Monday, 20 May 2024

Armenians should not confuse allies and empathy

Stepan Piligian
Sometimes failure is the best way to learn and grow. It is said that the opportunity for prosperity comes from surviving adversity. It’s true, but only if we choose to invest in our learning. Experiencing hardship and repeating the same mistakes is the definition of chronic failure. Most of us have spent the better part of the last two and a half months venting our grief and frustration over losses by rightfully criticizing the establishment…but without a serious alternative. The reality of our dilemma is that our dissatisfaction is neutralized by the absence of a strategic solution. The honest part of our venting needs to be directed at the subculture we have created. Our tolerance for mediocrity must end. Our recovery starts by setting the bar higher. The natural response to our isolation is to say that we must only rely on ourselves. This is partially true when you consider the dramatic changes needed in military readiness, diplomacy, intelligence and the economy. 

What Armenia lacks, however, are allies who will take ACTION that support our interests. We are abundant in gifts of rhetoric. The shocking silence of the “civilized” world angers us, but it also sends a critical message. In the absence of aligning our needs with a critical mass of others, we will fail. There are no longer isolated conflicts in this world. There are only proxy battles. The recent Artsakh War was more about Turkey and Russia (and the sidelining of the west) than it was about Armenia and Azerbaijan. Who suffered the losses? Armenians and the Azeris/mercenaries were sacrificed. This is how proxy wars function with remote control monitors by the powerful. Georgia has become useful to the west. Azerbaijan is useful to Israel and Turkey. Who is Armenia useful to? When we answer that question positively, our security will be enhanced.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. One hundred years ago when the torch of the Armenians was nearly extinguished, there were Turks and Russians. The Azerbaijanis were an annoyance—a sideshow. When Kazim Karabekir and the Turkish army attacked the First Republic in late 1920, the choices were a slaughter by the Turks of inhuman proportions or the absorption of what remained into the Soviet system. The Armenian Diaspora public became divided between those longing for freedom and rejecting the notion that the only choices were death (Turks) or loss of freedom (Russians) and those who felt that a physical existence under Russia was the best alternative. Armenians labeled each other as “Dashnak fascists” for their nationalistic advocacy or “Bolsheviks” because they supported the Soviet Armenian reality. In practice, there were very few true fascists or Bolsheviks in our community. Organizational affiliations tend to promote generalizations. The partitioning of the First Republic was an evil act of subjugation by the dictator Stalin to placate the new Turkish national revival under Kemal.

Fast forward to 2020 and we find Armenia, technically a sovereign state, caught between the same Turkish obsession with annihilating Armenians and “mother” Russia always viewing the region as their vassals, regardless of the political environment. Azerbaijan is still a sideshow. Despite the Azeri resource advantage, Armenia would have vanquished them one-on-one militarily. The difference was they had friends (Turkey and Israel) who supplied them solutions. They had something to trade because no friendship is free of charge. The Turks have used the Azeris and the pan-Turkic rhetoric to gain a foothold in the Caucasus. To regain parts of Artsakh, Azerbaijan sold part of its sovereignty to Erdogan and his band of oppressors. Israel sells its weapons of destruction to kill descendants of a genocide in order to gain an intelligence outpost to Iran. We don’t like it, but the “winners” in this world make friends based on intersecting interests. Armenia, on the other hand, is left to the “benevolence” of Russia. Is this any different than 1920? Alone and utterly dependent. Have we learned nothing?

While hundreds of millions of dollars were lost to corruption, we also sacrificed valuable time in developing an economic and technological foundation to cement our sovereignty. Russia stopped the invading Turks in 1920 by gifting them Armenian territory (Kars, Ardahan, Ararat, Nakhichevan and Artsakh). In 2020, they stopped the carnage after Armenia lost substantial territory. Do we think it was a coincidence that hostilities stopped with the agreement right after Shushi fell? Russia may “protect” Armenia but only in the context of its hegemony. They will discipline Armenia when the latter drifts from the orbit. One hundred years and history repeats itself.

Efforts in independent defense research and other areas of investment are necessary but should not exclude finding ways to develop allies. If that ally is Russia, then Armenia must evolve from a subordinate to a respected partner. This means that Armenia must convince Russia that it has more to offer them than the Turkic alliance. There are also political allies and economic allies. India is an example of what could become the latter without threatening Russia. Windows open, and they close. This is not over. Turkish intentions in the Caucasus will eventually conflict with Russia and Iran. Armenia must be positioned to be a part of the solution.

