TagCurrent Affairs

Who Lost the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijani War?

To explain the nuance of the above question; clearly the Armenians have lost the war, and while there have begun to be breakdowns of what exactly happened, which I will shortly summarise, the question remains: whose fault was it?

Armenia had world opinion largely on its side, the advantage of defence, the mountainous terrain advantage, and 26 years to prepare for what – in retrospect – seems inevitable. To their credit, the Azeris seem to have fought quite well overall, and made effective use of new drone technologies, existing stocks of weaponry, specialised troops (mountaineers particularly), and perhaps most importantly; effective leadership and long-term planning. Nonetheless, it appears that this is a war primarily lost by Armenia on the diplomatic and political front, because that is what provided Azerbaijan with the opportunity. Armenia is a member of the CSTO, a Eurasian mutual defence pact, and effectively Russia’s answer to NATO, yet Russia failed to join the conflict, despite treaty stipulations that suggest they ought to have. In 2013, the commander of the Russian 102nd military base in Armenia gave a statement that: “If Azerbaijan decides to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh by force, the [Russian] military base may join in the armed conflict in accordance with the Russian Federation’s obligations within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.” The word ‘may’ could be considered relevant here in light of the fact that they opted not to, but the spirit of the message is that they would do so, what happened between then and now? A revolution of course!

In 2018, protests and civil disobedience broke out in response to the reelection of the Prime Minister, eventually generating another election wherein the traditional ruling party did not even field a candidate, and has been subsequently removed from power entirely. Despite this move being tentatively welcomed by Russia, and the new revolutionary government claiming to have no interest in distancing themselves from Russia diplomatically, it seems that their actions have been telling a different story. Russian advisors have either been removed, as have personnel with close ties to Russia, both diplomatically and militarily – meaning that officers that trained in Russia were either removed or sidelined. Being that Russia is Armenia’s only major ally, this represented a significant loss of expertise in the use of integrated equipment, and a loss of experience and institutional memory. There was no replacements for these losses, and all the while, Azerbaijan was fostering greater relations with Russia, Turkey, and Israel particularly, but certainly not burning any bridges. So we have a framework for poor leadership, disastrous diplomacy, and haphazard use of equipment setting up the loss. Armenian actions seem to have been mostly reactive, and lacking in doctrinal sophistication, while equipment was scarce for Armenia, and insufficiently used. Azerbaijan were able to take the initiative after some early setbacks – learning from their mistakes, and breaking the brittle defences, which the Armenians had no hope of regaining in the short term. This is all to say nothing of the manpower and quantitative equipment differences. So; upon whose shoulders can this be blamed?

The revolutionary government stands out immediately as the prime suspect, because clearly many of the leadership faults, and the purge can be blamed on them particularly. However, the “Velvet Revolution”, it must be said, has many of the tell-tale signs of being at the very least, significantly influenced by US groups and interests. The Armenian lobby in the US is famously strong, and they contributed significant funds as a community during the war to support Armenia, but if the intention was to bring Armenia out of the sphere of Russia, and into that of the US – then it appears to have only damaging effects. To clarify, the method of applying pressure to an existing government through NGOs and organised mass civil disobedience – was the general structure of all of the revolutions of the Arab Spring movement. In particular, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. In the case of Egypt and Tunisia particularly, it is an open secret that US interests played significant roles in the organisation of the revolutions. It is worth noting however that the 2018 Velvet Revolution did not occur within the same period as the rest of these, and so if they all were part of some coordinated plan, then Armenia seems to fall outside of the purview of it. So is the US to blame?

As alluded to previously, the US is not a single player in this regard, and so different groups will have different interests, and act accordingly – perhaps even in ways that are contradictory or conflicting. If NGOs and informal networks within the US were supporting the dissident movement in Armenia, then it has no particular place in US foreign policy as far as the government is concerned. In responding to it however they were more than happy to ‘assert the sovereignty of Armenia’, which in practice means cooling of relations with Russia; portrayed to all as an anti-corruption crackdown by removing individuals associated with the previous puppet regime. All of this is made more likely by the status of the Armenia diaspora’s traditional political ties with the Democrat party, who were out of power at the time of the revolution, and during a period of Russo-phobia in the US, particularly the Democrat party.

So, speculatively; a subgroup of US interests including Armenian diaspora elements supported a revolution against the pro-Russia government in Armenia. Why would the Armenians themselves get on board with it? Being that the previous governing party had governed solely since independence, it can easily be blamed for all of the problems in Armenia, and particularly the actions of the elites. With a great deal of perceived corruption present, and no doubt a great deal of actual corruption, along with the realpolitik considerations which have them functionally subservient to Russia on many issues. The dissidents could therefore claim support from both the Armenian right wishing to strengthen Armenian sovereignty, and the left for its promises of greater openness, democratic freedom, and a number of other low-level grievances. Of course, on top of all that, corruption is seldom popular to anyone other than the beneficiaries, so everyone is happy to oppose that point in particular. Being that this had such dramatic implications on the stability of the country in its precarious situation – open to attack at almost any time if the situation deteriorated enough, or even the perception of deterioration by the Azeris, then is it reasonable that all parties be expected to take this into account? To reiterate: is it reasonable that those either pushing for, or taking part in the revolution, be expected to take the foreign policy implications into account? The support – both from the people themselves, and the Armenian diaspora seems to suggest that the Artsakh issue is a very prominent and important one, but both seem to have pushed for the situation that made its defence untenable. Perhaps it is their fault if we assume they are rational actors who either prioritised domestic issues higher than foreign policy concerns, or miscalculated the danger, but I don’t think that’s a fair assumption.

