Strengthening the Position of Armenia and Artsakh

Historically Armenians are a peaceful people. Most, if not all the wars they have fought are defensive in nature. In other words, someone else attacked and the Armenians were defending what was theirs—home, churches and their freedom. The Armenians of the Vartanantz era were given an ultimatum by the Persian king Yazgerd to convert and essentially assimilate or die. Lucky for the rest of us, they chose to resist. The Seljuks and Byzantines attacked the Bagraduni kingdom in the 10th century. It was called an invasion on the indigenous population of Armenians. There were massive migrations after that from the Highlands to Cilicia where a new kingdom was founded in the 11th century. It was vanquished in the 14th century by the Mamluks. For the next 500 years, the majority of Armenians lived as second class citizens in the Ottoman Turkish millet systems which eventually degenerated from institutional discrimination to genocide. In 1920, the sovereign First Republic was savagely attacked by the barbaric Turkish and Soviet armies. From 1988 to 1991, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh engaged in good faith peace and legal attempts to gain their freedom. Their “reward” for playing by the rules was an attempt at continued subjugation by the Azerbaijanis. They resisted and earned their freedom. The trend of the last several centuries is clear. It is how the Armenians have developed a stellar reputation as a peaceful and civilized people. As a result of the crime of genocide, the diaspora was essentially developed. That diaspora has enhanced the perception of the Armenians as an educated and contributing people. Host nations recognize that value and encourage our communities. Assad attacked others, but protected the Armenian community. Iranian Armenians were close to the Shah, but were one of the few non-Muslim groups to successfully transition as a community to the new regime. The common thread is that Armenians have been recognized as a loyal, professional, peaceful and hard-working community.

The old adage “life isn’t always fair” applies to the Armenians. With this three millennia historical resumé, Armenians have always regrouped and carried forward. In this world, there will always be good and evil, builders and destroyers, allies and bullies. Last week, we reviewed the current border reality in Armenia and Artsakh. The current threats are focused on the entire eastern border (Artsakh and Tavush) and the southern region bordering Nakhichevan. Given the wanton violence of the Azeris, Armenia has shown remarkable constraint, responding in a defensive manner only when their citizens and territorial integrity are threatened. Armenia has played by the rules, supported the OSCE, established two functioning democracies and built bridges with Europe, NATO and the US. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has been the violator of the ceasefire, perpetrator of war crimes and ignored every mediation agreement established. Yet it is the Armenians who are on the diplomatic defensive by asking them to agree to “principles” that would place the peaceful Armenian population at great risk. It is both sides that are asked to show restraint when Azerbaijan launches two massive unilateral attacks in 2016 and 2020. The “good guy” role of Armenia and Artsakh has been costly. Most of the country remains blockaded except the borders with Iran and Georgia. Many young men have sacrificed their lives in this “no war, no peace” game.

The Artsakh quest for justice has become subordinated to the geopolitical interests of Russia, Turkey and the West. We must learn how to take advantage of the reckless behavior of our neighbors to the east and west. The Pashinyan administration, long past its “honeymoon,” remains popular with the citizens and has taken a more assertive approach diplomatically. Responding to Turkish and Azeri violent rhetoric with restrained and peaceful comments can only improve the image of Armenia. Proposing new positions such as Artsakh returning as direct negotiator keeps Azerbaijan on the defensive. Defending the rights of Artsakh maintains a strong perception. The last few weeks however show how inept the diplomatic and international community is at preventing violence from the enemies. During the unilateral  assault on Tavush, the Azeris have introduced additional escalating technology. Regardless of their failures, their aggression remains a threat. Turkey has overtly displayed support for Azerbaijan with war games conducted within 35 miles of Yerevan in Nakhichevan. They are also preparing to recruit terrorist mercenaries from its Syrian inventory for Azerbaijan’s attacks on Armenia and Artsakh.

Artsakh Defense Minister Jalal Harutyunyan and Armenian Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan in Artsakh, July 31, 2020

The central question is what should Armenia do to protect its sovereignty, its citizens and its interests? Concerning the court of public opinion and world powers, Armenia has been on the defensive for an extended period. It is frustrating for Armenians to accept, but the world is a stage of selfish interests and duplicity. Recently, Armenia has been on the diplomatic and public relations offensive with succinct responses to Azeri and Turkish threats. It remains for the greater Armenian nation (the homeland, Artsakh and the diaspora) to take advantage of the brutal and uncivilized behavior of the Azeris. This includes both the public and private domains. Turkey’s behavior as a destabilizing force and unreliable ally is wearing thin on NATO, the US and France. Their lack of good faith negotiating and disrespect for the OSCE Minsk Group are continuous opportunities for Armenia. It is unlikely that their despicable behavior will change soon. Therefore it remains a bounty waiting to be harvested. The Washington Post and New York Times have both published very favorable articles this past week exposing the Turkish threat to peace. Azerbaijan should be held accountable for such irresponsible and criminal threats such as the comments about the Metsamor Nuclear Plant. This goes beyond adversarial rhetoric. It is a threat of genocide and an enabler for a regional war. While the diplomatic process is continuing, Armenia should explore the feasibility of reducing its dependency (currently 40 percent) on nuclear energy and decommissioning, or at a minimum increasing, the physical protection of the facility. It is constructed with older technology, and with the earthquake fault lines it is an expensive and risky source. I came across an interesting article on this subject by Z.S. Andrew Demirdjian, Ph.D for those who wish to explore this issue further.

