Author: Soso Dzamukashvili, Contributing Researcher, Central and East European Studies Specialist
On September 19, Azerbaijan launched an attack against ethnic Armenian positions in Karabakh in what it called an “anti-terrorist operation” aimed at restoring constitutional order in the region. It demanded the separatists lay down their arms and disband. On September 21, as the Karabakh armed forces had been no match for the massive offensive launched by Azerbaijan, a new ceasefire agreement was reached, stipulating that the Armenian forces of Nagorno-Karabakh would completely disarm and leave the region. The document also signalled that the territory would return to Baku’s full control.
Although the Kremlin, the main broker of the three-decade-long conflict and an ally of Armenia, had called on both sides to end the fighting, it sent strikingly critical messages toward Yerevan and blamed it for bringing about the situation by itself. Former Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev stated that Armenia’s “mediocre defeat” was caused by Pashinyan’s swinging foreign policy, distancing from Russia, and “flirting” with NATO, and even his recent attempts to support Ukraine.
Indeed, Russia-Armenia relations are witnessing an unprecedented decline, with Moscow having largely failed to provide military support for Yerevan during its deadly clashes with Azerbaijan. As a result, the Armenian government and society no longer consider Moscow a reliable ally, and have instead started to look towards the West. Pashinyan’s recent statement that the position of its allies, i.e. Russia and the CSTO, “jeopardize not only external but also internal security and stability, and also violate all norms of etiquette and correctness in diplomatic and interstate relations” shows that Yerevan might be looking away from Russia. While the Prime Minister did not name any country in particular, it is clear that he was referring to Russia, which is Armenia’s only strategic ally. This article analyses what lies behind the declining relationship between Armenia and Russia, and discusses whether Armenia’s future foreign policy is actually changing.
Allies with no substance
Armenia’s frustration towards Moscow stems from the 2020 Karabakh War, where Russia stepped in as a mediator for a ceasefire agreement only after Baku had regained control over most of the territories of Karabakh. Russia’s war against Ukraine further deteriorated Yerevan’s trust in Moscow, as Baku took advantage of Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine and launched a series of cross-border attacks against Armenia in September 2022. Pashinyan’s appeal to Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) for military aid was ignored, leading to a significant growth of anti-Russian sentiment in Armenia, and pushing Yerevan to look for aid westward. Constantly pressured by Baku, Pashinyan showed his readiness to conclude a peace treaty and recognize the Karabakh region as part of neighbouring Azerbaijan under certain conditions of guaranteeing the rights and security of ethnic Armenians living in the region. However, for Moscow, sustainable peace would have meant confirmation of Azerbaijan’s full sovereignty over the Karabakh region, thus leading to the need to withdraw its troops from the Karabakh region and even its military base and border troops from Armenia itself – the Kremlin’s main military leverage in the region. However, since the beginning of its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s policy has become inconsistent and more short-term oriented due to international sanctions and the isolation of its transit routes. As such, Russia’s interests have become more aligned with Azerbaijan’s than Armenia’s, as the former holds a key position in supporting Russia’s expansion of the International North-South Transport Corridor to the Persian Gulf, a strategic transit corridor for Russia.
In parallel, Russia disapproves of Pashinyan’s government, which toppled the pro-Russian kleptocratic old guard after the “Velvet Revolution”. While at first the Kremlin tolerated the “incumbent,” as it claimed not to have a geopolitical agenda, when Armenia said it was ready to make peace with Azerbaijan, Russia allowed Baku to pressure Yerevan and constantly put it in a losing position, clearly hoping that the Armenian population, which is extremely sensitive about Armenia’s loss in Karabakh, would mobilise against Pashinyan and eventually overthrow him. If the current cabinet changes, there is some possibility that the need for Russia’s involvement to keep peace in the region will once again appear on the table. Despite that, while some segments of Armenian society are already demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Pashinyan amid Armenia’s inaction during the Karabakh clashes, the public attitude toward Russia in Armenia has shown a dramatic decline. According to polls conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), while 93 per cent of Armenians in 2019 considered relations with Russia to be “good”, only 50 per cent has such an opinion this year.
Shifting foreign policy?
