How Did Armenia Lose Nagorno-Karabakh?
An army’s chances of winning a war are greatly reduced when there are traitors in its midst. One famous episode of attempted treason—revealed in incredible detail in Brad Meltzer’s recent book—was the plot to kill George Washington, which involved the governor of New York, New York City mayor, and a few of General Washington’s own bodyguards. One can only wonder what would have become of the historic experiment spearheaded by the Continental Congress if the plotters had succeeded.
Fast forward 250 years, to this week last year, when Armenia suffered a major military setback. The small country in the Caucasus was trying to survive against an alliance of Turkey (Armenia’s historic archrival), oil-rich Azerbaijan (with whom Armenia was involved in a devastating war 30 years ago), and Russia (a de jure ally of Armenia that sold several billions of dollars’ worth of advanced weapons to Azerbaijan in recent years). On September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan’s military, with the support of Turkish advisers and Syrian jihadist mercenaries, had attacked the Armenian-populated and controlled Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR).
What happened on the battlefield is discussed with much precision in a recent article published in the Military Review. What such expert reviews fail to answer, however, is the why and how of what transpired in the corridors of regional and global powers that may have led to the disastrous and largely unexpected outcome on the battlefield. While the evidence of geopolitical horse-trading remains scarce, given that no side of the conflict—including and especially the Armenian leadership—is interested in revealing the truth behind what transpired, for reasons that will become clear below, this article nevertheless intends to fill in some of those blanks.
Could Azerbaijan have dared to initiate a full-scale war in a region where economic and political interests of so many countries intertwine without at least tacit approval from regional players, especially Russia and Turkey? Was it possible that war preparations of that scale came as a surprise to Russia, Azerbaijan’s northern neighbor? If not, did Russia act in bad faith and choose not to inform Armenia of an impending attack or to adequately supply the Armenian army to help counter the attack? Why did the Armenian authorities not reach out to the international community—especially to Washington and Paris, the two other OSCE “Minsk Group” co-chairs along with Russia—with pleas to help stop the Azeri-Turkish invasion? Could the leadership in Armenia have been coerced to go along with a plan conceived and delivered by Russia and Turkey, similar to what happened 100 years ago in 1920-21?
While these and many other questions remain unanswered, it could be useful to study the reality on the ground to help establish causality and accountability.
What Happened On the Ground
The following observations clearly point in the direction of a premeditated defeat for Armenian forces in NKR: Roughly three quarters of the Armenian army did not engage the Azeri invading forces and remained in barracks (in Armenia) throughout the 44-day war. According to Russian defense analyst Ruslan Pukhov this “decision in Yerevan not to come to the war” was the main reason for the defeat. The Armenian forces along the entire line of defense of NKR (minus the south) and Armenia proper did not undertake any counter-offensive measures to distract the Azeri army and divert their attention from their main (southern) direction.
Moreover, no mobilization of reservists took place; in addition, volunteers that reached the front line with intention to help the defending forces were not provided ammunition, protective gear, communication, and any instructions which units to join. Often these volunteers were bused to the front lines in open vehicles making them easy targets for Azerbaijan’s massive Turkish- and Israeli-made fleet of drones.
Not a single ammunition depot, road, or bridge was blown up during the war by the retreating Armenian forces. And in what may appear to be an outcome of ineptness, roughly two thirds of NKR’s air defense system (including mobile stations) were destroyed within hours of the invasion. In an embarrassing turn of events, a massive Russian-made S-300 surface-to-air missile system was destroyed on the fourth day of the war in Armenia proper (another one was destroyed in mid-October). The remainder of NKR’s and Armenia’s own air defense system, under the joint Russian-Armenian command since 2016, allowed the Azeri warplanes and drones to control the air over NKR and even launch attacks into Armenia. A proposal by the Washington Post for the “Minsk Group” co-chairs to establish and enforce a no-fly zone over NKR was effectively rejected by the Armenian side.
