When Diplomacy Fails

Nagorno_Karabakh_Apr-2016_Vahram-Baghdasaryan_Photolure_EPA_TC_DerOn April 2, 2016, Armenians in the world held their collective breath and had one thing in mind. During morning hours of that day, the “frozen” conflict in Artsakh had erupted in violence, and all of a sudden we were at war. Four days later, a temporary ceasefire was signed, which as of the time of this writing holds albeit with interruptions. Among other concerns, these recent developments raised many questions about effectiveness and limits of Armenian diplomacy and what could/should have been done to prevent this. With the hopes of finding answers to those questions, I attended an expert-level round-table discussion on the events—coined as the “4-day war” between Armenia and Azerbaijan—hosted by Policy Forum Armenia, a Washington-based think tank, on April 21, 2016.

One of the main revelations for me was that with so many conflicts in the world, the one in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh’s internationally recognized name) gets very little attention. As one of the panelists, who spoke about the Western take on the renewed hostilities, said many people either do not know where Artsakh is or are surprised to see the hostilities return (thinking perhaps that the conflict has been resolved). Although the conflict has far-reaching implications for the West, the Unites States and the EU are not likely to get involved until matters “go south”. Of course, rational thinking would dictate that given Armenia’s close ties to Russia and the refusal to sign the Association Agreement with EU could be behind this indifference. Armenia has accepted Russian military assistance and military bases on its territory in order to keep up with Azerbaijan in the vain hope that a Russian presence will act as a deterrent. Sadly there is no doubt any more that this thinking was flawed and Moscow cannot be an effective partner and be able to guarantee the peace in the region. This also showed the utter incompetence of Armenian diplomats and military planners, whose only strategy was to rely on Russia for Armenia’s security. The panelists seemed to agree that Russia wants to acquire more points of pressure to be able to have more say in the world order and it has no interest in resolving the conflict in Artsakh.

Another panelist, a former Armenian diplomat who joined the discussion from Yerevan via skype, shed light on potential factors that may have triggered the Azerbaijani aggression. According to him, it was not a random outburst of violence, but a manifestation of certain internal and external factors such as falling oil prices, declining economy, tension between different ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan, and Moscow’s and Ankara’s role in encouraging the incursion. He stressed the importance of the fact that Russia having a treaty obligation to defend Armenia against attacks on its territory has sold $5 billion worth weaponry to Baku in the past 3-4 years. He drew a direct link between the weapons’ supply in the region and the ongoing escalation in Artsakh. Although panelists thought that official Ankara’s involvement would be very unlikely, Turkish advisers and special forces were said to have been spotted and overheard during the hostilities.

For the ruling authoritarian regimes on both sides of the conflict line, the war is less about the contested territory and more about deflecting attention away from internal economic and political troubles they face. Specifically, panelists saw the dissatisfaction with the Azerbaijan’s governments as a key factor in the latest escalation of the conflict. The regimes have little desire and few, if any, other mechanisms to deal with domestic problems. The corrupt bureaucracies that they have constructed in the two decades since the Soviet collapse stand in the way of any maneuvering through the coming crisis.

Diplomatic failure on the Armenian side was a reflection of the governance level and competence of the elite. The social media was flooded with sarcastic comments regarding the Armenia’s Foreign Minister’s virtual absence during the war and the days that followed. Many interpreted that as another sign of lack of independence and inability to voice an opinion prior to knowing what Russia has to say. As the public gets increasingly wary of the Russia’s position on the issue, Armenia’s foreign policy is becoming more and more dependent on Russia while experiencing a gradual erosion of its once positive image in the West.

As I was struggling with my main takeaways from the discussion and whether or not there were any possibilities for change, one view resonated with me. As one of the organizers noted in his opening remarks, “the regime needs to go. It is no longer performing its functions”, a view that was echoed more than once in the discussion that followed. The evidence of diplomatic failure—and in fact systemic failures—has never been clearer in Armenia’s independent history: little is left to prevent a repeat of the clashes we witnessed this month. The stakes are too high.

Tatevik Khudinyan is an intern at Policy Forum Armenia.

Photo credit: Vahram Baghdasaryan, Photolure.

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