Realism, Vision and Defeatism: Right and Wrong Lessons from the War

The wedding of Mariam and Hovik inside Shushi’s shelled Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, October 24, 2020 (Photo: Artsakh Press Agency/Twitter)

The devastating defeat of Armenia and Artsakh in the 44-day war has understandably led to an avalanche of analyses, controversy, finger pointing, misinformation and a never-ending cycle of blame and counter-blame. Having been misled that victory was at hand during most of the war, the nation is in shock. Even though little is known about the specific details of the war, there seems to be no shortage of explanations and conclusions from all sides on both social media and news media.

But perhaps the most dangerous phenomenon that has resurfaced is an old mindset best known by its proponents, President Levon Ter Petrosian and his one-time advisor Gerard (Jirair) Libaridian. In a nutshell, this mindset advocates that Armenia should look realistically at its strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis its adversaries; not confuse wishful thinking with a strategy; abandon ambitions that are clearly beyond its means to achieve; embrace peace and coexistence with its neighbors; trade territory for economic and physical security; avoid the slightest provocation, military or diplomatic (such as mentioning the Treaty of Sevres) directed at Turkey or Azerbaijan; and hope that by thus appeasing them, it shall enjoy peace and prosperity. The mindset claims that Armenians suffer from a political culture that relies on dreams and that we allow our illusions to guide our judgement. Recently, the Ankara-based Turkish think tank Avim published a commentary presenting Libaridian’s views, calling them a sober wake-up call and praising Libaridian’s pacifism, foresight and the accuracy of his predictions. Clearly, this mindset is music to Turkish ears, and for good reason. 

What makes the Ter Petrosian/Libaridian mindset especially dangerous today is that it has resurfaced with a vengeance and with a “we told you so” addendum, which, given the enormous losses of the war, has begun to find resonance with an already demoralized, disillusioned and confused public. After all, we just lost a war they said we could never win, which to many unsuspecting observers, proves not only that they were right, but that their reasoning was right, too. This is dangerous because nothing could be further from the truth. 

Let me start with the concept of realism. To assess a given situation correctly, as it really is, with no interference from emotions and prejudices, and to accept facts as they are, is being realistic. However, to assume that today’s realities will be the realities of tomorrow, that we have no power to shape or change them, that external circumstances either do not change, or, as they change, they do not present opportunities for changing one’s circumstances, is not realistic. It is based on a static view of the world. The ‘Static Mindset’ is not about just accepting, but also succumbing to the realities of the moment. In short, it is defeatist. It lacks the vision and ambition to realistically shape a different future than the present. No political leadership can serve the nation it leads with a Static Mindset, because having a realistic vision for the future and the determination to pursue that vision are prerequisites for effective political leadership. 

Yes, we lost the war, but not for the reasons the advocates of that mindset give. We lost the war because right after the victory and Bishkek ceasefire agreement of 1994 we did not consolidate our gains through international legal measures and through intensive, deliberate and goal-oriented diplomacy to secure the status of Artsakh and reverse the prevailing international acceptance that it is an integral part of Azerbaijani territory. Because we stayed intoxicated with our victory far too long and failed to upgrade our military. Because we spent the last 26 years in complacency and corruption. Because we did not have a clear and attainable vision of an economically advanced, militarily defensible, prosperous Armenia and Artsakh, nor enough dedication to our statehood to pursue such a vision. Because Armenia’s political and military leadership happily lingered in the tired assumption that Armenia could always rely on an external guarantor of its security, ignoring the ways in which the world, the region and the circumstances of that presumed guarantor were changing. Because we did not invest in our capabilities and in strengthening the country, and our political leadership—throughout independence and taking the prevailing status quo for granted—was more interested in enriching itself than in building the state and populating all of the territories under Armenian control. 

