Armenia in a Region of Change
Armenia in a Region of Change


by Richard Giragosian

According to a popular saying in the more nationalist circles in Turkey, the close relationship between Turkey and Azerbaijan is defined as a natural alliance based on the principle of "one nation, two states." While such pan-Turkic solidarity is nothing new in the South Caucasus, it is a concept not unique to the Turks and Azeris. In fact, Armenia's relationship with Nagorno Karabakh is a much deeper and more illustrative model of the same principle.

There are some natural contradictions in the latter case, however, including the definition of "states." Despite the de facto independence of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, neither Armenia nor any other country has recognized Karabakh as an independent and sovereign state.

In the wake of the recent recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia, there is an important new precedent for the possible recognition of Karabakh's independence in the same way. But there is a vast difference between a precedent and a practical outcome, especially as Russia went out of its way to argue strongly that its decision on Abkhazia and South Ossetia would not be repeated in the case of Karabakh.

Moreover, the shift in Russian policy to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia is more related to Russian policy toward Georgia, than a new Russian affirmation of the right to self-determination. In fact, Russia has repeatedly assured Azerbaijan that despite its decision, Moscow would only continue to recognize Azerbaijan's "territorial integrity" and stressed that Nagorno Karabakh is a unique case, with important differences from the models of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Thus, in terms of the broader perspective, despite the apparent link to the Karabakh issue, whereby the decision seems to strengthen the case for Karabakh's right of self-determination over Azerbaijani territorial integrity, the significance of the Russian decision is limited.

Differences for the Armenia-Karabakh relationship also stem from the natural differences in national interests between Yerevan and Stepanakert— evident in the economic, political, diplomatic and even military security arenas.

Karabakh's economic dependence

In terms of economics, Karabakh remains fairly dependent on Armenian financial support, demonstrated by its reliance on annual expenditures form the Armenian state budget, and continues to need outside assistance from the Armenian diaspora. While such dependence is not necessarily dangerous or surprising, it does reveal the lack of Karabakh's economic viability. In contrast to its weaker economic position compared to Armenia, Karabakh holds an impressive and rather ironic advantage over Armenia in terms of political development and democratization. This is most apparent in the stark contrast between Armenia's series of tainted and flawed elections and NKR's record of free and fair elections and more open pluralistic politics.

There is a close political relationship between Yerevan and Stepanakert, however, with an institutionalized coordination expressed through such bodies as the Armenia-Karabakh Inter-Parliamentary Commission for Cooperation. During the commission's meeting on February 20, the chairman of the Armenian Parliamentary, Hovik Abrahamian, led a delegation to Stepanakert to brief Karabakh officials on the latest developments in the peace process mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Minsk Group. Reiterating the Armenian commitment to ensuring that Karabakh's interests are well represented in the peace talks, Abrahamian promised that Armenia was negotiating with Azerbaijan on "one principle: that our Karabakh compatriots must approve any agreement on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict."

During the visit to Karabakh, the Armenian official stressed that Armenia appreciates the meditation of the OSCE Minsk Group, but warned that "any attempt to settle the conflict by force may have unpredictable aftermaths both for the parties and the region as a whole," and noted Armenia's support for "the principle of [the] peaceful settlement of the conflict." Aside from the speeches and assurances, however, there is a significant divide in diplomacy between Armenia and Karabakh that was not addressed in the meetings.

Armenia's diplomatic monopoly

It is in the diplomatic arena that the difference in strategy and interest between Yerevan and Stepanakert is most pronounced. The inherent division relates to Armenia's virtual "monopoly" on negotiating on behalf of Nagorno Karabakh. It still remains unclear exactly how Yerevan secured the sole power and authority to negotiate in place of Stepanakert. A situation has developed, though, that not only allows Azerbaijani negotiators to exploit any potential differences in diplomatic strategy between Armenia and Karabakh, but also weakens the logical argument that Karabakh, as a direct party to the conflict, should be granted a formal place at the negotiating table. But as long as Armenia exercises its monopoly on representing Karabakh, it seems unlikely that the OSCE mediators will recognize Karabakh as an equal partner in the peace process, making the conflict's eventual resolution even more difficult.

