Armenia between Russia and the West
Senior Fellow on Foreign Policy, APRI Armenia
The war in Ukraine has significantly impacted the geopolitics of the former Soviet space. As Russia – West relations have hit the lowest point since the end of the Cold War, or perhaps even since the Caribbean nuclear crisis of 1962, the newly independent states face tough choices in their foreign policy. Can they find a balance between Russia and the West, and if not, should they choose Russia or the West? It seemed that this conundrum should not apply to Armenia. The country is a member of all Russian-led organizations in the post-Soviet space – Collective Security Treaty Organization, Eurasian Economic Union, and Armenia hosts a Russian military base and Russian border troops. Thus, many may argue that Armenia has already chosen to be with Russia, and the war in Ukraine would complicate Armenian efforts to develop relations with the West, which Yerevan has done quite successfully in the last three decades; the efficient partnership with NATO through the signature of Individual Partnership Action Plans, the Comprehensive and Enhanced partnership with Europe, and the developing relations with the US, France, Greece, Cyprus.
However, since the change of the government in Armenia as a result of the "2018 Velvet Revolution", the relations with Russia have started to deteriorate. It began with a criminal investigation against incumbent CSTO Secretary–General Yuri Khachaturov and big Russian companies operating in Armenia. Relations went further down after the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war, when Azerbaijan attacked Armenia in 2021 and 2022, and Russia and CSTO did not take any tangible steps to push Azerbaijani troops out of Armenian territory. Another reason behind negative trends in Armenia-Russia relations was the efforts of the Armenian government to shift the blame for the catastrophic results of the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war, and Russia became one of the targets.
The situation became more complex as the EU and the US increased their involvement in the Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiation process in 2022 – 2023, launching Brussels and Washington platforms. Several agreements were reached at these platforms, including recognition of each other's territorial integrity within 1991 borders. After the September 2022 attack against Armenia, Yerevan rejected CSTO's offer to deploy monitors along Armenia – Azerbaijan borders, instead inviting EU observers. Meanwhile, Armenia started to avoid summits of CIS and CSTO countries, including recent ones in Bishkek and Minsk, while expressing its readiness to sign a peace agreement in Brussels, Washington, or any other Western capital.
All these developments fostered discussions about Armenia's possible decision to leave CSTO and, generally, to make a U-turn in its foreign policy. The Armenian government and Prime Minister Pashinyan have reiterated many times that, as of now, Armenia has no intention to leave the CSTO or EUEA or start the process of the withdrawal of the Russian military base from Armenia. However, the term "as of now" contributes to the discussions that Armenia is preparing such a move and is just waiting for the right time to start the process. Meanwhile, after the military takeover of Nagorno Karabakh in September 2023, Azerbaijan froze its participation in the Western platforms of negotiations, accusing them of being biased and pro-Armenian. Instead, Baku offers to use the Russian platform, 3+2 format, or direct negotiations without any mediators. Simultaneously, Azerbaijan messages Russia and Iran that it is ready to solve the regional platforms with regional powers, similar to the Russian and Iranian approach. At the same time, according to Baku, Armenia acts as a spoiler, seeking to bring more US and EU into the region, acting against Russian and Iranian interests.
Thus, Armenia is slowly becoming another arena of Russia – West confrontation. The EU and the US have increased their presence and support to Armenia. Currently, they are discussing a joint plan to support Armenia. One of the reasons for this policy is the feeling in the West that it failed to prevent the military takeover of Nagorno Karabakh by Azerbaijan, and the Western support should at least partly compensate for the loss of Nagorno Karabakh. Another reason is the West's hope that Armenia strategically has chosen to distance itself from Russia, and the West should support Armenia to facilitate this process, which is in line with the West's strategic interest in decreasing Russian influence in the South Caucasus.
However, Armenia should be cautious in its foreign policy decisions. Despite the Ukraine war, Russia remains a strong player in the region. The destruction of Nagorno Karabakh and kicking out all Armenians from the region was a severe blow to Russian interests in the South Caucasus, as Nagorno Karabakh was significant leverage for Russia to influence Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, even without Armenian presence in the Nagorno Karabakh, it is too early to speak about Russian withdrawal from the region. Besides Russia, other regional powers, such as Iran and Turkey, are not interested in seeing the growth of Western involvement and influence in the region. Armenia should avoid becoming a "spoiler" for regional powers. It will provide Azerbaijan a new window of opportunity to attack Armenia in 2024, to "liberate enclaves," or to open the route to Nakhijevan. The freeze in the negotiation process is also dangerous for Armenia, as, again, it may open the path for new attacks by Azerbaijan. As the war continues in Ukraine without any apparent end, Armenia should stop creating a perception that it is ready to become another anti-Russian hotspot in the post-Soviet state or a springboard for Western influence. The better choice would be to continue contact with Russia while being frank with the Western partners - Armenia cannot afford to be part of this "Good Guys vs Bad Guys" game, positioning itself as part of the Good West against Bad Russia, Iran, and China. Given growing threats to the existence of Armenia as a state, Armenian policy should be "pro-survival," and jumping into the West – vs Russia fight will not contribute to the survival of Armenia.
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