The advocates of Static Mindset were not realistic in everything. Their belief that if Armenia appeased Turkey and Azerbaijan, then it would enjoy peaceful, harmonious and mutually beneficial neighborly relations with those two countries, was and still is fallacious. It is no secret that Azerbaijan’s future territorial ambitions are larger than what it has achieved in the last war. Turkey, in large part because it is yet to acknowledge and come to terms with the Armenian Genocide, still openly demonstrates genocidal intentions, with no retribution or rebuke from the international community. It is as critical to be realistic in assessing the true intentions of our neighbors, as in assessing their capabilities. 

The wrong and most dangerous lesson that we can draw from the war is that it could never have been won, and therefore it can never be won in the future, and therefore Armenia should simply accept its fate, make further concessions if asked to, adjust to the new realities on the ground and accept them not only as today’s realities, but also as the fate of future generations. 

The correct lesson to draw is the exact opposite: the war could have been won if we had invested the last 26 years in getting ready for it. Ironically, the war may even have been avoided if we had been truly ready for it, because, if we had been truly ready for it, we would have won the war before it even began. 

It is incumbent on any political leadership in Armenia to have a realistic, sober, unemotional assessment of where the country stands today. But it is also within the political leadership’s responsibility to extend that realism to an assessment of the most ambitious potential that the country has, and to have the will, determination and selfless dedication to strive for that potential at any cost. Realism does not preclude imagination, ingenuity, vision, daring, ambition and courage. Quite the contrary, these characteristics are part and parcel of the true realist. 

“In order to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles,” said David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel. The state he founded 73 years ago overcame odds of survival not much better than those of Artsakh and thrives today.

Vahan Zanoyan

Vahan Zanoyan

Vahan Zanoyan is a global energy expert, writer, traveler, retired executive, and anti-trafficking advocate. Zanoyan has served as global energy consultant to numerous oil companies, banks, and other private and public organizations throughout the United States, Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and Latin America. He has also served as a senior economic and oil policy advisor to several oil producing governments. He was President and CEO of PFC Energy for 10 years, based in Washington, DC; the Chairman and Chief Executive of PFC Energy International, in Lausanne, Switzerland; and the founding Chief Executive Officer of First Energy Bank, based in Bahrain. He has also founded and ran several consulting services at Wharton Econometric Consulting Associates. He has published two volumes of poetry in Armenian, (Վերադարձ, 2010 and Եզրէն Դուրս, 2011); and four novels in English, A Place Far Away (2013) and The Doves of Ohanavank (2014), both of which were inspired by a chance meeting with a very young victim of sex trafficking, The Sacred Sands (2016), which is based on his experiences as a global energy consultant; and Waking Noah’s Vines (2019). Zanoyan was educated at The American University in Beirut and at the University of Pennsylvania. He supports several humanitarian causes, primarily aimed at stopping human trafficking, supporting victims of sex trafficking and domestic violence, and, more recently, promoting Armenian wines and wine tourism in Armenia.


  1. Great article. However, I do have a problem with the line about the political and military leadership relying on a guarantor. Obviously you are talking about Russia, but Russia always clearly maintained that its involvement in the Minsk group prevented it from defending Artsakh. The treaty between Armenia and Russia covers Armenia proper only. They did not betray us because they had made it clear for the last 26 years that they could not get outright involved in it. The same goes for France and the United States. Armenians who were angry at Russia, Iran, or France for not getting involved were clearly not familiar with the politics of Artsakh and its relation to the rest of the region.

    • So its okay for Turkey, a NATO ALLY, to directly get involved and fight Armenia in place of useless Azerbaijan, bringing jihadi mercenaries into the war field, but our “best caucus ally” once again, useless for most all Armenia’s best interest, Russia, is somehow exempt and neutral and cant get involved? Russia can do what ever it wants to do. And it did so by protecting its own best interest while maintaining their relationship with Azerbaijan and Turkey at the cost of Armenia’s well being. Its what they have done historically to Armenians as THEY THEMSELVES GAVE AWAY Artsakh and Nakichivan to a made up fictitious Turkish gas station nation. It was Russia’s Gorbachev that allowed the pogroms in Baku and Sumgaite to continue under its watchful eye.. Might as well give back all of Artsakh now and go back in our hole and hope that Russia will one day ACT LIKE AN ALLY and protect us? No thanks. Russia is NO ALLY. It is only there for its own best interests. The sooner WE ALL understand that reality, the better.

