Winter is coming in Armenia—it snowed for the first time this year in Yerevan, temperatures continue to drop and villagers have collected winter hay in large pyramids throughout the country. This year, however, we need to prepare for more than just the annual winter cycle. With the outcome of the last Artsakh war, we have a maximum of five years to significantly improve the security of the country along a number of fronts, as detailed below. No matter where one falls on the spectrum of support, criticism or downright hatred of the current government, these security imperatives transcend any political affiliations or government incumbency—they are the basis for survival, growth and success of our independent nation.
1. Physical Security
As we so painfully learned during the 44-day war, we have entered a new era of physical threat, not just to Artsakh, but to Armenia proper. Turkey’s open and full support of Azerbaijan signals a significant shift in the balance of power in the region, and all indications are that Erdogan’s pan-Turkic ambitions are far from being satiated. As a result of the return of the buffer zone between Artsakh proper and Armenia to Azerbaijan, we now have an additional 500 km (for a total of 780 km to defend against our primary enemy to the east), in addition to the already-existing 221 km with Nakhichevan, and 311 km with Turkey. This is a total of over 1300 km of borders with hostile neighbors, with varying topography and defendability, in an era where physical infrastructure such as trenches, bunkers, mechanized divisions and artillery are increasingly vulnerable to sophisticated and precise offensive weaponry. Most of what has been said and written about the need to invest in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), anti-UAV and other elements of 21st century technological warfare is absolutely true and necessary, but not sufficient. We must plan for the possibility of either a Turkish-sponsored (or even led) attack by Azerbaijan on the Syunik region from both Azerbaijan proper and Nakhichevan, and even for the less likely direct attack by Turkey onto the Ararat plain. While modern drone and anti-drone technology has quickly become the price of entry for proper defense, it won’t be enough. We need to build a series of fortified defensive lines behind our border defenses, which will require planning, execution and the application of eminent domain principles on private lands throughout the south and center of the country. In addition, we need to completely overhaul the concept of reserve forces, and have much tighter and more flexible coordination between border protection forces, the traditional army, and police/public protection forces. We need to introduce the concept of active reserves, national guard and other civilian-enhanced forces with clear, pre-defined mobilization plans and regular reserve training. All of this will take a fundamental shift in thinking, doctrine, planning and execution across many arms of the Armenian government, a significant increase in defense spending and, most importantly, a very different attitude by the average Armenian citizen (both men and women) about their role and duty in the defense of the country.
2. Diplomatic Security
One of the positive outcomes arising from the actions of various international actors during and after the war, and the nature of the imposed ceasefire, is that Armenia is finally free from many self-imposed “shackles” purportedly required to maintain the previous status-quo of Artsakh. Turkey’s explicit involvement in the war, Azerbaijan’s forging of an alliance with Pakistan, Qatar and Israel, the implicit support of the United Kingdom and, most importantly, the “great game” (played by Russia and Turkey to trade interests across Syria, Libya and the trans-Caucasus) open up a range of possibilities for Armenia to finally truly implement a multilateral diplomatic strategy. “Multilateral” does not just mean cozying up to both Russia and the West; in addition to continuing and evolving our relationships with our traditional partners, we must develop new, mutually-beneficial relations with traditional enemies of the countries above, including India, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as thinking more broadly about economic and infrastructural relations with China. Of course, the supportive behavior of allies such as France and the Netherlands, as well as “neutral” countries such as Canada and Austria (which both imposed government-sanctioned bans on the export of military technology to Turkey but only after the equipment had already been delivered and used against Artsakh), need to result in specific gestures of gratitude and reciprocity by Armenia. In addition, the well-documented series of humanitarian aggressions and internationally-recognized illegal actions perpetrated by Azerbaijan during the war open up a real possibility for a legal roadmap to the remedial secession of Artsakh from Azerbaijan.
3. Cyber and Infrastructure Security
The initial days of the war demonstrated glaring weaknesses in the cybersecurity of critical digital infrastructure in the country, much of which was addressed and remediated via a focused public-private partnership over the course of the following weeks. However, we cannot exclude the increasing possibility of attacks by hostile actors on critical infrastructure like the electricity grid (including the nuclear power plant), as well as key civilian, military and government infrastructure. All over the world, this is an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse, which we are nevertheless obliged to actively participate in.
4. Communication Security
Most of the international internet traffic in and out of Armenia passes through Georgia. The good news is that we have finally achieved fully-independent and redundant paths both within Armenia and through Georgia, although there are still a small number of “choke-points.” We need to ensure that we continue to invest in and negotiate transit routing via additional routes through Georgia and other neighboring countries, as well as have emergency back-up via satellite links.
5. Transportation Security
This war also highlighted the capricious nature of Armenia’s land and air routes. While the borders with both Georgia and Iran remained open for the general traffic of goods and people, Georgia imposed restrictions on the movement of military equipment through its territory (ostensibly against both parties), effectively blocking the transit of key materials to Armenia. There are several critical investments and initiatives which must be pursued relentlessly, including: 1) the completion of the North-South highway across the entire country, from Bavra in the north to Meghri in the south; 2) negotiating unencumbered access to Black Sea ports with Georgia—while this could include additional forms of transit payments and tariffs, we must no longer be prohibited from importing any type of critical goods and equipment through their territory. While importing goods via Iran is more complicated given the existence of various sanctions and restrictions on that country, we must continue to invest in and negotiate for improved transport links, including the resumption of rail service to Iran through Nakhichevan. In the past, the concept of one or multiple Armenia-based air carriers was rightfully discounted as not being financially or economically sustainable—at the time, that was a reasonable position. Again, however, we must understand that increased geopolitical risks require more independence and flexibility.
