Nikol Pashinyan’s Imprint on the 2020 Karabakh War: Did He Instigate the War?


The Karabakh issue has always been an issue shaping Armenian politics. In September 2020, Azerbaijan initiated large-scale hostilities against the unrecognized Nagorno Karabakh Republic, and Armenia attempted to defend its compatriots in the region. I believe that Armenia [1] suffered a systemic defeat during the 2020 Artsakh [2] War, since it is not prudent to separate the authorities from the army or any other institution from the nation’s remaining institutions.

The structure in which Armenia has been living since its independence (1991) both influences and constrains its foreign and security policies. Various stakeholders—domestic opposition parties, diaspora, the media, regional and extra-regional powers—and realities of a landlocked nation with closed borders with its two neighbors as well as the unresolved Karabakh conflict: all these factors impact and place limitations on the foreign policy decision-making process. Still, even under such circumstances, leaders in Armenia’s decision-making process matter, with researchers identifying several conditions of this: leaders’ diplomatic training, regime type, leaders’ personal interest in foreign policy, etc[3]. Two other variables also stand out in Armenia’s case: political culture and constitutional toolkit. Although Armenia has undergone a transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system, it is de-facto a single-party parliamentary regime rather than a long-established parliamentary democracy, where the leader of the (ruling) party (usually the chief executive of the country) has many formal and informal authorities. If a leader wields power that matters, leaders matter, their personal characteristics matter as well too.

Research shows that a leader’s behavior and actions as well as the situational context (others’ presence, time constraints, stakes, roles, and norms) are affected by their mental model and cognitions; the latter, in turn, are influenced and shaped by personality traits, perceptions (which is filtered through biases, stereotypes and heuristics), motivation/emotion[4].

Nikol Pashinyan’s diplomacy?

Nikol Pashinyan, with no prior diplomatic training and interest in foreign policy, is known for his emotional and fiery speeches, which often contain insults, outbursts of anger, threats. Emotions are capable of altering humans’ normal cognitive function. Often Pashinyan acts out of anger, such as making emotional expressions. There are many instances when he cannot restrain himself; there are examples of his outbursts, anger, and threats. For all that, there are instances where he acts very calmly. Pashinyan’s speeches are often accompanied by instant changes in facial expressions and abrupt transitions from an angry to a happy state. It seems Pashinyan lacks emotional stability. He is even suspected of having some mental health problems, and his mother is rumored to have psychological issues (schizophrenia), which could pass to Pashinyan.

The status of Artsakh and its surrounding seven territories are perhaps the most critical issues. Armenia has advocated for Artsakh’s right to self-determination, meaning independence from Azerbaijan—something unacceptable for Baku. Armenia was ready to hand the seven regions (on a “5+2” basis) over to Azerbaijan on condition of independence or at least a path to independence (through a future referendum once refugees return). In 2011, Baku refused to sign a document implying such a scenario, insisting that any status of Nagorno-Karabakh outside Azerbaijan is not acceptable. This, in turn, was unacceptable for Yerevan.

Then the so-called Lavrov plan, a set of Russian proposals, was circulated (in 2015), which, according to Pashinyan, implied the return of the seven regions (5+2) and refugees and deployment of Russian peacekeepers bypassing the issue of status. Russian Co-Chair in the OSCE Minsk Group Igor Popov openly denied Pashinyan’s arguments, saying that the phased proposal implied the return of the five regions to Azerbaijan in the first stage, while the return of the remaining two regions was in conjunction with affirming the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. This, at least, points out Pashinyan’s misperception, if we leave out that politicians often lie. But the other part is Russia, with whom you cannot have such a game, especially in these challenging times of security. In Pashinyan’s cognition, Russian proposals bypassed the very status of Karabakh, which, as he explained in his article, was rejected both by his predecessor and himself. However, his predecessor in a recent interview claims that he had agreed to the Lavrov plan.

Upon coming to power, Pashinyan acquainted himself with what he believed to be a stalled negotiation process, and, according to him, there was a simple choice: to give the territories back to Azerbaijan or try to change the negotiation logic. He argues that he had chosen the second path, which was doomed to fail since it was impossible to stop the train. Meanwhile, he knew very well of Azerbaijan’s intention to solve the Karabakh issue by military means. Therefore, every uncalculated and heedless action could ignite a military conflict. In such a situation, Armenia’s leadership had to be very careful in its statements and activities so as not to aggravate the already tense situation. Instead, Pashinyan’s government made several hawkish statements. Where did such overconfidence come from? A likely answer is the perceived military balance. The last war proved it was a misperception.