There were large-scale systematic attempts to undermine the Armenian army’s battle readiness before and during the war. The most glaring example of this was the purchase in May 2020 (four months prior to the start of the war) of four SU-30M fighter jets from Russia, which were delivered without missiles and never took off the ground during the war. In an event that had a colossal impact on the army’s ability to face the adversary in 2020, shortly after the devastating “Four-Day war” in April 2016, the Armenian government rejected an Israeli offer to buy drones and set up a production facility for related ammunition.
Numerous other offers to provide military assistance and hardware (including shoulder held ground-to-air missiles) to the Armenian army during the war as a countermeasure to the Azeri land and air offensive were rejected by top political leaders in Yerevan. The recent arrest of the then Minister of Defense David Tonoyan and an associate on charges of faulty weapons’ purchases and large-scale embezzlement is only the tip of the iceberg and is undoubtedly intended to divert the attention of the public from a much deeper conspiracy to undermine the army’s battle readiness during the war.
The battle for the (impenetrable natural fortress) city of Shushi—located deep inside the Armenian-controlled territory with only one paved road leading to it—was so monumentally mismanaged that it cannot be explained in any other way than a planned handover. The Azeri forces reportedly reached the outskirts of the city using mountain roads cleared of trees (and thus made passable for Azeri light infantry vehicles) by a logging company belonging to the head of NKR’s National Security Service, Kamo Aghajanyan. Born Kamo Kerimov Abgar ogli, of an Azeri father and Armenian mother, he took his mother’s last name (Aghajanyan) in 1992, during the first war in NKR.
With the exception of the final few days of the war, the authorities in Yerevan fed the public in Armenia and the Diaspora the lie that the situation was under control and that Armenian human and territorial losses were minimal, thus preventing popular mobilization in support of the defending army. Furthermore, the flow of information was tightly controlled and any attempt of individuals to inform the public of the situation on the ground triggered pushback from Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) and pro-government elements and were branded as “attempts to help the enemy by sowing panic.” Finally, the agreement signed between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia on November 9, 2020, mandated the surrender by the Armenian forces of territories still under Armenian control roughly twice the size of territories that were actually captured by the Azeri army during the war.
Observers on the ground have been voicing the possibility of foul play from day one. The chairman of NKR’s “Helsinki-92” initiative, Karen Ohanjanyan, was among the first to state publicly that the war was prearranged under the auspices of Russia, with actual delivery on the ground secured by Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, and NKR’s president, Arayik Harutyunyan.
The fact that Russia had no real incentives to honor its commitment as Armenia’s de jure ally and security provider is fully established. Moreover, by undermining Armenia’s security and forcing the country to be defeated in a pre-arranged war, the Kremlin most likely saw a pragmatic possibility—perhaps the only one—to deliver on its own “Lavrov Plan” for resolution of the NKR problem. As the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Senior Policy Fellow Gustav Gressel noted: “Russia effectively served victory on a diplomatic silver platter to Azerbaijan and Turkey” and by doing so inserted itself into NKR by placing its “peacekeepers” in that vital region. Russia thus gained a lot by losing nothing.
There have been a few veiled references by high-level Russian officials to “successful” joint Russian-Turkish operations in NKR. The notorious Russian ideologue and leader of the “International Eurasian Movement,” Alexander Dugin, was less subtle about it when he said:
It was with such difficulty that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Azeri President Ilham] Aliyev built a model that led to such a positive result for Baku in Karabakh, with great difficulty … The efforts were simply titanic. … we helped Azerbaijan to return Karabakh. … We have fulfilled our task, we are waiting for the next step from Azerbaijan. Now it’s up to Baku.
Of course, what Dugin meant by this was Azerbaijan’s widely expected move to join the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union, the Russia-led military and economic alliances, respectively.
How Did We Get Here?
It is not surprising that Russia was able to secure Armenia’s capitulation and deliver NKR to the highest bidder. After all, it has had a near complete control of Armenia: its parliamentary parties, its armed forces, its intelligence apparatus, its police, and much of its economy (most notably, the energy, telecommunications, and mining sectors). It should not have taken Russia much effort to get what it wants out of Armenia under these circumstances. But how Russia actually made it happen is the most interesting piece of the puzzle.
