Armenians suffered from a double shock last year, with COVID-19 and a devastating 44-day war with Azerbaijan – the deadliest conflict in 2020. The conflict killed thousands of people within a few weeks while the rest of the world was busy managing COVID’s challenges. Since 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh (N.K.) has been controlled by Armenia, but within a few weeks in 2020, Azerbaijan captured most of the region with unconditional support from Turkey. Azerbaijan’s advanced technology outgunned the Armenians, and a ceasefire was signed on November 9th, with Azerbaijan declaring victory. In Nagorno-Karabakh, ethnic Armenians in newly-captured areas have been forced to move out. Some burnt their homes before leaving.
Nagorno-Karabakh is in the Caucasus, between Europe and Asia. Historically, its population has been largely ethnic Armenian with a substantial Azeri minority. The region is covered with medieval Armenian churches. Since N.K. was part of Soviet Azerbaijan, it was considered part of Azerbaijan when it and Armenia declared independence from the Soviet Union in the 20th century. However, N.K.’s Armenian population never accepted this. The majority-Armenian population moved to declare independence and self-rule, which Azerbaijan strongly opposed, rejecting several peaceful demonstrations for self-determination in 1988. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, this conflict turned into all-out war and these ancient feuds erupted. When Armenian forces claimed victory in 1994, taking control of seven regions of Azerbaijan and five in Nagorno-Kharak, Russia mediated a ceasefire between the countries. Despite the ceasefire, tensions between the two have never cooled down. Skirmishes regularly break out.
The Armenian republic is now suffering the effects of the loss, and its people are feeling major national trauma and post-war depression.
Internally, Armenia’s government handled the war poorly in many different ways. The Azeris had prepared for war, investing in modernizing their military, while Armenia was confident after its 1994 victory and was under the impression that its military superiority would last forever. Azeri military expenses increased significantly in the last decade, thanks to the profits they gained from oil riches. In addition to the larger investiture of military spending, Azerbaijan modernized its military technology, purchasing resources like advanced military drones. When war between the two countries broke out again in September 2020, Azeri forces pushed 20 km into the region, first taking back additional regions under Armenian control beyond Nagorno Karabakh, then a portion of N.K. itself within a few weeks.
Although Armenia tried to fight back, it was nearly defenseless. Armenia prepared to fight a 20th-century war, while Azerbaijan prepared for the modern century. This was the first military conflict in the 21st century where drones played a decisive role, ensuring Azerbaijan’s victory and the collapse of Nagorno Karabakh’s defense, which was mostly built on Soviet technology and tactics from the ’80s.
Armenia’s diplomacy also failed. Turkey saw an opportunity and threw its military weight behind Azerbaijan, which took advantage of the unconditional support. In addition to modern technology, this alliance provided help with military strategy and tactics as used in N.A.T.O. On top of this, Turkey brought in a few thousand mercenaries from Syria, hardened in their fighting skills. No power stood with Armenians when they needed it most.
Finally, Armenia failed its people by creating a false sense of confidence that it was winning the war. The nation wasn’t prepared for a possible defeat. After the first few days, many military experts saw that victory clearly wasn’t within reach. But throughout the war, Armenian leadership fed its people the idea that it was winning, which misled the population. This, in turn, made the defeat even more traumatic. Hundreds of young people enlisted to fight for their country, and these men and women lost their lives when the government could have stopped the war at an earlier stage. The country, promised a win, now suffers an aggravated post-war depression.
Armenia lost because instead of facing reality, its leaders based their judgments on ideological, political, partisan, and personal considerations for over two decades. Armenian-American historian and diplomat Jurair Libaridian explained, “We lost because we refused to see the shifting balance of power, to accept that time was not on our side. We confused feeling good with thinking strategically.”
Armenian leadership should have been honest with its people to ease expectations and prevent war, damage, and lost lives. “Armenia lost a war that should have been avoided at all costs, a war that couldn’t have been won,” Libaridian said. “Another segment of Armenian people lost its ancestral homes and its collective life. Armenia lost a whole generation of young men. Armenia lost the human and financial capital invested in N.K. over many years. We have lost our self-confidence,” Libaridian concluded, “our optimism, and much of the progress that had been made. We may have even lost our faith in democracy. We are a traumatized people not fully ready to accept what happened, and why. We have lost one more slice of our independence and sovereignty.”
Externally, Turkey and Russia had their own motives and acted, not because they wanted to protect Azerbaijan or Armenia, but because they were gaining something from the war. Other countries that could have stopped the war did not come forward as expected. The U.S. was deep into its presidential election drama and facing Donald Trump’s last weeks in power. Europe was fragmented over many internal issues. Turkey’s strong presence in the European Union further limited Europe’s involvement. Even France, possibly Armenia’s closest ally, limited intervention to only a few declarations for peace. Iran, which Armenia saw as supporting their cause, came to welcome the restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
Turkey played a vital role in Azerbaijan’s victory, but the country hurt Armenia beyond providing Azerbaijan with military strength. Turkey’s involvement adds to a century of psychological trauma that Armenia has seen no justice for. One million Armenians were massacred under Ottoman rule, but Turkey has refused to admit to the Armenian genocide. Now, together with Russia, the country has established a joint monitoring center very close to the N.K. border. Many Armenians expected a more impartial monitoring system under the United Nations umbrella. Other bodies, especially the United Nations, should have monitored Turkey’s involvement in this war.
But no one heard Armenia’s cries. No international organizations, including the United Nations, made substantial effort to stop the war. There was no driving force on the U.N. Security Council strong enough to make those cries for help heard, and this paralysis says much about the Council’s priorities. Long after the fighting had broken out, United Nations Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric released a statement “condemn[ing] the use of force and regret[ting] the loss of life and the toll on the civilian population.” Dujarric continued, “The Secretary-General strongly calls on the sides to immediately stop fighting, de-escalate tensions, and return to meaningful negotiations without delay,” adding that the U.N. chief would be speaking to both the Azeri president and the Armenian prime minister. However, not much was done after that.
Ironically, when conflict erupted in Ethiopia around the same time, the refugees received U.N. support, while none has been given to the N.K., months after the war.
Although the war was short-lived, there were many opportunities for the United Nations to step forth. The U.N. should have begun a process that ensured recognition of the conflict and provided help before it was too late. Instead, the organization remains uninvolved to this day.
In theory, Armenia could have mitigated its losses in one of the bloodiest wars of the last decade if it had prepared better for 21st-century warfare. However, this would have escalated the conflict into a deeper and more destructive war for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. This conflict needs mediation and its refugees require humanitarian aid.
Armenia has opportunities to create solutions, Jurair Libaridarian said. These include demanding Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation, rejecting or amending the November 10th ceasefire agreement, and pushing harder for the international recognition of Nagorno Karabakh’s independence. It is difficult to see peace between these nations in the near future. There must be strong international intervention to mediate the countries’ relations.
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