Importantly, misperception and overconfidence were not common only to Pashinyan. Artsakh president Arayik Harutyunyan in June 2020 stated that “the air of Artsakh is entirely protected”. Samvel Babayan, then Secretary of Artsakh Security Council, said in August 2020 that even if Turkey joins Azerbaijan in a possible war, Artsakh will definitely win. As the war showed, both statements were miscalculations.

Research shows that emotion plays an essential role in psychology and decision-making. McDermott posits that “emotions can facilitate motivation and arousal”[5]. From the very beginning, Armenia’s political opposition accused Pashinyan of at least two things—anti-Russian views and being soft on the Karabakh conflict (handing over some territories to Azerbaijan). In response, Pashinyan attempted to prove that the opposite is true. Like all humans, leaders also have their motivations. In Pashinyan’s case, the motivation for achievement of showing that he is a hardliner is observable. His motivation could be showing that he is not less of a hardliner than his predecessors (except Levon Ter-Petrosyan) or, at least, not a dove. To this end, he and his government made emotional, tough, and shortsighted statements: “Karabakh is Armenia, and that’s it”; “new war for new territories”, etc.

Pashinyan also insisted on the return of Karabakh to the negotiating table. True, this was rather noble and crucially important for Armenian diplomacy. However, given that Artsakh’s more representative place had been lost because of Armenia’s shortsighted policy previously—and more importantly, Azerbaijan would by no means agree to that claim—it was naive to expect any success in this regard. The OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs’ stance was also predictable: for such an outcome, all parties must agree. Azerbaijan disagreed. In the end, by September 2020, Pashinyan proved to be even more hardliner on the Artsakh issue than any Armenian chief executive.

Although Pashinyan’s government did not completely overlook the Vienna and S. Petersburg statements reached immediately after the 2016 April War, these advantageous (for Armenia) agreements were somewhat sidelined in the context of the aspiration of bringing Artsakh back to the negotiating table. Instead of consistently highlighting the implementation of the agreements on creating OSCE investigative mechanisms for ceasefire violations and increasing the number of international observers, Pashinyan’s administration prioritized the agenda of Artsakh’s participation in the talks.

Was the new formula necessary?

Armenia’s reformist ex-defense minister David Tonoyan in March 2019 publicly redefined the “land for peace” formula with a “new war for new territories”, meaning that if Azerbaijan undertakes a new offensive, Armenia may take more territories[6]. Besides, he pointed out that Armenia will get rid of the constant trench defense strategy and increase the number of military units that can transfer the hostilities to the enemy’s territory. The defense minister spoke confidently about the future. While he was voicing what he would do, why would his antagonist have waited to modernize his army and increase its combating capabilities? Knowing that its army has just started reforms, Armenia’s government hurried to declare overconfident and ambitious plans and readiness.

This still begs the question of “Why”. Given Armenia’s inadequate capabilities vis-a-vis Azerbaijan, instead of irritating statements, it should have been prudent to choose a restrained phrase, which would not nurture the already existing overconfident moods within the society. Had Tonoyan’s formula been stated by the foreign minister, things could have been different, as a same statement made by the Defense ministry and the Foreign ministry conveys different messages.

After the war, Russian foreign minister Lavrov stated that the “new war for new territories” statement was emotional, and these words materialized with very negative strength. Tonoyan recently clarified that his statement was a response to Azerbaijan’s statements to solve the Karabakh conflict through war. Leaving aside whose cause is right, it is significant to understand whose capabilities were real to win a war.

Though in hindsight, Azerbaijan was capable of winning a war against Armenia. Even if Azerbaijan was not ready for war and made provocative and belligerent statements, Baku was confident that Armenia would not start a war over such kinds of statements. Armenia did not need a war. One can infer that Azerbaijan’s leadership voiced such statements from time to time to provoke the Armenian side, and they succeeded in Pashinyan’s tenure when—apparently—they were ready for war much more than ever.

In his August 2019 speech at Artsakh capital city, Stepanakert, Pashinyan presented Armenia’s strategic goals and announced, “I feel that many of you may wonder that I said nothing about Artsakh. The answer is very simple: Artsakh is Armenia, and that’s it”. He also chanted “Miatcum” (unification), hinting at the unification of Armenia and Artsakh. Miatcum was a popular nationalistic slogan of the Karabakh movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Later explaining his proclamation, Pashinyan mentioned that his claim that Artsakh is Armenia was a response to Azerbaijan’s maximalist approach that Artsakh has to be part of Azerbaijan. Instead of a ‘tit for tat’ approach, Pashinyan should have expressed in a much more restrained way, claiming, for instance, that Artsakh’s right to self-determination was exercised in accordance with both Soviet and international law, hence, this did not conflict with Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Doing so, he could also blame Aliyev for not being constructive at the negotiating table.