  2. Russia has been clear all along: it would help Armenia if we are attacked and we are not the aggressor. The assistance was clearly limited to Armenia and didn’t include Artsakh. Like the rest of the world, Russia wrongly considers Artsakh as a part of Azerbaijan. While it didn’t help Armenia, Russia did send armaments during the war. Their planes had to take the long flight route because Georgia wouldn’t allow Russian planes through its air space. Several months ago, Putin warned Armenia, through Maragareta Simonyan, that war could be coming and that Armenia couldn’tafford to distance itself from Russia. Genius Pashinyan and his Soros entourage attacked Simonyan. Didn’t they know the letter was dictated by Putin?

  3. We lost this battle because of incompetence. As for Levon and Libaridian they are more dangerous because they don’t take the incompetent factor into consideration and worse, assume an understanding with Turks will somehow work? As if it has historically worked ever? Turks understand only strengths and weakness. They are ultra opportunistic. The very fact that they are STILL SQUATTING on historical Armenian lands and committed massive atrocities and genocide makes Armenia a marked people. They will Never come to terms. Ignore these two losers. Rebuild our nation. Rebuild the Army to be potent. Unite all Armenians as one nation. This is doable. This is a real solution.

    • Instead of attacking me for not being pro-NATO, address my points. Russia did intervene on October 19th, with the opportunity for us to keep Shushi as long as Azerbaijani refugees were allowed to return. Pashinyan refused. Blame the lies of Artsrun and Shushan for not telling us the truth about our progress.

      Do you realize that Artsakh was actually given to Azerbaijan by the UK? What history books are you reading to believe that Russia gave it to Azerbaijan?

      You are always ranting.

  4. Ben Gurion in stating that“In order to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles,”, I am inclined to believe that he meant to say: ““In order to be a realist, you have to believe in (making) miracles (happen).”
    I found Vahan’s interpreation of the reasons and the causes that led to the devastating defeat we incurred fair and unbiased.
    What I take issue with him is his characteirzaiton of the LDB policy as a “Static Mindset”. Obviously had it been a static mindset it would not have reverberated the interest it has after a quarter of century and make many of us, including the writer of this note, be introspective and and ask: Did the powers that unseat the sitting president have the vision for what lay ahead? Obviously they did not. Vahan’s analysis of the reasons and causes of our defeat, in fact, make that amply evident.
    Surely LDB did not come across as an adherent of appeasement as a state policy, nor did he negate the need for a militarily strong Armenia. It had to do how with formalizing the status of Karabagh when we had bargaining chips in our favor to get Armenia and Artsakh going. That did not happen and the formal relations of Armenia and Karabagh remained in limbo
    Surprisingly I see parity in what Vahan advocates and in LDB’s mindset. Vahan rightfully notes: “It is incumbent on any political leadership in Armenia to have a realistic, sober, unemotional assessment of where the country stands today……Realism does not preclude imagination, ingenuity, vision, daring, ambition and courage. Quite the contrary, these characteristics are part and parcel of the true realist. “ Somehow I did not find LDB negated these.

  5. Great and well balanced article.
    My take on the “cause and effect” of current status of our nation is the following:
    Despite 30 years of independence, the Armenian political leadership from the onset, was incapable of taking up the task of nation-building process in order of priority – Security, Governance, Economic stabilization, Democratization, Infrastructure and development.
    So, instead of marshaling resources to meet priorities, our corrupt political leaders simply embezzled the country’s, already meager resources, which led governing Armenia via hastily improvised responses, and a result tragically ignoring many accumulated foreseen challenges.
    Thus, the blame falls upon us all – the pacificist society, who still meekly tolerating today’s defeated, corrupt and incompetent political leader.

