state”. As a result of the victory in the war, the Azerbaijani elite and its leader lost the opportunity to pursue an independent political line and became satellites of Turkey and its ambitions with the approval of the Azerbaijani society. As a result, one can talk about Azerbaijan becoming part of Turkey; now instead of Azerbaijan an “Eastern Turkey” appears on the map of the region. Turkey has occupied strategically important positions in the South Caucasus which allows it to project ideological and military-political power to the north, west and south while having a common border and defending against/interacting with Russia in Artsakh and the Caucasus.
From an ideological and geopolitical point of view, as a result of the Artsakh war, the South Caucasus became part of the Middle East but not the USSR 2.0/Russian Empire. Russia did not strengthen itself, let alone expand the boundaries of its geopolitical project but brought the Middle East to its borders. In the Middle East and the former post-Soviet space, weak or falling states and gray zones such as South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Donetsk/Luhansk, Kurdistan, Idlib and Yemen are widely used. As a result of the 2020 war, having lost the status of a de facto state Artsakh has also been turned into a gray zone. In the agreement on the capitulation of Armenia, the guarantor of which is Russia, the problem of Artsakh’s status is not even mentioned.
The war destroyed the format of the OSCE Minsk Group, thereby destroying the Artsakh problem as a problem of the Soviet and post-Soviet space and period. The situation can certainly change if other co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group take steps to restore the collapsed format or even go for international recognition of Artsakh. The French Senate resolution adopted on November 25 is a step in this direction. However, even in this case one cannot talk about the post-Soviet logic of resolving the Artsakh problem.
The appearance of Turkey in the South Caucasus and the right granted to it by Russia to operate a militarily pulls the region into the orbit of the Middle East, where the gray zones of the South Caucasus will mutate into gray zones in the Middle East, characterized by a higher level of military violence, loss of control, disappearance of state institutions, etc. Speaking figuratively, Artsakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will mutate, turning into “Idlib” with the risk of initiating irregular and hybrid military actions spreading across the Caucasus and Eurasia.
The 2020 war led to the increased dependence of the Republic of Armenia and Artsakh on Russia. The situation is aggravated by the fact that the logic of the Middle East is beginning to operate in the region which is more rigid and unfamiliar to the Armenian statehood. The post-Soviet period was wasted by Armenia and now it is forced to solve the problem of existence in a new/old region for the Armenian people within the framework of an ad-hoc strategy, where relations with the countries of the region are formed “on the fly”.
The situation for Armenia is complicated by the fact that it was in fact surrounded by the “Turkish Sea”. Armenia has two links connecting it with the outside world – Georgia and the Megri corridor to Iran. However, as mentioned earlier, Georgia has now become part of the Turkish project. Whether Georgia wants and will be able to build other Armenian-Georgian relations allowing the countries to escape from the emerging realities, requires careful study. The reliability of the Meghri corridor depends on the unresolved geopolitical problems associated with Iran and its vulnerability which can last for a long time or be resolved by means that will close the southern corridor to Armenia for some time.
Thus, Armenia today is an island country surrounded by the Turkish environment, where Russian military bases are located and the authorities are tightly controlled by Russia. This is an extremely vulnerable position where Armenia inevitably becomes one of the theaters of future regional wars, and serious efforts must be made to avoid being drawn into war of others. In order to “jump” out of the prevailing regional realities Armenia must take a set of urgent measures and start building the “Fortress Armenia”.
The Artsakh catastrophe leaves the Armenian people no other opportunity but to start building Armenia based on a different military-political and socio-economic basis. The current state of the Armenian statehood and people should be regarded as the stage of the end of the catastrophe and the beginning of the transitional period from the collapsed post-Soviet Armenia to the fortress-Armenia capable of protecting the Armenian people on the territory of Historical Armenia. Only within the framework of this grand strategy of building a revived Armenia through the means of sustainable development one can formulate a response to the challenges and threats of the complex regional and international security environment of Armenia.
Hrachya Arzumanian, Doctor of Political Science, PhD in Computer Sciences. Academic Fields: Complexity thinking in Policy, Strategy, National Security and Military sphere. The author of ten books and more than 300 papers, articles and reports.
Adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Artsakh from 2006 to 2020. The chief of branch on preparation of work of Security Council of Artsakh from 2006 to 2008. The Chief of IT Service of Artsakh Defense Army from 1995 to 2001.