Nikol Pashinyan’s statement soon raised criticism. Former American Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group Matthew Bryza claimed that the “Artsakh is Armenia” proclamation stops the entire negotiation process, making it impossible. Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov noted that the statement “doesn’t help create an atmosphere for renewing the political process.” Certainly, the nuances between the concept of the “Armenian world” and the “Republic of Armenia” were lost in translation. Still, the statement was shortsighted in terms of anticipating the reaction from the external audience.

In a sense, Pashinyan’s statement that “Karabakh is Armenia, period”, was also a response to Aliyev’s assertions that the Armenians are alien people or Yerevan is an Azerbaijani city. Aliyev’s motive, inter alia, for such kind of statements was provocation and propaganda. Should Armenia somehow react? The answer is positive, since there was no need to appease the opponents. But Armenia’s leaders shouldn’t have expressed emotional and dangerous (for negotiations) statements, as Pashinyan did, unlike his predecessors. Many times Azerbaijan’s presidents made such kinds of statements, but Armenia’s top leadership did not respond emotionally.

After the war, Nikol Pashinyan stated that as of 2018, the Karabakh issue was in deadlock, from which there was only one way out—an unconditional handover of territories, since Aliyev demanded so. “The alternative was the following: either we have to hand over the seven regions without the status of Karabakh, or it is a war”, he continued. Pashinyan rejected Aliyev’s demands. Hence, he clearly knew that a war could break out any day. Surprisingly, in one of his interviews after the war, he said that the war had always been anticipated, based on the last ten years’ [military and intelligence] reports hinting that that anticipation was general and there had not been any specific date for the start of the war. Moreover, he said that Armenia’s military-political leadership by September 25, 2020 assessed that the war would not begin.

Coming to grips with Pashinyan’s behavior

What is the rationale for such an assessment when Nikol Pashinyan stated after the war that the alternative of Aliyev’s demands of the unconditional return of the seven surrounding regions of the NKAO was the war, with Pashinyan refusing to act on that demand? Once again, the war could start any day, and Armenia’s leadership did not know about this.

In June 2020, Armenia’s Chief of General Staff reported that “Our opponent is not only Azerbaijan but also Turkey. Therefore, Armenia cannot effectively resist the military potential of those states. It is necessary to direct all the political and diplomatic potential to avoid or at least postpone a war.” This is a clear and open warning that Turkey is in the game more seriously than ever before.

After this, the July clashes of 2020 happened when Azerbaijan suffered a mini-military loss. Commenting on the events of 2020 July, Pashinyan said, “The Azerbaijani myth that its army can defeat the Armenian army, and thus Armenia and Artsakh should no longer have to make concessions. For a long time, we have been urging Azerbaijan not to talk with us from the positions of force, war-mongering and threat of use of force. We can now confidently say that Armenia has both rejected the threat of use of force on the diplomatic table and showed in the battlefield that those claims are unfounded and do not reflect the real balance of power”.

Then PM Pashinyan delivered a speech in quite a symbolic place and manner dedicated to the 2020 July fighting, where he presented several outcomes of that clash. He notably declared, “The victorious July battles proved the credibility of our political statements; they showed that our assessment of the military-political situation in the region and the balance of power was well-calculated and accurate”. He continues, “The victorious July battles demonstrated Armenia’s ability to meet its own security challenges on its own”; that Armenia has “an efficient and intelligent army with a decisive influence in the region.”

What was the rationale for organizing a big event and ceremony celebrating a very local victory? The small success was presented as a significant achievement. How is it possible to draw several ambitious and strategic outcomes based on low-scale and positional fighting, even though you won those battles? How can local and positional fighting judge the real balance of power? Pashinyan could say that “the Armenian army fulfilled the challenge it faced in July with success, thus increasing its combat effectiveness”. One can even claim that there was no need to publicize the event at all.

Arguably, this speech was not an attempt to delay the war as the Chief of General Staff had advised. If someone asks Pashinyan about his claim that Azerbaijan’s army cannot win the Armenian army, he will probably argue that Turkey supported Azerbaijan’s army in the recent war. Fair enough, but equally reasonable is the counterargument that he had the Chief of the General Staff report well before the 2020 July escalation, which proves that the balance of power was broken at least by June 2020. Importantly, several months after the war, the same Chief of the General Staff and 40 other high-level officers of the armed forces demanded the Pashinyan administration’s resignation, criticizing its foreign and domestic policies.

