The Dilemma of War or International Law in the History of the Artsakh conflict

By Hrachya Arzumanian

The Dilemma of War or International Law in the History of the Artsakh conflict

By Hrachya Arzumanian


Within the framework of the Artsakh war of 2020, the effectiveness of using war to solve the regional problem was clearly shown. In the 90s, when Azerbaijan was a failing state, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue could have been resolved by Armenia with large-scale military actions. The Azerbaijani army was retreating indiscriminately. However, the Armenian side agreed to switch to diplomatic settlement methods within the OSCE Minsk Group framework by agreeing to an indefinite ceasefire in 1994. Simultaneously, one of the conflict settlement philosophies’ principles was the exclusion of military force and the use of exclusively political and diplomatic methods.

In a sense, one can speak about Armenia’s short-sightedness, which considered this principle and Minsk Group Co-Chair countries’ guarantees as a timeless factor. After 1994, Armenia allowed itself to treat the Nagorno-Karabakh problem within the realm of a political-diplomatic context based on the international right of nations to self-determination and not the military balance of power.  For Armenia, the military methods of containing Azerbaijan complemented and supported the primary political and diplomatic process of resolving the problem.

On the other hand, Azerbaijan and its strategic ally Turkey viewed the Nagorno-Karabakh problem exclusively through the prism of a military revenge. For them, the ceasefire reached in 1994 was considered an armistice, a period of time for the country to prepare itself for the resumption of hostilities later on. Azerbaijan chose a philosophy of war and a national strategy focused on military revenge. Political and diplomatic methods and tools were considered to be supplementary but not essential for resolving the conflict.

The situation was further aggravated by the Co-Chairs’ attempts to artificially maintain a balance in their relations with both parties of the conflict by viewing the conflict as symmetric in nature, without singling out the side adhering to an aggressive strategy of military revenge. The situation in the conflict zone was distorted when the intentions of parties and statements were interpreted within the framework of the political and diplomatic realm. The steps and actions of Azerbaijan that did not fit into this framework were ignored as insignificant. What were the motives of the Co-Chair countries?  Why the aggressive rhetoric and actions of Azerbaijan were ignored and its intentions to resort to military methods for settling this conflict were disregarded? These are interesting questions and possibly will become the subject of study for modern political history researchers later on.


The period of time between the two great Artsakh wars was used by different sides to build different policies and strategies based on different approaches to resolving international problems. In this sense, we can talk about a kind of dilemma faced by the parties to the conflict: military force or the resolution of the issue using political and diplomatic methods.

Azerbaijan took advantage of the opportunity provided for quick enrichment using its vast hydrocarbon reserves and favorable trends in the world economy to increase its offensive military potential rapidly. Rapid rearmament of Azerbaijan could not have escaped the attention of the Co-Chair countries, one of which took an active part in rearming both parties to the conflict.

On the other hand, Armenia fell into the classic trap of winners in the war when the country relies on the achieved level of military power without resorting to active steps to modernize its armed forces. Armenia carried out the construction of its armed forces within the framework of a war that it won many years ago, but not the future war that was awaiting it.

As a result, the parties to the conflict approached the end of the post-Soviet period in a different state of the armed forces and societies. If the Armenian society was ready to search for a peaceful solution to the problem, the Azerbaijani society, saturated with Armenophobia and hatred towards everything Armenian, was oriented exclusively towards military revenge. While the Armenian side used military force to complement and support its diplomatic and political efforts to resolve this conflict, the Azerbaijani side used diplomacy and international law to support its intention to apply military methods for resolving this conflict.


Results of the 2020 Artsakh  war through the prism of the war dilemma or international right to self-determination

The Artsakh war in 2020 showed the adequacy of the philosophy and national strategy of Azerbaijan and the flawed position of the Armenian side, which is a consequence of many internal and external factors. Among external factors, one can point to a change in the nature of the international security environment and the mode of operation by different centers of power. The formation of a unipolar world and the United States’ attempts to reformat the Middle East within the framework of neo-conservative ideology and the spread of ideas of democracy led to the degradation of the security system in the Middle East with a predominance for military methods to resolve regional problems.

Concurrently, non-military methods of changing power (color revolutions) and methods of waging irregular and hybrid warfare acquired a special role and weight. The latter have outgrown their status as tactical military methods and has become a tool for solving problems in the regional and geopolitical arenas. The policy and strategy, primarily of the United States, led to a  more pronounced use of military instruments, becoming an acceptable way for solving regional problems, leading to a degradation of the security environment and the emergence of new, more severe challenges and threats. Suffice it to recall the results of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, when the ill-considered use of military force instead of political and diplomatic methods led to the formation of chronic and insoluble problems today.

Diverting US time and resources to resolve problems associated with the security environment created by irregular and hybrid wars in the Greater Middle East allowed China and Russia, as well as Turkey and Iran, to make a «quiet leap» in building up their powers and laying the foundations for their neo-imperial projects.