Recently, a former associate of Prime Minister Pashinyan revealed the fact of a series of meetings that he attended in 2015 along with the then-opposition activist Pashinyan in Moscow with operatives from the Kremlin and Russia’s intelligence services. Leadership change in Armenia was the main subject of the conversations. The list of operatives included Sergey Naryshkin, who in 2016 became the head of SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. Interestingly enough, the close personal relations between Narishkin and God Nisanov, a Russian billionaire oligarch of Azeri origin, were brought to light recently by independent Russian media.
The rest is history, including how Pashinyan became a member of the parliament in 2017; replaced Serge Sargsyan as prime minister via the “velvet revolution” in 2018; and signed the Russia-brokered capitulation of Armenian forces in NKR on November 9, 2020. How did a young opposition parliamentarian, who lacked a large party and experience in governing, wrangle power from the hands of a post-Soviet strongman and former head of Armenia’s NSS, Serge Sargsyan, without facing any challenge from the security apparatus, known in the past for crushing any political dissent in its infancy? What really prompted Serge Sargsyan to step down without a fight and effectively hand over the power to Pashinyan? After the 2020 capitulation, for many in Armenia and NKR the answers to these questions are clear.
The U.S. diplomats in Yerevan we spoke with just one year after the “velvet revolution” know there is something wrong with the whole thing. They were complaining that next to nothing was being done to reform the economy, to reorient the country’s foreign policy away from Russia, or to engage meaningfully on any other major issue. The U.S. diplomats were also upset with Pashinyan for ordering a small contingent of the Armenian army to join forces with the Russians in Syria, something the Sargsyan administration had refused to do for years.
One thing that may have taken longer for the U.S. operatives to figure out—so well-concealed and delivered the whole thing was—was the fact that the “velvet revolution” was likely a Russian plot to rid Armenia of its residual sovereignty and force it to go along with its own “Lavrov Plan,” completely leaving the U.S. and France—the other “Minsk Group” co-chairs—out in the cold.
Faced with the reality of the July 2016 uprising in downtown Yerevan, Putin and his strategists realized that Serge Sargsyan would be unable to deliver on the process that the Putin-Sargsyan-Aliyev trio started by launching the Four-Day war in April 2016 and decided to replace him. The Kremlin masterfully capitalized on the decades-old aspirations of people of Armenia to rid themselves of corrupt oligarchic leadership and planted someone who fitted the profile of a reformer—a young opposition journalist who was jailed during the previous regimes—offering him the job of prime minister in return for delivering on the “Lavrov Plan.”
Fast forward two years, Pashinyan takes control of Armenia in June 2018 as a result of the “velvet revolution,” completely unchallenged by his predecessor or Russia. To the surprise of many, after the transition, Russia continued to maintain its control of the Armenian army and security apparatus through generals and apparatchiks with known ties to the Kremlin, including Defense Minister David Tonoyan, with only systemically unimportant ministerial positions going to young and inexperienced friends of Pashinyan.
The diaspora was intentionally kept out of the formation of the government, as were the leaders of the opposition, who alongside Pashinyan have for years fought the old regime and should have been brought in on the new cabinet for reasons of inclusivity and national cohesion, including as suggested by the Washington Post. For Pashinyan and the Kremlin, however, the main problem with these opposition leaders was that they were no friends of Russia and instead advocated for much closer relations with the West.
The massive Russian propaganda machine portrayed Pashinyan and his “young turks” as “globalists” and “children of George Soros” (or “Sorosyata” in Russian). While this could not have been any farther from the truth, it worked, as people were longing for a change and were quick to believe in this well-conducted fabrication. A former U.S. intelligence official with intimate knowledge of Russia called this “an act from the KGB’s standard playbook.”
The Armenian people picked a bad apple, not once but twice, and are now paying the price. It is time to understand this and claim their country back by fighting against what is looking increasingly like a high-level treacherous plot. They do not have to stick with Pashinyan until he surrenders the rest of the country to the Turkish-Azeri consortium.
Ara Papian is Armenia’s former ambassador to Canada and a governing board member of the National-Democratic Axis (NDA), a pro-Western political movement in Armenia that advocates for a Major Non-NATO U.S. ally status for Armenia.