Instead, I would point to the actions of the revolutionary government, which read like a game of brinksmanship with Russia – trying to gain both western (and particularly US) backing, while maintaining the good relations with Russia despite the obvious provocations. The pitch for involvement with the movement which was presented to the public seems to have been simplistic, and although ‘if something seems too good to be true – then it probably is’, one cannot blame the public too harshly for jumping on board with an exciting, well-funded and well-marketed movement which promises to solve their problems with no obvious or mentioned costs to the whole affair. Like a drug to which they are only-now feeling the after-effects and the low which follows the high. It remains to be seen whether they will double down, or turn away from this new revolutionary drug, replacing the government with something new, or simply reverting to what protected them from external threats. What most recognise in such situations however, is that the peddlers are more culpable than the addicts. Not all are in the government of course, but as with any revolution, a change of the governing apparatus and some of the political elites has inherent benefits to those new guard who fill the ranks. Regardless of whether the overall situation is better or worse for the country, it is usually better to be an incumbent elite in a diminished state, rather than an internal exile of a powerful state. No doubt the external players and supporters get some benefit from the whole affair also, but that matter is less clear. What is clear is that the blame ought to rest solely on the current revolutionary government, and those who gave support to it in its nascent state. They played with fire, and got the whole nation burned in the process.

Sources and further reading:









https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/ARM/armenia/gdp-growth-rate (If the revolution was due to inequality or economic failure, they don’t seem to have received much for the change)

The New Spoils

If one had been looking at some of the less publicised parts of the 2019 UK general election manifestos of the various parties, one cannot help but notice a rather odd dislike of Ofsted – the education system monitoring and regulatory body. This is especially peculiar considering most parties desiring to abolish it, wished to replace it with another body tasked with the same job. Why?

Well there may well be many issues at play, but one strong contender is the continuation of a trend stretching back to at least the late 90s under Tony Blair’s Labour government – which was itself a reformulation of a much older idea: The Spoils System.

Originally, in the US, the spoils system was a process of rewarding political or personal allies with positions in government and the civil service. Eventually this was seen to be diminishing the effectiveness of the government by disregarding merit in favour of political considerations, and the practice somewhat disappeared, though not entirely.

The comparison between the US Spoils System, and the UK’s dealings with patronage and political nepotism is not a perfect one, but in light of more recent political history, it becomes more relevant.

Following in a long history of English policy chasing business interests, the story of the modern civil service (much abridged) begins with the emulation of the East India Company’s college, and standardised testing for administrative roles. Even in these early days it was divided into a technocratic advisory body, ostensibly to advise on the realistic policy possibilities available, along with their consequences, and a more purely mechanical body which simply carries out the dirty work of implementation. In keeping with the traditions of the time, many of these civil servants were of a generalist character, rather than what we might think of as a technocrat today with extreme clout in more specific technical areas. Ergo, as the perceived need for particularly scientific, but more generally technical knowledge increased, so too did the pressure to reform the civil service in order to meet such perceived needs. This, no doubt in combination with other more ideological and base political inclinations of the Labour party between 1945 and 1968 led to a review of the system, with numerous suggestions for change. In order to carry out such a change however, political pressure and will is needed, and thus a political head in the form of a new cabinet department within Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1968. So with the civil service now brought into the realm of a political instruments, it became a recurring political project – to overhaul the civil service, under various pretexts, and with varying degrees of success at trimming around the edges of the institution. The most successful were the Thatcherites, who were able to install a form of performance remuneration, and later the ability of the public to issue claims against the civil service in the case of unsatisfactory service. Even this latter reform is dubious, however, as it could be considered less of a reform of the existing structure, as much as it was the creation of a new body to attempt to scrutinise the civil service (The Office of Public Service and Science). In this light therefore, Boris Johnson’s (at time of writing, announced) intention of reforming the civil service appears to have bleak prospects – as the fundamental form of the civil service has stayed true to its original formulation, and in this way, represents an active legacy policy of the 1850s Liberal party, couched in terms of neutrality and impartiality, and therein lies the crux.