The last element of separation between Armenia and Karabakh consists of the difference in military security. In terms of military strategy and national security considerations, Armenia's needs and threat perception are shaped by the natural attributes of Armenia's geography, economic and political position and its own military posture. For Karabakh, however, the defensive nature of its military and security needs are rooted only in its own geographic, economic and military determinants.

Moreover, in terms of overall security, there are important differences in the level of threat posed by Azerbaijan and even in Azerbaijan's strategic view of Armenia and Karabakh. For Azerbaijan, there are already some elements within the Azerbaijani government and its military that see little real value in retaking Nagorno Karabakh by force. These groups, although far from power and few in number, see the value of Karabakh for their national interests as limited, with no economic value or even military significance for Azerbaijan.

But what these groups want are two essential things: first, they want to "save face," to be seen as gaining something in return for losing Karabakh. Secondly, they are desperate to regain the areas of Azerbaijan proper, beyond the Karabakh borders, in order to restore their [complete] border with Iran, reflecting a strategic necessity. Of course, such a view regarding the Karabakh issue is not widely held in Baku and is challenged or negated by the powerful counter-influence of increasingly strident Azerbaijani nationalism, and reflects a sense that with the influx of its oil wealth, Azerbaijan is not happy at having "lost" Karabakh.

The military threat

But it is also the military security factor that is the most serious and looming threat to Karabakh and with any division between Armenia and Karabakh in this area, such vulnerability and danger is only enhanced. This threat emanates from the now apparent fact that Azerbaijan seems to be dangerously committed to launching a new war to retake Karabakh. And more than the usual steady stream of militant rhetoric and aggressive threats from officials in Baku, this potential for Azerbaijan's emergence as a military power presents a real concern. Fortunately there is time to prepare for such a shift in the balance of power in the region, especially given the weakness and poor state of readiness within the Azerbaijani armed forces, which continues to be seriously undermined by corruption and low morale among its troops. And even in the face of several years of massive defense budgets surpassing $1 billion annually, Azerbaijan has little to show for such spikes in defense spending.

But the longer-term concern is that time is on the side of Azerbaijan and its potential as the region's strongest military power in the future remains a very serious likelihood. More recently, the Azeri view of the August 2008 war in Georgia also suggests a new danger, as many in the Azerbaijani military feel that the Georgia war offered an interesting lesson for them. Specifically, they consider that the most serious Georgian mistake was not the decision to attempt to capture South Ossetia by force, but that the decision to initiate military operations before Georgian forces were ready or strong enough was the primary Georgian blunder.

For these Azerbaijani officers, that lesson from the Georgian war only means that they will not make the same mistake, but are committed to maintaining a military option for "solving" the Karabakh conflict. Based on that thinking, the danger will be that Azerbaijan feels that it should only wait until its military is strong enough and more prepared to start a new war to retake Karabakh.

In light of such a looming threat to military security, the important difference, however, is not between Armenia and Karabakh, but between Karabakh and Azerbaijan. And the military divide between the force capability of Karabakh and Azerbaijan is profound and will cause any serious Azerbaijani military planners to think seriously before wading into a deadly and dangerous new war over Karabakh.

The military power of Karabakh

In many ways even surpassing the highly rated Armenian armed forces, the Nagorno Karabakh military is assessed as an even more capable and professional force. Despite its small size, the Karabakh army is in a state of constant readiness, undergoing more serious combat training and operational exercises than any other former Soviet army. In the event of a military crisis or an outbreak of war, the roughly 20,000-strong Nagorno Karabakh army can also rely on Armenian forces.