Beliefs are important constructs of an individual’s mental model. Pashinyan believed that the balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan by 2020 July was in place. This belief was affected and shaped by the July battles and its result, which in Pashinyan’s cognitions was a viable indicator of the conflicting parties’ real capacities. Pashinyan’s memory probably lacked Turkey’s years-long assistance to Azerbaijan.

But what about the report of the Chief of General Staff? Did he forget about this report? Still, this raises some suspicions about his sense of reality. The 2020 Artsakh War showed that the belief about power balance was misleading. As one commentator observed, the Karabakh “conflict continues to illustrate the gap between political leaders’ perceptions and military reality.” Furthermore, Armenia’s second president Robert Kocharyan insisted that Armenia had provoked the border incident in 2020 July. Pashinyan did not deny that Armenia had taken the path of aggravating the situation.

Although people are considered rational actors, their rationality is always limited. People, including politicians, live in bounded rationality—“behavior that is adaptive within the constraints imposed both by the external situation and by the capacities of the decision maker”[7]. In other words, people cannot know everything, think about everything and understand everything, including themselves. Bounded rationality tells that Pashinyan could not know the true aims of Azerbaijan. Misperceptions and heuristics led to Pashinyan’s overconfidence during the post-2020 July speeches, which, in a sense, could be regarded as a provocation in Baku or at least irritate it.

Another problem with the official analysis and assessments regarding the 2020 July escalation is that Armenia was able to confront Azerbaijan on the battlefield and will in the future also be able to do so if they fight one on one. I speculate it was misconceiving in a sense that Azerbaijan did not concentrate all its efforts in those clashes, letting it be a very local clash so as (a) to give a bait to the enemy and (a) not to instigate an all-out war with a possible interference of Russia/CSTO. Probably, Azerbaijan, calculating the realities on and around the conflict, chose not to respond heavily for a chance of starting an all-out war with Armenia per se. It is highly possible that Aliyev did so later to blame Pashinyan for provocation.

Pashinyan on a par with Aliyev?

All this happened after the September 2018 meeting in Dushanbe between Pashinyan and Aliyev (this was their first talk), where they agreed to establish a direct communication line and reduce borderline tensions. Reaching such an agreement usually takes some trust and compromise. (Theoretically, the deal could have been achieved without compromise: one party asked to observe the ceasefire regime, the other one agreed either for the sake of gaining trust or for other unknown reasons, e.g., negotiation gambit). According to Pashinyan, Aliyev asked him to stop talking about the lack of democracy in Azerbaijan in return for the ceasefire regime to be respected. Libaridian supported this, basing on his sources from Azerbaijan and adding that Pashinyan asked Aliyev to observe the ceasefire, while the latter agreed. Libaridian continues, “Probably, Aliyev said something like “Ok, we will do it, but the essence of the [Karabakh] issue must be discussed”, and Pashinyan said something in the spirit, “Ok, but give me time.” And after this, to state that “Artsakh is Armenia”, “new war for new territories” is not a constructive move. Instead, it was provocative and damaged not only the personal trust of Aliyev towards Pashinyan but also the negotiation process. Put it very simply, “If Artsakh is Armenia, then what to negotiate.”

Understandably, this statement was also directed to the internal audience, given the accusations mentioned above by political opposition to the address of Pashinyan that he is not a hardliner. The essence of short-sightedness is that by paying tribute to those accusations and trying to prove the opposite, Pashinyan made dangerous and uncalculated statements and steps.

Look at Armenia’s statements from the eyes of Aliyev. He has never hidden his readiness to use force, while Armenia’s new authorities at some point started to use aggressive and arrogant statements. Aliyev could simply think, “Well, Armenia, you think that if a new war starts, you will seize new territories; you announce that Artsakh is Armenia; you think that your little success in the July 2020 clashes means you are ready to wage a large-scale war with us; fine, you will see what we can do.”

All the actions and moves by Armenia’s government cannot be considered steps to avoid the war. Instead, one can opine that they aggravated the situation and brought the war closer. In the very least, for Azerbaijan those statements served as a legitimizing ground to start the war, which is Armenia’s diplomatic failure. Later Aliyev would blame Pashinyan for provoking Azerbaijan—both military and diplomatically—as he implicitly legitimized launching the latest war against Karabakh. The international context was also conducive to Azerbaijan to start the war—this meaning competition between Turkey and Russia, Western sanctions against Russia, post-election political crisis in Belarus, the pre-election United States, disagreements and management crisis in the European Union and NATO as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.