A nation that has suffered genocide has a different perspective on the importance of retaining sovereignty

Another matter pertaining to national security has to do with border integrity and territorial security. Given the modest size of both nations and the intent of the aggression, the conflict does not include large ground forces. Both sides possess the technology to attack the interior of their adversary without committing large invasion forces. Special operations incursions, sniper fire and drone attacks are used to disrupt the civilian life economically and socially. The Azeris hope that this constant state of terror will break the will of the Armenians and lead to a decline in border population and security voids. It is a war of intended attrition. They obviously have underestimated the psyche of our villagers and the capability of the Armenian military. A nation that has suffered genocide has a different perspective on the importance of retaining sovereignty. Nevertheless, the border attacks cost precious human lives and are economically disruptive. Armenia is dealing with an adversary that reportedly embedded offensive weaponry in villages, so the Armenians would be accused of attacking civilians if they responded. Recently, the Armenian military has taken a slightly more offensive approach with reports of new strategic positions that will improve their ability to protect the civilian population and their borders. This comes at the expense of the Azeris. The taunting approach of the Azeris is risky. Aside from the illegal and criminal nature of their offensives, the region of Azerbaijan (Utik) in question (opposite Tavush) is home to the Baku/Tbilisi/Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and the Baku/Tbilisi/Kars railway. This gets to the core of why Azerbaijan enjoys support in certain camps and has international implications. This pipeline sends oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan where it is distributed to Europe, Israel and others. As Armenian casualties mount, they may be forced to create a buffer zone in this Utik province to limit the opportunity to attack Tavush. Russian support is essential. Would this cause an escalation? Perhaps in the short term, but eventually something must be done to prevent attacks on the civilian population. Hopefully, third parties will convince Azerbaijan that it is in their interest to stop. The vile rhetoric is Aliyev’s survival mechanism, but the civilian attacks cannot be tolerated. Given the strategic assets in this area, this is a major decision and must be weighed heavily. This option should serve as a motivation for certain third parties to calm down the Azeris. Aliyev, like his big cousin in the west, is a destabilizing force in the Caucasus, and this should be continuously articulated by Armenia in addition to the Artsakh resolution. This matter has Russia’s full attention, not because of their loyalty to Armenia but because they will not tolerate anyone, including Turkey, playing in their backyard. It remains a major leverage point for Armenia to neutralize Turkish meddling. For Russia, it is less about Artsakh and more about Russia’s sphere of influence.

The geopolitical dynamics and proxy battles are the major issues that will decide the future. Turkey’s nefarious neo-Ottoman adventures have a definite shelf life with Russia. Israel will support Azerbaijan as long as they have value for their needs with Iran. NATO, EU and US have a significant problem with Turkey. Their limited responses only encourage someone like Erdogan to continue, but Turkey’s actions have created counter alliances with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France and Greece (two of whom are NATO members). The point here is that every action that Armenia and Azerbaijan make influences and is influenced by these regional and international dynamics. Actions are taken with self-interest but must also serve the interest of others. It is in that intersection that Armenia can find success. 

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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  1. yes- we play their dirty sword ottoman game and intrude into their lands and properties- they have so many enemies that they will never know who or what hit them- we will destroy their ability to function in any way- dirt to hell they go

  2. It’s enough to talk we have to move forward: enough to Trust the B countries we have to trust our self we have to move we need action I’m ready and million of Armenian ready enough to be a defensive end to being nice God bless Armenia and all Armenian

  3. Great article. I believe that Armenian needs to reassess it’s relationship with Russia. This doesn’t have to be drastic, but start with the notion that Russia is not an ally.

    There seem to be many Armenians both in Armenia and in the diaspora that look up to Russia as some sort of saviour figure. We frequently forget that it is Russia that sells arms to Azerbaijan whilst having a military base in Armenia, and Russia that urges both sides to deescalate the conflict when it is almost always Azerbaijan that starts it.