In my view, Armenia has no real allies today. Iran, which has a common border and economic/energy opportunities with Armenia, was silent as Azeris violated their border integrity during the Hadrut battles. The west can always be counted on for patronizing statements of “support.” The UN says Armenian POWs must be returned. Wonderful. The European Parliament condemns Azeri and Turkish aggression. The United States was absent in the negotiation of the Nine Point Agreement which was driven by Russia. Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev says Turkey should be a part of the discussion for a final Karabakh settlement. Russia says that Karabakh is Azerbaijani. Just a few days ago, US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Earle Litzenberger congratulated Azerbaijan for “restoring territorial integrity.” Regardless of whether he is a Trump appointee or not, this is an outrageous statement. It is also an indication of how few true friends we have in this world.

There is a difference between “friend” and “ally.” Allies are those who are willing to take action through diplomatic campaigns, economic sanctions, financing or other methods to support the peaceful and sovereign intentions of Armenia. Even if we apply the standard “it’s politics” to limit the impact of these public positions, it is a dreadful state to hear rhetoric after such criminal behavior of the Turkish alliance. The OSCE Minsk Group has been neutralized, and it is not clear what the future will bring. Azerbaijan and Turkey will continue to bask in the coverup of their most recent atrocities. The wildcard is the new Biden administration. Biden is on record as opposing the expansionist policies of Erdogan in the Aegean, Middle East and Caucasus. We can expect that the next move of Erdogan (true to the Turkish playbook) will be to soften his position to draw the US into some form of reconciliation. Accepting that charade would be a major mistake. This is what Erdogan does; he unilaterally pushed the limits with criminal behavior knowing that there are few ramifications for his actions. When the rhetoric gets strong enough (i.e. new administration), he tosses a fake olive branch. He knows there are still a large number of Turkish advocates in the US military and economic infrastructure. Drawing the Biden administration in far enough to enable the voice of Turkish advocates is their plan. It will be interesting to see how Biden responds to the Minsk subordination and Erdogan’s deception. And what will he do as we approach yet another April 24? Thus far his administration has given no indication of backing off based on his stated positions and the recent comments of the Secretary of State at his confirmation hearings. New opportunities for Armenia will rise when the global checks and balances are working. The United States and Europe (particularly France) are needed for this dynamic to be effective. Let us hope that America “re-engaging” includes Armenian interests.

Armenians and Armenia will always receive empathy because of the peaceful, contributing and cultured nature of our people. This can lead to a patronizing relationship if empathy does not lead to action. One of the most important lessons of the recent war is that we do not have true allies; we have friendly relations. I do not call Russia allowing thousands of Armenians to die while they manipulated the outcome as heroes, the act of an ally. It is probably the closest relationship Armenia has, but when you have no leverage and punitive measures are the implications of not complying, it offers survival and little else. Isn’t that what we were in 1920? With the anti-western positions of both Turkey and Russia, Armenia must rely on the direct initiatives of the western democracies with Russia and Turkey. Pashinyan’s western rapprochement could lead to the experience of Ukraine with Crimea and Georgia with South Ossetia. The difference between strong leadership and one occupying the seat is to convince Russia that it is in their best interests to support a strong and sovereign Armenia. Turkey has played Russia against the West in a masterful fashion. As the west pushed on Turkey, they embraced the S-400 from Russia and turned their back on NATO. As Turkey sets its next “Venus fly trap,” the F-35 program with the US will be a point of discussion. If the US and Russia would limit their rivalry for a moment, Turkey would be the loser. These are the proxy dynamics that can impact Armenia.

When a country has little leverage and even less to offer, every move is critical. As we have learned there is very little room for error. This is an important moment for the Armenian American advocacy movement. The stakes are high internationally and a new administration that advocated a stronger role for America is in place. New ambassadors will be appointed, aid allocations will be debated, and several points of conflicts with Turkey are on the table. While Armenia works through its government crisis and works to repair its relationship with Russia, Armenians in America must do their utmost to influence the direction of the new administration. The next several months will separate the action from the rhetoric.