The Caspian Region’s Reactions to the Current Russo-Ukrainian War, a Series: Armenia
The crisis in Ukraine brought recent Armenian foreign policy to a near breaking point with Russia. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia has sought assistance from foreign powers to make up for its lack of economic leverage over neighbors Türkiye and Azerbaijan. As long as the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been disputed, and Armenia’s military strength is challenged by Azerbaijan, Armenia has relied on relations with neighboring countries like Russia for support. While dependence on Russia has not been looked upon favorably during this crisis, Armenia’s geographical position situated between Armenia and Türkiye has historically pushed it into a strong relationship with Moscow. With Russia as their main trade partner and guarantor of security, Armenia must generally act in accordance with Russian foreign policy, despite any internal or external pressures that might direct Yerevan elsewhere. However, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has pressured Armenia to question the security of its relationship with Russia.
Although insecurity is growing in their relations, Armenia has been given little leeway in its response to Russia’s aggression. This is because after the 2020 ceasefire agreement, Armenia’s security has relied on Russian peacekeepers, including the reported 5,000 Russian troops stationed at the 102nd military base near Gyumri in Armenia and the 2,000 Russian troops who supervise the Karabakh region. To add more imbalance, Armenia’s membership in the Russian-led military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), leaves it vulnerable to international isolation and further pushes the state to comply with the Russian security strategy. Therefore, Yerevan's security reliance on Russia has restricted Yerevan’s diplomatic balance and alternative partnerships, and Armenia must be careful in its response to the Ukraine crisis.
Armenia has maintained careful diplomacy in the face of Western pressure to restrict Russian influence. In March, Armenia was one of the 35 countries to abstain from voting in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution calling for Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. And, again, in April, Armenia declined to vote in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on the suspension of Russia’s UN membership, after UNGA cited reports of “gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights” in Ukraine. However, Armenia was also the only country in the CSTO that did not vocally express disapproval of the UN vote, opting for self-proclaimed neutrality. In response to criticism of Armenia’s careful diplomacy with Russia, a Yerevan lawmaker, Aram Vartevanian, argued “…the necessity of maintaining Russian support. “As you know, we have reached a point where it is the Russian peacekeepers in Artsakh (Karabakh) that guarantee the security of Artsakh Armenians …. So I don’t understand the reasons for Armenia’s behavior.”
Despite international pressure for Armenia to condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine, Armenia’s initial response to the war was neutrality and quiet compliance. However, after the weakness in Russia’s war strategy became evident, to hinder Russian leverage in the Caucasus Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan began easing relations with Türkiye and Azerbaijan. In July, Armenian and Turkish authorities announced the normalization of border relations, opening up their borders for the first time in 30 years. And, Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev met several times to discuss a possible peace agreement, going so far as accepting Azerbaijan's claim to Nagorno-Karabakh. And earlier in the year, Pashinyan and Aliyev agreed to establish a transportation link, and the states’ Foreign Ministers, Mirzoyan and Bayramov, agreed to create a mechanism to support border delimitation. However, Pashinyan’s willingness to normalize regional relations was met with opposition from parliament and by Karabakh officials who feared concessions would encroach upon Armenia’s territorial integrity. Therefore, heightened tensions internally have further limited Armenia’s ability to condemn Russian aggression and facilitate diplomatic relations with its neighbors.
In addition to governmental disapproval of Russian condemnation is Armenia’s economic reliance on Russia. Since 2014, Armenia has participated as a member in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), an economic cooperation agreement between Russia and Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. As a close political and economic ally of Russia, Armenia’s economy is heavily dependent on joint trade and investments. In 2021, the World Bank reported that over 40 percent of Armenia’s “net foreign direct investment stock was associated with Russian entities.” With Russia’s economy waning due to its costly invasion of Ukraine, Armenia’s economy will undoubtedly feel the blow.
In April, the World Bank released a report stating that “the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Armenia’s economy is likely to be significantly negative, although the magnitude remains uncertain.” The 2022 Armenian economic growth forecast is set to drop from 5.3 to 1.2 percent.
Although Yerevan currently does not hold a free-trade agreement with the EU, Armenia could choose to proceed by turning to the West for support. Otherwise, Yerevan’s economic relationship with Russia now could “parallel” its continued cooperation with Iran when the U.S. imposed sanctions in 2014. Armenia continued to trade with Iran and even signed a duty-free trade agreement within the EAEU in 2018.