  6. My reading of this article is that it is rhetoric largely supported by the writer’s preferred mindset about past and future realities. Most egregiously the article uses the expression “Static Mindset” to set up a straw man line of criticism.

    Because views are expressed with little reference to facts and reasoning the article reads as an opinion piece, not reasoned analysis.

    The writer’s pivot point is this sentence: “We lost the war because right after the victory and Bishkek ceasefire agreement of 1994 we did not consolidate our gains through international legal measures and through intensive, deliberate and goal-oriented diplomacy to secure the status of Artsakh and reverse the prevailing international acceptance that it is an integral part of Azerbaijani territory.” Nothing I’ve heard or read Jirair Libaridian say or write disagrees with that point.

    Tellingly there is no quotes of Libaridian, for example, when the writer claims: “Their belief that if Armenia appeased Turkey and Azerbaijan, then it would enjoy peaceful, harmonious and mutually beneficial neighborly relations with those two countries, was and still is fallacious.”

  7. Thank you Vahan for this perceptive and thoughtful article with a large dose of sincere realism. The analysis of the “realism” incessantly advocated over the past 30 years by Levon Ter Petrosian and Jirair Libaridian is accurate and also a damning verdict on the dire consequences of their so-called realism. Theirs is not “realism” but a mentality of appeasement and surrender that ultimately not only defeats but also extinguishes the collective entity. A nation is not a piece of rock; a nation has to stand for a principle, a value system, and a belief. In this context, realism should serve the nation itself not its enemies or this or that foreign power. Ter Petrosian and Libaridian were and still are the proponents of foreign interests under the guise of “realism”.

  8. I am confused by this article. We COULD have won the war? We did not win the war!! You are countering the supposed stance of Levon/Gerard with a hypothetical. The vision that the Armenian race would come together to build a strong military and scare off opponents – did not materialize! Anyone who thought it would materialize assessed the Armenian race incorrectly. No, it is not ok to blame it on the corrupt leadership of Armenia. Even during Nikol’s administration, there was no influx of diasporan money into Armenia’s defense industry. Any Armenian who wants to take their chances with war but is not involved in defense, or does not propose a concrete plan for strengthening the military, is a tavajan who is (by analogy and literally) pushing our youth into the way of danger without providing protective gear. The author here makes a comparison to Israel, which has a thriving defense industry that enjoys export customers, and diaspora investment. Where are the defense companies in Armenia?

    I also fail to understand – what would have been so ‘dangerous’ about Levon/Gerard strategy? Under their plan, we would have secured a legal status for Artsakh. We would have retained ALL of Karvajar and Lachin. That is, not a single peacekeeper would have entered those areas – they would remain under Armenian control forever, by international law. I don’t think we can even fathom how good it would have been for Armenia, or where our country would be today had we secured that deal. Peacekeepers would be in the buffer zone between Artsakh and the area of Azerbaijan east of Artsakh, so there would be no Azeri soldiers at Artsakh’s borders. You say they wanted to cede territory to Turks. To me Levon’s plan sounds more like KEEPING territory – the most important and strategic territories, by giving away less important, uninhabited ones (Aghdam, Jibrayil).

    I wish it were possible to measure the following metric: The ratio of the number of people who say we should pursue our grandest ambitions, to the number of people who invest in and actively work on strengthening the Armenian military to be able to achieve said ambitions. I would imagine the ratio is extremely high, if not with a zero in the denominator. It is infuriating.

  9. One important factor of russian involvement is rarely mentioned in the armenian media. According to the New york times on Nov 9 as Shushi was taken and Azeri forces werre on to stepanagerd , putin issued an ultimatum to aliev to stop its forces. As a warning a missile was launched in a park in Baku. I have seen no other source confirm this critical element. However as they were winning why stop and not conquer all of Artzakh.

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