Richard Giragosian

The Year 2020: The Three Wars of the South Caucasus

As in the earlier wars of both April 2016 and September-October 2020, Armenia is dangerously under-equipped and ill-prepared. Any chance to seize diplomatic opportunities to salvage what remains of Karabakh may be lost, as neither Armenia nor Karabakh have a diplomatic strategy. And there is a related absence of any “end state” objective for Karabakh.

Early on Sunday morning, 27 September, Azerbaijan launched its war for Nagorno Karabakh.  With unprecedented direct Turkish military support, Azerbaijani forces overwhelmed the Karabakh defenses, seized territory and in a dramatic reversal, defeated Armenia and Karabakh.  The 45 days of war were marked by an intensity never before seen.  

The first casualty of that war for Karabakh was also significant, as it started with the death of the “myth of invincibility” that was so easily embraced by Armenia and Karabakh.  Matched by an over-confidence bordering on arrogance, the seeming military superiority led to a complacency and even laziness by Armenia and Karabakh.  

But Armenia and Karabakh were already at war, months before that late September offensive.  The earlier war was equally unexpected and nearly as serious, but was a war directed at a new and invisible enemy.  That previous war was against COVID-19, battling the invading coronavirus.  In that first war, the battlefield was different, and the fighting was in hospitals, and the defenders were the doctors, not the soldiers.

The Third War for Armenia & Karabakh

At the same time, Armenia and Karabakh are now engaged in a third war.  After the forced acceptance of a Russian-imposed late-night ceasefire on 9-10 November, fighting the invading Azerbaijani forces was halted.  But the war was not over, and the conflict was far from being resolved.

This third war, now well underway, is being fought in the political and diplomatic arenas.  And the Armenian, and Karabakh, leadership are even less prepared and more arrogant than they were before the first two wars.  With this new third war waged on the streets of Yerevan, as opposition protesters are demanding the resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.  This was is defined and driven by a political clash, between and among Armenians, with Azerbaijanis only benefiting from the dissent and division.

This political battlefield has only one likely outcome: a new election.  Although Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan may be the last person in Armenia to not understand or accept that the political landscape has changed dramatically, the only effective way to resolve and recover from the domestic political crisis is to call an early election.  With no alternative to seeking a fresh mandate, the Armenian government must move for an early election.

Ideally, in light of both the current emotional response to the defeat and the prudent restrictions for managing the COVID-19 crisis, the new parliamentary election should be held in March or April 2021.  Such an election would not only move the country forward, through the mounting crisis and internal divide, but would also reflect the new political reality.  And Pashinyan’s “My Step” bloc could even win an early election, although with a much smaller majority in all likelihood.  An early election would also expose the absence of a credible or viable opposition.  In fact, the current opposition is not only deeply unpopular and widely discredited, but it offers no alternative policy or even ideology.  Yet sadly, we are not there yet, as the stubborn refusal to recognize reality or accept defeat is one of Prime Minister Pashinyan’s political traits that has turned from an earlier tactical advantage into a strategic blunder.     

Beyond the political conflict, however, there is also another front in this third war: in the diplomatic arena.  This diplomatic war is also conducted on several levels.  First, the necessity to address the vague unanswered elements of the Russian-imposed ceasefire agreement is a pressing challenge.  For example, no where in that agreement is the status of Karabakh explained.  Nor is the future state and status of the Karabakh armed forces addressed.  

As in the earlier wars of both April 2016 and September-October 2020, Armenia is dangerously under-equipped and ill-prepared.  Any chance to seize diplomatic opportunities to salvage what remains of Karabakh may be lost, as neither Armenia nor Karabakh have a diplomatic strategy.  And there is a related absence of any “end state” objective for Karabakh.  Sadly, with no diplomatic strategy or even any clear end state goal, Armenia and Karabakh are going into diplomatic battle unarmed and unaware. 

And as several other important post-war considerations are not included in the agreement, the imperative for diplomatic negotiations between Armenia, Karabakh and Azerbaijan will be essential.  This only demonstrates the temporary and limited nature of the agreement, which is more than an agreement for the cessation of hostilities but is substantially less than a comprehensive peace deal.   

The OSCE Minsk Group Under Threat

At the same time, this diplomatic battlefield also pits the OSCE Minsk Group mediators against Azerbaijan and Turkey.  As the military victors, both Azerbaijan and Turkey are eager to minimize, or even marginalize, the Minsk Group.  Already faced with new, valid questions over the mission and mandate of the OSCE Minsk Group in this new post-war reality, the very future of the mediating body as a diplomatic entity is under threat.

But ironically, it may very well be Russia that saves the Minsk Group, and rescues the French and American co-chairs.  Such a Russian move would serve three distinct Russian objectives.  First, by restoring the OSCE Minsk Group, Russian would only cement its role as the diplomatic driver and holder of the initiative and garner diplomatic dividends from Paris and Washington, as the French and American co-chairs would be forced to follow Moscow’s lead.  

Second, such a Russian invitation for the Americans and French to rejoin the diplomatic process over post-war Karabakh would legitimize Russia’s unilateral deployment of peacekeeper to the region.  Such legitimacy for the Russian military presence would overcome the cost of past Russian actions in annexing Crimea, elevating Moscow to an unforeseen role as “peacemaker” and not just “peacekeeper.”     

This would also offer Moscow the utility of “burden sharing,” where the resurrection of the OSCE Minsk Group would further pave the way for the EU, the UN and a larger OSCE-organized donors’ conference to pay the cost of post-war stability and reconstruction. 
And a notable third benefit for Russia in such a scenario would be an effective way to leverage France and the U.S. co-chairs to counter Turkey’s aspirations for a more powerful role in the post-war region.  This would also be painful for Ankara, compounding the already obvious embarrassment of a much lower and largely symbolic peacekeeping role.  Ironically, after much Turkish investment of both diplomatic capital and direct military support for Azerbaijan through the entire 45 days of war, Russia effectively waited until the last minute and swooped in for the prize in the closing days of the war.

Looking back, the three wars of 2020 have been even more significant than understood.  And looking forward, it seems that defeat and loss are the only likely outcomes for an already horrible year for Armenia and Karabakh.