As Relations with Russia Falter, Armenia Tries Looking West
Author: Nicholas Castillo
Oct 31, 2023
What might be described as one of the central Armenian foreign policy objectives of the last 30 years, the protection of some kind of Armenian polity in Nagorno-Karabakh collapsed over the course of a single day in September. After barely 24 hours of fighting, the Armenian separatist administration of Karabakh agreed to Baku’s terms of complete political and military dissolution. Russia, Armenia’s primary security backer, despite having 2,000 peacekeeping troops on the ground in Karabakh, did little to nothing to halt the fighting. From the events that have followed since, it has become clear that Armenia views Russia as a passive and unreliable partner, leading Yerevan to look westward for support.
Russian-Armenian relations had already been in decline for some time. During the 2020 Armenian-Azerbaijani war, Russia and the Russian-backed Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) sat entirely on the sidelines as Armenia suffered substantial land losses in the Karabakh region and surrounding districts in Azerbaijan. Two years later, Azerbaijani attacks targeted land within Armenia’s intentionally recognized borders, killing over 100 Armenian soldiers. Armenia submitted formal requests for military assistance from its Russia-dominated Commonwealth Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) allies, given that the fighting was taking place within Armenian territory. Again, however, neither the CSTO nor Russia offered help in terms of arms or boots on the ground. Russian inaction during the war of 2020 and 2022 border conflict provoked outrage from Armenia. Prime Minister Pashinyan accused Russia of “absolute indifference” and called Armenia’s reliance on Russia a “strategic mistake.”
Armenia would go on to refuse to host CSTO exercises in January of 2023 and in March declined its turn to chair the organization. In September, little more than a week before the Azerbaijani military campaign against Karabakh separatists, Armenia refused to attend CSTO military training exercises in Belarus. An even more clear snub of Russia, as those CSTO exercises were taking place, Armenia announced it would hold limited military training exercises with American soldiers, the first of its kind. Later that month, Armenia announced it would begin providing Ukraine with humanitarian aid, leading Russian officials to accuse them of the “transfer of humanitarian aid to Kyiv’s Nazi regime.”
Russian unresponsiveness during the most recent round of fighting over Karabakh has sped Armenia’s drift away from Moscow. This October, despite Russian warnings to the contrary, Armenia ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, meaning that if President Vladimir Putin were to arrive on Armenian territory, he would fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC and be subject to arrest. The Kremlin described the move as “extremely hostile” to Russia. On October 13, Prime Minister Pashinyan also declined to attend the recent summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States, another Moscow-backed intergovernmental organization, held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. During an October interview with the Wall Street Journal, Pashinyan blamed Russian peacekeepers for the exodus of Armenians from Karabakh and stated that he is now looking to “diversify” Armenia’s foreign policy.
The war in Ukraine appears to be distracting Moscow, which could well be a key factor in the decline of relations between Armenia and Russia. Since 2022, Armenia has complained of delayed arms shipments from Russia, likely due to those arms being diverted for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Already bogged down in Ukraine, it is unlikely that Moscow would have the capability to take on another war in the Caucasus. Russia’s apathy towards Armenia might also be due to personal dislike between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pashinyan, frustration towards the Armenian and Karabakh leaderships, or that Moscow chose to support the stronger and wealthier Azerbaijan as the inevitable future center of gravity in the South Caucasus. Perhaps the most likely explanation is simply that while Moscow was initially happy to station troops in Armenia and reinforce its influence in the region, it was never willing to back its partner militarily in what one Russian official once termed, “military adventures in foreign, Azeri, lands.”
With Armenia apparently breaking from Moscow’s absolute influence, it seems that Yerevan has already begun to look westward. In addition to early signs – including military drills with U.S. troops and ICC accession, Pashinyan recently delivered a speech to the European parliament, laying out his desire for greater EU cooperation and going to great lengths to describe Armenia as a struggling democracy. Such rhetoric in the past has proven effective in increasing Western support to countries like Ukraine and Georgia. In a likely reference to Russia, Pashinyan also critiqued the lack of action by “countries having bilateral security obligations to Armenia.”
While neighboring Georgia offered to mediate talks between Baku and Yerevan, Armenia’s lack of response to Tbilisi’s offer might indicate that Yerevan would prefer to keep Europe as a more powerful center of diplomatic efforts. European countries in the EU have been meaningful diplomatic actors throughout the conflict, with EU President Charles Michael taking on an active role in negotiations. The EU already has a presence on the ground in Karabakh, operating observer missions within the territory since 2020. France, a country long sympathetic to Armenia, looks as if it is eager to improve ties and become a more active security partner, making several pro-Armenian comments in relation to Karabakh and recently announcing it would begin providing military equipment to Armenia.
In addition to the Europeans, the United States has also stepped-up diplomatic involvement with Armenia. In addition to the previously mentioned joint U.S.-Armenia military exercises, U.S. figures have made high-profile visits to Armenia, including former Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi in 2022 and United States Agency for International Development head Samantha Power in 2023.
However, the degree to which Armenia will be able to align with the Western block should not be overestimated. Dependent upon Moscow for most of its trade, Armenia will likely not want to provoke the Kremlin too much, and Armenian officials are already making it clear that Yerevan will not attempt to join NATO and will remain within organizations like the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union. Apart from France, which has longstanding cultural ties and sympathies with Armenia, it appears unlikely that there will be heavy Western military support for Armenia. Armenia continues to host two Russian military bases as well as a Russian peacekeeping force, which makes it unlikely that Yerevan would welcome different military forces and further strain tensions with Moscow. While Prime Minister Pashinyan recently commented that Armenians “have not seen the advantages” of these bases, he also stated that the withdrawal of these bases is not currently being discussed, showing it is unclear if Yerevan is able or willing to evict Russian forces. It is likewise unlikely that Russia would give up its bases in Armenia. Despite its lack of responsiveness to the Karabakh conflict, it seems reasonable to assume that Moscow would seek to maintain its long-term military presence, investment, and influence in the former Soviet Republic.
Moreover, the degree to which the West is interested in becoming an Armenian security partner is not clear. France is the only country in Europe or North America so far to offer tangible military assistance, while Washington has largely maintained a purely diplomatic role, apart from isolated training exercises. The United States and its allies now find themselves effectively supporting two separate major war efforts, one in Ukraine and one in Israel/Palestine, and would seem an unlikely source of military aid to Yerevan. Further, in the South Caucasus, the United States has a track record of only offering limited assistance, such as Partnership for Peace security training. Georgia courted Washington’s attention and support for years, even participating in the Iraq War’s “Coalition of the Willing.” Yet during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, the United States condemned Russian aggression but stopped short of enhancing its security assistance for Tbilisi.
The de-coupling of Russia from European energy markets since the war in Ukraine further decreases the likelihood of Western military support for Armenia. It is possible that Azerbaijan will become an important source of oil and gas for European countries that might not wish to upset Baku.
While a Russian official recently warned of Armenia becoming “Ukraine number 3,” a full split between Yerevan and Moscow is unlikely. Armenia is too intertwined with Russia economically, politically, and militarily, to switch associations entirely. What is most likely to play out in Armenia in the coming years is something similar to what has grown in Central Asia since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine: a multi-vector foreign policy. Western countries, especially European states, will likely play an increasing role in Armenian foreign policy. But Russia will likely remain an important factor for Armenia, even as anger mounts against Moscow.