Seemingly, it has been recognised that these ostensibly independent organisations (additional examples of such being the Bank of England, and the United Kingdom Supreme Court), are given certain political characteristics by the nature of their founding, and perhaps more importantly, the source of their founding – politically speaking. Briefly, in the first instance, the creation of the Bank of England did much to allow for the obfuscation of power relationships, distanced power from sovereignty, and enriched the base of the Whig faction who had founded it. More contemporarily, the creation added to this institution; the Independent Monetary Policy Committee achieved the same in terms of obfuscating power relations, but also creating the possibility for political influence to outlive the government which appointed them (as they enjoy longer terms than the government). As such, Mervyn King, who had earlier been a critic of the Conservative economic policy under Thatcher, was appointed by the Blair Labour government – as the first governor to serve a whole term which would enjoy the increased responsibility and independence. Initially he followed the expected course, and, following the 2008 financial crisis, attacked many of the politically acceptable targets, and catered to Labour’s political concerns; even going as far as to rather unusually give a speech to the Trades Union Congress. However, in the lead up to the 2010 general election, King became implicitly and sometimes explicitly more critical of Labour (albeit a Labour party slightly changed from the one that appointed him). King then went on the praise the Conservative policy plans, especially after they had been more thoroughly enshrined in the Coalition agreement which put them in power. This could be viewed in one of a number of ways therefore: either he was seeking to ingratiate himself to power to make his suggested candidate more appealing – thus preserving his own legacy and some amount of his power and prestige. Perhaps, as has happened with US supreme court judges, he changed his perspective since his appointment, and thus began to exercise his own power. Or it could be as simple as to say that his positions all along were more complicated than might be suggested by his past. In any case, he was succeeded by a governor who followed a similar trajectory: began supportive of the political interests of his appointer, and maintained many of those positions while the political situation has shifted around him, but now, as Mark Carney nears the end of his term, he has begun to soften on the issue of Brexit in particular seemingly, which is a de facto appeal to the power situation on the ground. Perhaps we will see in around a decade if this trend will unfold a third time, but for the meantime, I would invite you to draw your own conclusions on the matter.

The UK Supreme Court could be said to be a more obvious example, particularly in the recent high profile cases which had the effect of tying the hands of Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. In this way, observing the time line of the creation of the UK Supreme Court, it would seem to be one of the most effective of the avenues for the Labour government of Blair (and later Brown) to maintain influence, even after they’ve been politically displaced. This of course coming from a body which was only formally created in the final year of that government, investing the justices for life (albeit with a mandatory retirement clause).

It is little wonder then that at time of writing, the Johnson Conservative government is looking into curtailing the Supreme Court’s power. However this generates the predictable responses of tyranny and overreach. This is what sets it apart from the original spoils system, as it generates the self justification of merit based selection and action, along with independence. These are bodies which are relatively easy to create and empower, but difficult to roll back: a near perfect vector for ensuring long term political influence. For now, at least. The original spoils system was justified through appeals to efficiency generated by improvements in loyalty and cooperation. It’s difficult to know how accepted this was in the earlier stages of the process, but considering the fact that the Southern Secessions took place during this time, it might not be unreasonable to think that the view was prevelent that an anti-slavery political victory would enable such policies to be pushed through easily, regardless of the pragmatic considerations under the spoils system.

So, government is being hampered by Labour created and influenced institutions which cannot easily be outright removed or reversed, despite their being routed from power. What can be done about this? Better still, could this be turned into an advantage?

There appear to be two options primarily available: the long term preferable option would be to reverse the changes, through pushing them into politically unfavourable positions which undermine their popularity or credibility. This has been the situation for the Supreme Court recently which, although technically was not so, was seen as being a blocking action against brexit – doing much to render support of the Supreme Court a partisan issue. This means that Johnson’s attempt to diminish the body may stand better chances than others of their kind, but that remains to be seen.

The other, perhaps more cynical option is to play the same game, but better. If the creation of new bodies is a means to ensure long term influence, and such bodies, along with their independence is seen as an inherent good (though admittedly this may be changing), then independent (ostensibly at least) appointments to such positions must also be good, right?

A body would be created, nesting subtly partisan features and aims into its mission, but maintaining formal separation from the state, though not necessarily total separation from all matters of political life (if such a thing is even possible). It merely needs to be seen that a roughly neutral or meritocratic organisation by a reasonable and defensible standard, with a mission aiming at the public good, is tasked with ensuring that ‘politics is kept out of such important matters’. An example of this may be a group of legal practitioners aiming to ‘preserve legal stability and the common law tradition’. Inherently this pushes us towards Conservative, if not Reactionary members and ethics, which will translate into likewise Supreme Court justices, should this group hold a monopoly on appointments. Should protest be voiced to this, it can be easily countered with accusations of politicising the legal system, or attempts at a power grab.

In this scenario, however, it must be considered that this will still, despite the slightly changed political inclinations of the incumbents, we will still be set upon the path of ever more technocratic government. The hope would be that with an increase in the influence of sympathetic members of this technocracy; a greater number of options would be available to change the situation down the line. To draw a crude comparison: although the secular Western Roman institutions may have crumbled, we as analogous to the early church may still be able to control, or at least influence the political situation going forward, even if governing positions are held by otherwise opposing forces, as they were during the 6th and 7th centuries particularly, under the rule of the germanic kingdoms.

Mencius Moldbug remarked in his Open Letter, that direct action against the state from the right is folly, absent the kind of judicial sympathy which made it possible in the 20th century. While I would contend that the situation is a touch more complicated, perhaps the methods just described can be an avenue for attempting to re-establish something resembling the past wherein we were able to do more than merely chase the leftward push.