Nikol Pashinyan and his team are often accused of unwise and shortsighted diplomacy, which triggered the war. An important counterargument is that Azerbaijan had calculated that if Armenia continues its intensive armament strategy and makes its army stronger, it can bring the balance of power back, although it had been broken during recent years. Moreover, Armenia has officially adopted several plans to modernize and develop its army, procure large-scale arms and military equipment for the period of 2018-2024. Therefore, using the conducive geopolitical atmosphere, Azerbaijan initiated the war in 2020, not leaving it to another year, when chances to win might be less realistic. No doubt, Baku had been preparing for this war for quite a long time.

Two factors stand out: (a) Aliyev’s readiness to solve the conflict by force and (b) and his extensive military procurement. Aliyev assured himself that he could solve the conflict by force, of which he had started to talk long ago, such as immediately after the failed Kazan talks. Given his extensive military procurement and Turkey’s explicit support, including militarily, the possible war shouldn’t have been excluded in the minds of Armenia’s military-political leadership. In February 2019, Aliyev said that “the might is right” principle currently prevails in world politics, and Azerbaijan must be ready for this reality. Once again, Aliyev asserted that if negotiations break down, Azerbaijan will not hesitate to use force.

In the past, Aliyev lambasted the OSCE Minsk Group, particularly right before the 2016 “Four-Day War” and the 2020 “44-Day War”. Thus, Aliyev accused Minsk Group Co-Chairs of freezing the Karabakh conflict and using double standards in February 2016, charged the troika of “freezing the conflict instead of resolving it” just days before the Four-Day War. Notably, the Minsk Group’s mandate is to facilitate the peace process to find solutions for the conflict but not to resolve it, as incorrectly argued by Aliyev. On July 6, 2020, he also qualified the peace process under the aegis of Minsk Group as “meaningless”, while charging the Co-Chairs of that the conflict had been dragging for so long. Seemingly, by these statements, Azerbaijan informed Armenia that the war is looming large and it would be sooner rather than later.

What was the role of Nikol Pashinyan in this drama? Pashinyan’s policy was not the reason for the war, nor was it the result. Did he incite the war? I insist that he indirectly brought the war closer by his diplomacy. Why publicly adopt the “new war for new territories” formula when you are at the beginning of the mentioned plans? Why did the Armenian authorities assure the public that if a new war starts, new territories will be taken, when they knew the modernization of the army had just begun? It was utterly unnecessary and inefficient to enter into a dangerous war of words. Armenia’s authorities knew that Armenia was beginning the long road of reforming and strengthening its army. Why not wait for the year 2024 to have a more powerful and modernized army and then be more confident? Furthermore, despite the balance of power (including military) has been broken between Armenia and Azerbaijan during the recent years and in spite of the success of the July 2020 clashes, Armenia’s leadership had to be hyper-careful in its statements and actions so as not to incite a military conflict. In other words, Armenia’s military-political leadership had to have a realistic and unemotional evaluation of where the country stands in terms of power relations. However, as the above discussion shows, Pashinyan’s administration, wittingly or unwittingly, instigated the 2020 war.

Aiming to solve the conflict by force, Aliyev used the conducive international environment as well as the shortsighted diplomacy of Nikol Pashinyan to wage the war, not leaving it for the years to come, when the balance of power could be restored. Arguably, Pashinyan’s unwise and emotional policy coincided with Aliyev’s decisiveness to solve the conflict by military means. Touching upon the origins of the war, Pashinyan claimed that the point for any event to take place in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had matured. This analysis argues that he wittingly or unwittingly facilitated that point to be matured.

  1. If otherwise not specified, whenever I use Armenia, it includes Artsakh as well
  2. Armenian name of the Karabakh.
  3. Hudson, V.M. Foreign policy analysis: classic and contemporary theory [2th edition]. Rowman & Littlefield. 2014. pp. 40-41.
  4. Ibid.
  5. McDermott, R. Political psychology in international relations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. p. 167.
  6. Davit Tonoyan’s statement could not be made without Pashinyan’s knowledge and permission; otherwise, Tonoyan would have been fired.
  7. Simon, H. Human nature in politics: the dialogue of psychology with political science. American Political Science Review. 1985. No. 79, 293-304. p. 294.

From our partner RIAC

Hovsep Kanadyan
Hovsep Kanadyan
MA in International Relations, Research Assistant, Manoogian Simone Research Fund, American University of Armenia


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