Despite its limited inventory and small size, the Nagorno Karabakh forces consist of seasoned veterans in insurgency and guerrilla warfare tactics, and are able to maximize the territorial and topographical advantages offered by the mountainous terrain. But the most significant advantage is unit morale. Unlike their counterparts in Azerbaijan, there is an impressive degree of professionalization and discipline within the ranks of the Nagorno Karabakh forces.

Although supported financially and logistically by Armenia, Karabakh has a degree of self-sufficiency and a significant, small-force capability. The Karabakh armed forces are relatively well organized and equipped, and enjoy a high degree of training and leadership. There is also a high degree of operational readiness and consistent maintenance of its combat systems and equipment.

At the height of the conflict with the much larger Azerbaijani armed forces, the Karabakh armed forces became rapidly seasoned in defensive warfare, developing and enhancing their native capabilities as mountain troops skilled in guerrilla warfare techniques. These special operations capabilities were combined with impressive unit mobility. Exceptionally well armed, these mobile units specialized in traditional special operational warfare, with quick confrontations utilizing overwhelming firepower. Large campaigns and engagements were launched only rarely, as the Karabakh forces prudently relied on their operational and tactical advantages of mobility and fast attack.

The Karabakh anti-aircraft defense, utilizing surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and other similar ground-launched weapons, inflicted a heavy toll and tempered Azerbaijan's air superiority in the early stages of the conflict. The mountainous terrain and related climate in Karabakh were also detrimental to any effective air campaign and demonstrated the situational awareness and operational command of the Karabakh forces. The combination of these factors effectively marginalized the Azerbaijani numerical advantage in infantry and artillery during the war.

The other significant advantage of the Karabakh forces is the quality of its officer corps and its strategic leadership. During the conflict, the clear majority of the Karabakh officer corps included seasoned and well-decorated veterans of the Soviet military, many with significant combat experience in Afghanistan that was applied in specific operations.

The Karabakh military is predominantly a ground force, with a minor helicopter component currently inoperable. The Karabakh army is a dynamically developing and combat-ready force with effective command and control and endowed with border guard, air defense, heavy and light artillery, mechanized infantry, engineering, intelligence and special operations units.

Karabakh holds a robust ground-based air defense capability, however, although any significant combat air support must be provided by Armenia. The Karabakh force operates predominantly along Soviet operational lines, using former Soviet and Russian equipment. The equipment holdings of the Karabakh forces are significant and continue to be reinforced. The equipment is well maintained, although there are sporadic repair problems and some shortages of spare parts for its tanks and armored personnel vehicles.

As both a formidable foe and as an established military power in its right, the Nagorno Karabakh military serves as a critical component to the regional balance of power, however, and its military strength and capability acts as a deterrent to the possible resumption of hostilities. In this way, the Nagorno Karabakh army actually contributes to regional stability in the South Caucasus. The Karabakh army is also the main guarantor of security and, due to its stated policy of abstaining from politics, defends the constitutional order and serves the democratically elected government of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR).

Thus, the most significant factor in the model of one nation, two states, will be the military situation over the coming decade. And it is this set of military security factors that will not only dictate the future of Armenia's relationship with Karabakh, but will also determine the very future viability of Nagorno Karabakh.

At the same time, however, in order to forge real security for Armenia and Karabakh, the focus must be to face the internal threats to statehood, ranging from the need for leaders who govern and not simply rule and the imperative to tackle the "cancer of corruption." In this way, legitimacy is the most important prerequisite for security and stability, especially as the strategic regional reality of the South Caucasus is defined less by geopolitics, and more by local politics and economics. Most crucially, institutions matter more than individuals for real democratization, and while military might is vital, real national power is based as much on economic and political strength -- attributes that stem from local economics and politics, and not simply a reliance on military power alone.

Analyst Richard Giragosian comments on military issues for Janes Defence Weekly, is a columnist for online journal and was recently named director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies in Yerevan.

Originally published in the May 2009 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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