6. Water and Food Security
Water is the key to life. Armenia, while blessed with plenty of natural-flowing water, has also been cursed with an incredibly outdated and still highly-inefficient water management and distribution infrastructure. This is an area that must be addressed immediately to improve agricultural productivity, contributing significantly to food security, but also enable the country to better exert control over the water flowing to neighboring countries. It is important to note that many feasibility studies and even detailed plans to significantly upgrade the water management capability of the country exist; they just need to be prioritized, properly-funded and executed.
Twenty-five years of import monopolies and other corruption-infested practices have led to a much higher percentage of imported food consumed in Armenia rather than domestically produced alternatives. While successive governments, and in particular the current one, have implemented various subsidy programs to encourage more domestic production of a variety of staple products, we must significantly change our attitudes regarding domestic vs. imported goods, and finally drive the modernization of agriculture that, in many parts of the country, is barely above subsistence farming and highly inefficient.
7. Energy Security
Much has been written about the dependence of Armenia on natural gas imports from Russia, and the failure of various attempts to increase the proportion of renewable/alternative energy sources. We have seen a significant increase in the total capacity of hydro-power over the past 20 years, as well as the introduction of passive solar heating in many villages throughout the country. We have even witnessed the installation of new small and medium solar energy farms. However, similar to the case of investment in UAV technology after the 2016 war, though work did start, it was not done fast enough, or at a scale that would have a decisive effect on existing energy dependence. This must change, and change right away.
8. Environmental Security
The previous two imperatives roll into a proper response to the radical effects of climate change. There are two widely-adopted principles to be followed: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is the deliberate implementation of policies and actions to reduce carbon emissions, leading to the reduced impact of man-made causes of climate change—the best example being a switch to renewable energy sources and the explicit government-mandated reduction of emissions. Adaptation is the implementation of policies taking into account the “new reality” of climate change, and planning for the continued impact on society in the coming years and decades. Since climate change will impact access to and the availability of water, leading to challenges in food production, the dual benefit of acting quickly and decisively is to reduce Armenia’s contribution to climate change, while at the same time ensuring water, food and energy security.
9. Demographic Security
The most horrifying and irreversible legacy of the war will be its profound impact on a whole generation of young men. While final counts are still dependent on the exchange of POWs and accounting for those missing in action, it’s unfortunately safe to say that thousands of Armenian men were either killed, severely wounded and/or psychologically traumatized during the war, and this is the ultimate price that they and their loved ones have paid. First and foremost, every Armenian has a moral obligation to support the families of those killed and wounded. The Insurance Foundation for Servicemen (also known as the 1000 Dram Fund because every Armenian employee contributes through an automatic 1000 AMD monthly deduction), which distributes benefits to the families of fallen and disabled soldiers, must be supported financially by all of us. With the imminent return of Azeri civilians to areas now controlled by the other side, Armenia continues to face a significant demographic challenge and disadvantage when compared to Azerbaijan, and of course Turkey. We can only reverse this trend by creating an environment to dampen emigration, encourage repatriation and, most importantly, create the economic and social context for significantly raising the birth rate in the country.
10. Cultural Security
The apparent loss of traditional Armenian lands and cultural landmarks such as Shushi, Dadivank and Hadrut have had a profound impact on the psyche of Armenians both in the homeland and throughout the world. The re-emergence of an outright Russian military presence in the region, and the continued price of a security guarantee against Turkish aggression, could resurface other elements of Russian influence on Armenia. That must be countered by explicit support for the Armenian language, as well as associated elements of a national culture such as the arts, history and appreciation for the centuries-old civilization and culture we have inherited and are bound to propagate.
11. Economic and Financial Security
The first ten imperatives require vast amounts of funding, certainly more than is produced by the combination of economic activity in Armenia, grants and other financial assistance by international organizations, as well as the existing contribution level of Armenians around the world. In order to pay for all of these critical initiatives, a renewed focus on economic development is an absolute minimum requirement. However, that will not be enough. A fundamental step-change in the amount of financial resources flowing from Armenians to Armenia is required - even the nearly $200 million raised by the All-Armenia Fund since the start of the war is just a starting point. Armenia requires ongoing annual investment of at least ten times that amount, in the form of investment in Armenia bonds, venture capital, foreign direct investment and a “national duty” to support our country as we enter this next critical phase of our history.
12. Political Security
Many will consider this last point the most critical, and there is no question that our ability to implement many, if not all, of the previous imperatives will depend on the outcome of this one. We must all agree that the most important tenet is that any transition in power must be handled exclusively via constitutional means—this refers not just to attempts by various opposition groups to force a change in government, but should also directly guide actions by the existing government to secure a new mandate from the people after this catastrophic period for the country. Unlike the previous imperatives, which can be evaluated and acted upon based on facts and a rational planning and implementation process, politics are inexorably tied to people, emotions and the rule of the crowd. That is why it’s the most difficult to predict and manage. As Armenians in Armenia and around the world, we must understand that our ability and willingness to uphold the sanctity and security of our independent nation, and its state institutions, is above any political affiliation, personal grudges or outright struggle for power.
Achieving these 12 imperatives over any period of time is a tall order - achieving them in the coming months and 2-5 years is even harder, but it is the only way to secure our future as a people and nation. It will require a collective will and series of sacrifices, trade-offs and personal choices unlike anything most of us have faced in our lifetimes. That is why nation-building is NOT a spectator sport.