    Compare what Erdogan of Turkey says when Azerbaijan is attacked vs what Putin says when Armenia is attacked. Turkey has Azerbaijan’s back and makes this explicitly clear… meanwhile Russia ………

    • And as a political expert (not to say pundit), what do you suggest instead?
      Your advice is sold a dollar the ton. cheap and useless; and so, everybody’s reselling it.
      The old wisdom is that you should have good relations with neighbours.
      taking out de facto Turks and Azeris, given Georgia’s so “friendly” attitude with Armenians, Iran’s internationally secluded and accused state, Who remains there?
      We saw how the western countries with the leadership of the us used the kurds and benefited from, then suddenly betrayed them.
      we know how the same western countries (US, UK, France, etc.) betrayed us after the genocide.
      Wake up a little bit. It is important to have good memory of history in politics, and to know that as the saying goes, “There is no free lunch”. Knowing this, we should see where we can eat and pay the least, not becoming the lunch of others.

  4. “The Armenians of the Vartanantz era were given an ultimatum by the Persian king Yazgerd to convert and essentially assimilate or die.”

    Actually, King Yazdegerd II, had no plans whatsoever in attempting to assimilate Armenians into the Persian culture. His demand, was that the Armenian Apostolic Church abandon Rome and Byzantium, in favor of the Church of the East, or to convert back to Zoroastrianism (prior to adopting Christianity, the religion of Armenia had been Zoroastrianism; and even after adopting Christianity, Zoroastrianism continued on for several centuries in various parts of Armenia). He demanded this, not because he really cared about religion, but, because he desired to gain political power.

    In the Battle of Avarayr, fought on June 2nd, 451 AD, 66,000 Christian Armenians fought against a Persian army of 200,000-300,000 (which also included 60,000 Zoroastrian Armenians). Even though the Persian army was victorious, the resistance of the Christian Armenians continued on for many years; and finally in 484 AD, the Persian Empire granted religious freedom to all of its Armenian inhabitants.

    • The point being that stripping Armenians of their Christian faith would
      have led to identity assimilation.

    • In other words, what you’re trying to say is that by stripping Armenians of the Christian faith, it would have led them to assimilate into the Persian culture. But yet, for all those years that the Armenians were practicing the Zoroastrian faith, they never assimilated into the Persian culture.

      Don’t try to make it sound as if the Zoroastrian Armenians were less Armenian than the Christian Armenians. That certainly was not the case. As a matter of fact, during its Zoroastrian era, Armenia was much more original, colorful, and fascinating than during its Christian era. Let me remind you that Armenia has been a non-Christian country for a much longer period of time in its history than Christian. Furthermore, Hayk Nahapet, the founding father of Armenia, was certainly not a Christian.

  5. We would have been a much smarter and stronger nation had we used religion instead of letting religion use us. And until now, we are blinded by the so called protection of our nation by our religion (whether through faithful belief or practical view of forging an identity. The world has evolved out of the dark ages for a few centuries now. And nations who evoke religion do not do it with the same naivety that we do. Others have known to forge their identity on other values. whether we like it or not religions are phased out with education and scientific progress, albeit to the dismay of some leaders. (I note that faith and education are not absolutely exclusive to each other – but it is mostly so)
    however we have to choose either to have educated and smarter members of our nation, or blind masses following unscrupulous leaders who will turn out to be a liability at the end.

    • Thank you for your comments. In my view, I separate faith from church.
      Our faith can be pure and eternal if it is based on our love of God. The church
      can be corrupt and misguided by men as we have seen in our history. There have also been times of great leadership. The church can be effective only if
      it puts the needs of people above all else.

    • “And until now, we are blinded by the so called protection of our nation by our religion”. . .

      Unfortunately, so many of our Christian-practicing Armenians foolishly believe that Christianity is indeed our protector. But yet, Christianity certainly did not protect us when 1.8 million of our people were slaughtered between 1894-1922, within the former Ottoman Empire. And where the hell were Armenia’s Christian “friends” (the Allied powers) after the conclusion of World War One? Where was their protection? Instead of rendering justice to Christian Armenia, the Christian Allied powers ended up favoring the Muslim Ottoman Empire, and even helped it to create a new country (with our six Western Armenian provinces) by the name of “Turkey.”

      Even now in 2020, those same Christian “friends” of ours are doing nothing to protect the Christian Artsakh Republic. Instead of recognizing it, they recognize this land as being a part of Muslim Azerbaijan.

      In terms of protection, Christianity has totally failed in protecting our homeland. On the other hand, in fairness to Christianity, I really don’t believe that any other religion would have delivered us better results. Religion cannot possibly protect our homeland. There’s only one thing that can do that; and that would be to have a much larger Armenian population in our homeland. The more Armenians we have in our homeland, the stronger our homeland will be.

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