Like a poker player with a bad hand, Yerevan instead raised the stakes in a rather transparent bluff that Baku ultimately decided to call. While it remains possible that Moscow will step in and rescue Armenia, it is highly unlikely. Putin deeply distrusts Pashinyan and the way he came to power, and appears content to see him slapped in the face—perhaps in the hope that the ancien régime will return to power in Yerevan. It is notable that Ilham Aliyev this past August moved to purge the remaining pro-Russian forces inside his government and openly complained to Putin of Russian military supplies to Armenia. Putin’s cautious approach may reflect a need to play nice with Azerbaijan in order to retain some levers of influence over the most strategically important country in the Caucasus. Armenian leaders may have fundamentally failed to see that Russia, for all its bluster, is a declining power globally as well as regionally. While things could change, Russia so far appears to see little benefit from intervening decisively in this war, and even appears to seek to use the flareup to insert Russian peacekeepers into the conflict zone. All in all, Armenia was much more isolated than its rhetoric would have suggested.
Third, Armenian leaders failed to correctly analyze the growing linkages between the South Caucasus and the Middle East, and particularly Turkey’s role in the region. Since 2015, a powerful nationalist force has been ascendant within the Turkish state, and increasingly sets the parameters of Turkish foreign policy. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—himself an Islamist rather than a nationalist—has been pushed in a more nationalist direction, which has led Ankara to challenge Moscow both in Syria and in Libya. For Armenia, the fact that Turkish drones outsmarted Russian air defenses, at least in the Libyan case, should have led to considerable alarm and signaled the need for great caution. In spite of clear warning signs, like Erdogan’s February 2020 statement that Karabakh matters as much to Turkey as it does to Azerbaijan, Armenian leaders failed entirely to anticipate the shift in Turkey’s position on the conflict. In fact, through steps like their embrace of the Treaty of Sèvres this summer, they accelerated that shift.
Finally, Armenian leaders failed to grasp the recent internal transformation of Azerbaijan. For many years, Ilham Aliyev was hamstrung by the presence of various oligarchs around him. But in the past several years, Azerbaijan’s leader has embarked on a far-reaching purge seeking to make the state more efficient. Aliyev was liberating himself from the shackles of the regime he took over from his father seventeen years ago. Armenian leaders appear not to have understood that Aliyev’s more assertive approach would affect Azerbaijan’s most pressing problem, the unresolved conflict over and the occupation of Azerbaijani territories, although Aliyev had many times signaled his great frustration over this situation.
Why, then, did Armenian leaders commit these grave miscalculations? Several reasons come to mind. The world has changed rapidly in recent years, requiring considerable flexibility and analytical skill to process the implications of the interaction between global and regional processes. Armenian leaders appear to have instead become complacent and internalized their own propaganda. Still, this does not account for the scale of their failure, which can only be explained by a deeper analysis of Armenian domestic politics.
It is now clear that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan—who lacked political experience before being thrust into a position of power as leader of street protests in 2018—failed to comprehend the geopolitics of his country and region. But he was also constantly undermined by Armenia’s previous leadership, which in turn was aligned with the leadership in Karabakh, and maintained privileged relations with Moscow. This created a highly unstable situation, in which Pashinyan sought to outbid his rivals by adopting an increasingly hardline nationalist position to consolidate his power. Indeed, his call for unification was perhaps mainly targeted at the leadership in Karabakh and intended to shore up his popularity among Armenians there as well. If so, then he grossly underestimated the impact his words would have in Baku.
As of this writing, the parties have signed a cease-fire deal that cements Azerbaijan's military victory while maintaining some level of Armenian control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. The long-term damage resulting from Armenia's miscalculations outlined here is plain to see. While part of the damage is physical, even more significant is the mental damage: Armenia’s feeling of military superiority is now broken, and its feeling of isolation palpable. It should now be clear that Armenia can only be secure if it achieves lasting peace. Weakened as Pashinyan already was, it is difficult to see how he emerges unscathed from this episode, and calls for his resignation are mounting. More deeply, whether Pashinyan stays or goes, it remains to be seen whether Armenia will learn from this misadventure and embark upon a serious attempt to sue for peace.
Svante E. Cornell is the Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy and a Policy Advisor to JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Strategy.