In line with its frustration towards Moscow, Armenia has gradually been deepening its ties with the West. Since the tensions with Azerbaijan in September 2022, Armenia has taken pivotal steps to distance itself from the CSTO. In November 2022, Pashinyan refused to sign a declaration on the results of a CSTO summit in Yerevan, as the allies had not given a “clear political assessment” of Azerbaijan’s alleged September attack on Armenian territory. In early 2023, the Armenian government went even further and decided to refuse to host a CSTO military exercise. While the official narrative explained the move as related to security concerns, stating that Azerbaijan and Türkiye could deem the military drills provocative, the real reason was Yerevan’s overall disapproval of the CSTO. As a final blow, Yerevan renounced its right to take part in the bloc’s leadership rotation.
Yerevan’s diplomatic moves and statements indeed demonstrate that Armenia is trying to change its allegiances. In early September this year, Pashinyan openly said that betting on Russia for its security has been a “strategic mistake.” At the same time, Armenia’s constitutional court cleared the ratification of the International Criminal Court (ICC) after it issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for his role in the war crimes in Ukraine. If approved, it would require Yerevan to arrest Putin if he visits his official ally. Moscow reacted swiftly, with harsh warnings of “extremely negative” consequences for Yerevan. Consequently, the Kremlin banned dairy imports from Armenia, ostensibly for some newly discovered health and safety concerns, just as it banned wine products from Georgia in 2006. Armenia’s 2022 dairy exports to Russia totalled around 30 million USD, an important source of income for rural Armenians. Nevertheless, Pashinyan’s government formally requested the ratification of the ICC treaty by parliament on September 1. In another annoying move for the Kremlin, the Armenian envoy to the CSTO was recalled on September 5 and reassigned to the Netherlands, where the ICC is headquartered.
Armenia is slowly but steadily sharpening its rhetoric and diplomatic activities regarding Russia. With Moscow choosing to accept Azerbaijan’s position vis-à-vis Armenia and issues concerning Nagorno-Karabakh, it means that Armenia has nothing to lose. With Armenian de facto rule over Nagorno-Karabakh having come to an end, there is an opportunity for the country to break away from Russia and diversify its partnerships. Armenia refused to allow a CSTO military exercise on its territory, and, from September 10 to 11, it hosted Eagle Partner 2023 – a joint military exercise with American troops. The Armenian government also decided to provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine for the first time since Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobian, personally participated in a summit in Kyiv and delivered the aid.
Even though Armenia’s foreign policy seems to be shifting, it largely depends on the resolution of differences with Azerbaijan. There are issues remaining from the 2020 Ceasefire Agreement that have yet to be resolved, such as border demarcation and delimitation, the implementation of the so-called Zangezur Corridor linking Azerbaijan to its exclave Nakhchivan via Armenia, and a treaty that will guarantee a sustainable peace between the two neighbours. In this regard, the West’s active involvement is crucial. The US and EU have been actively trying to act as mediators in talks on the conclusion of a treaty between the two countries. In July’s meeting between Pashinyan and Aliyev, mediated by Charles Michel, it was agreed to hold another meeting in Brussels this autumn. On October 5, the two leaders were also expected to gather in Granada, Spain, on the sidelines of the 3rd European Political Community Summit. However, on October 3, Aliyev refused to participate in the meeting. The reason official reason was “pro-Armenian statements by French officials”, as well as the disagreement of Paris and Berlin about the participation of Türkiye in the meeting. it is yet to be seen whether future meetings mediated by the West will be held successfully and how efficient they will be and whether they will be a step towards the negotiation of a peace deal.
Despite Armenia’s critical rhetoric towards Moscow, it remains rather difficult to forecast drastic changes in Armenia’s foreign policy, as Yerevan remains overwhelmingly dependent on Russia. The country is currently hosting around 10,000 Russian troops and a military base in the town of Gyumri. Russian border troops also oversee the Armenia-Türkiye and Armenia-Iran borders, and have been deployed more recently to sections of the Azerbaijan border in response to tensions there. Russia is also Armenia’s biggest trade partner by far, and Yerevan’s economic dependence on Moscow has only grown since the start of the Ukraine war. However, the Armenian government has demonstrated that it is not going to bandwagon Russia anymore but rather is entering a new phase in its foreign policy, with a strong willingness to diversify its foreign partners and decrease its overdependence on Moscow. Armenia’s recent manoeuvres, despite harsh reactions from Moscow, such as its distancing from CSTO, deciding to ratify the ICC Roman Statute, holding military drills with the US and sending aid to Ukraine for the first time, showcase that Yerevan is boldly trying to depart from being a Russian hostage and to create sustainable partnerships elsewhere.