In the post-Soviet space, Russia partially restored its military potential which allowed it to implement a revisionist policy and strategy to consolidate the post-Soviet space as a zone of special interests and start building a hybrid empire of the USSR 2.0 / Russian Empire. If earlier Russia operated in a security environment without the widespread use of military tools, later on it began using its military power with increasing intensity and scope. Starting from the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 to the annexation of Crimea, hostilities in the east of Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and finally the Artsakh war, Russia demonstrated its ability to use hybrid methods of warfare to solve local and regional problems.

Thus, the policies and strategies of the countries that came out victorious from the Cold War led to a change in the security environment, when diplomatic and political methods of resolving international problems, mainly used in the bipolar era of confrontation between the two superpowers, gave way to military and hybrid ones. As a result, the security environment became more chaotic with the formation of gray zones and the widespread use of hard tools of national power to resolve international problems.

The qualitative changes in the security environment boosted Russia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan’s confidence in the possibility of using military force to resolve the Artsakh problem. The security environment mutated when the use of a military tool became possible and even commonplace in many regions of the world, for which Armenia was not ready. The main participants in the conflict approached the Artsakh war in 2020 with different preparation and motivation of the armed forces and statehood in general and with varying views on conflict resolution methods. With the help of natural allies Turkey and Israel, Azerbaijan built armed forces of the western model capable of waging hybrid wars and came to war with a mobilized society saturated with revanchism and Armenophobia. Furthermore, it also managed to create a broad coalition of countries ready to support the war, including Russia, Israel, Pakistan, while neutralizing other regional and geopolitical centers of power.

Armenia remained within the paradigm of the armed forces of the Soviet period, which showed their effectiveness immediately after the collapse of the USSR but was not able to solve military tasks under new conditions. Problems were associated, among other things, with failures in theoretical and doctrinal training, due to the lag of Russian military science and operational art behind the requirements of the time. The officers of Armenia trained within the framework of Russian military academies were not ready for military operations of the 21st century and the expanding revolution in military affairs associated with the formation of network-centric forces, the widespread use of precision weapons and autonomous weapons systems.

Armenia, which in 2018 chose the path of building a civil democratic society, approached the war in 2020 with the army of the old type and being confident in the effectiveness of political and diplomatic methods in the international arena. The mistakes made and the inertia of decades led to the fact that Armenia found itself alone on the eve of the war. As military actions showed, it was not supported even by its only military ally Russia, which conspired with Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Conclusions: Challenges to the dilemma of war or law for an emerging security environment

Thus, military methods for resolving international problems have shown their effectiveness and superiority over diplomatic and other non-military methods, which creates a challenge for geopolitical centers of power and permanent UN Security Council members. It is necessary for them to either recognize their inability to contain the trends that have formed or formulate a response to the active use of military methods for resolving international problems.

In the first case, the world political system will slide towards the solution of problems by force, and the world will become more and more unsafe and ready for regional and world wars. In such a security environment, preference will be given to war as an appropriate philosophy for solving international problems. As boundaries between peace and war have eroded in recent decades, the global system is leaning more towards endless war and the gradual disappearance of peace.

The second option involves the development of steps to stop the degradation of the security environment when diplomatic and political methods of resolving problems are recognized as the main instrument for resolving conflicts in the international arena. Confirming the choice in favor of non-military methods will require a change in the United States and other European countries’ global policy and strategy. Time will tell whether the United States is willing to prevent the mutation of the security environment.

Today, France and other European countries are taking active steps to stop the use of military methods in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. However, the war in 2020 highlighted the local (Armenian-Turkish / Azerbaijani), regional (Turkey-Russia-Iran), and global aspects of the conflict that pose a challenge to the international community.

From this point of view, the Artsakh war of 2020 can be considered an indicator of the international security environment’s current period of development. Almost all experts and observers note the scale and severity of the Artsakh war, its duration, intensity and high level of losses for a local conflict. The Artsakh war can be viewed as a threshold and the bifurcation point where geopolitical centers of power need to decide on which systemic trajectory the security environment and the world political system will develop: along the path of war, as a routine or a return to non-military methods of resolving problems. If the world community and centers of power conclude that using exclusively military force and logic to resolve conflicts is unacceptable, then the issue of shaping a response to the mutating security environment will arise. From this point of view, the ways of resolving the Artsakh conflict can be viewed as a step towards the formation of a possible response.

In an effort to find non-military ways to resolve the Artsakh problem, the world community may begin to develop methods of deterring the use of overwhelming military power by centers of power against a small country. How in the 21st century can the principle of justice in international relations, laid down by US President Woodrow Wilson and other great humanists and politicians, be ensured?

The answer lies most likely in the plane of the transition from a deterrence strategy to a coercion strategy with the use of all elements of national power, not just diplomatic power. Do the world community and Western countries intend to utilize diplomatic and other instruments of national power to force Russia and Turkey to abandon the use of military methods in Artsakh and Armenia? This is a challenge, the response to which will impact the processes unfolding in the South Caucasus, the Greater Middle East and the international security environment as a whole.

Author’s Bio: 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. Former Adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Artsakh (2006 to 2020). The chief of branch on preparation of work of Security Council of Artsakh (2006-2008). The Chief of IT Service of Artsakh Defense Army from 1995-2001. 

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