Author: Vasil Ghlonti, international security expert, intelligence analyst
On December 8, 2022, at the initiative of the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan, the Foreign Intelligence Service was created, separated from the Security Service of the country and formed as a standalone structural unit. Since then, the Armenian intelligence has been under the direct subordination of the Prime Minister of the country, and is accountable to him. The former ombudsman Christina Grigorian was appointed as the first head of this agency on October 4, 2023, an appointment that was met with some outcry in Armenia. Yet, the personnel policy conducted by Prime Minister Pashinyan within the special services of Armenia was of great interest even before this event, seeing the Security Service of Armenia changing chiefs several times in just a short period. What has caused such fluctuations and instability in those special services in recent years? Why did Nikol Pashinyan decide to reform the security sector and establish a foreign intelligence service? The purpose of our article is to analyze and determine exactly this.
The Special Services of Armenia,2018-2023
With Nikol Pashinyan encountering a plethora of systemic issues in the field of security after taking on the role of Prime Minister in 2019, the need to solve the issue quickly arose. It is worth noting that, despite his pro-Western views, he appointed to the vacant position of security service head a graduate of the Academy of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Artur Vanetsian, a professional counterintelligence officer. It likely that with this move, Pashinyan sought not to irritate Russia and chose a candidate that would be acceptable to the Kremlin. However, the resulting cooperation between them was unsuccessful, not least due to the “eavesdropping” scandal and the distribution of an illegal recording, whereupon unidentified persons recorded a conversation between Artur Vanetsian and the head of the Special Investigation Service Sasun Khachatrian. This fact greatly upset PM Pashinyan, who accused Vanetsian of making the recording and dismissed him from his post.
In 2020, Eduard Martirosyan replaced Artur Vanetsianas the head of the Security Service of Armenia. Despite Martirosyan’s special analytical education received in the USA, Pashinyan kept him in this position only until June of the same year, and then transferred him to head the country’s nuclear power plant. It is possible that the prime minister made this decision under pressure from the Kremlin, which is traditionally suspicious of people educated in the West. Argishti Kyaramian was appointed as the new head of security, but he, like his predecessor, was dismissed within a few months and moved to another position. Allegedly, Kyaramian, a cadre of the police and prosecutor’s office, was dismissed due to his lack of experience in the field of special services.
Another interesting fact catches our attention in this regard: On November 17, 2020, Giorgi Kutoyan, the former head of the Security Service of Armenia, who left his position in 2018, right before Nikol Pashinyan came to power, was found dead in his home under suspicious circumstances. Kutoyan, along with the education he received in Russia, also had an American education, and in 2020 was continuing his studies at Cambridge University in Great Britain. It is conceivable that Kutoyan, having access toserious information and boasting pro-Western views, was an person of risk for the Russian special services.
Interestingly, Mikheil Ambartsumian, appointed as the acting head of the Security Service of Armenia in October 2020, following tradition, resigned in November of the same year. The deterioration of relations between Pashinyan and Ambartsumianwas likely a result of their differing views on Karabakh, later followed by criticism from the former security service head directed at Pashinyan. General Armen Abazian, who completed his military service in the border troops of the Russian FSB, and who is considered a “Lubianki” cadre, was appointed as the head of the Security Service of Armenia on June 8, 2020. It is believed that the Kremlin played a significant role in this appointment.
In our estimation, such a frequent change of the heads of the Security Service of Armenia is due to the fact that NikolPashinyan found himself unable to find a reliable candidate amidthe complex processes unfolding in Karabakh throughout 2020. Presumably, the pro-Western Prime Minister of Armenia is under great pressure from Moscow, and his personnel policy in the law enforcement bloc and special services corroborates this assumption. In such a difficult situation, it is logical that Pashinyan decided to carry out reforms within the Special Services, as he understands very well that only by creating a modern type of special services, one acting directly under his control, can a strong government be established in the country.
The announcement of the Secretary of the Security Council of Armenia, Armen Grigorian, on July 12, 2022, on the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Armenia, came at the direct instruction of the Prime Minister. Our attention is drawn to the fact that a few days after this statement was made, on July 15, the head of the US Central Intelligence Agency William Burns paid an unplanned visit to Yerevan. This was followed,on July 18, by the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Narishkin visiting Yerevan, and on December 16 of the same year, Richard Moore, head of the British intelligence service Mi-6, also went to Yerevan. The visit of the British intelligence chief was preceded by official confirmation on the creation of a foreign intelligence service by the Armenian government at the beginning of that month.
Against this background, on the order of Nikol Pashinyan, on October 4, 2023, a former ombudsman with pro-Western views and experience of working in the Council of Europe, Christina Grigorian, was appointed as the first head of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Armenia. The political forces opposed to Pashinyan and the mass media related to them pointed to Grigorian’s lack of experience in the field of intelligence and, therefore, her unsuitability for the role. In the pro-Russian media,there were also suggestions that her appointment was facilitated by the ambassadors of Western countries accredited to Armenia, with special emphasis placed on the support provided by Great Britain. Yet, it seems that by creating a foreign intelligence service and appointing a reliable person as its head, Nikol Pashinyan wants to balance the influence of the Security Service of Armenia, which he still cannot yet fully control.
Interestingly, according to the decision made at the government meeting on November 23, 2023, 8.45 million Armenian dram, which is equivalent to about 20,000 US dollars, was allocated to the Foreign Intelligence Service of Armenia for its initial expenses. It is noteworthy that the day after this meeting, on November 24, the head of the German intelligence service Bruno Kahl visited Yerevan.
In our opinion, along with the Americans, British, Russians, and Germans, the French special services are also interested in the ongoing processes in Armenia, a fact confirmed by the sending of eight French gendarmes to the EU Monitoring Mission opened in Syunik district on the French initiative. It is plausible that France, with its numerous and quite influential Armenian diaspora, will establish close ties with the newly created Foreign Intelligence Service of Armenia in the future. French-Armenian cooperation in military procurement confirms that Paris is particularly interest in the field of defense and security of Armenia. Based on the good relations between Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Macron, further strengthening of political-economic and military ties between the two countries is expected.
In all likelihood, such a special interest from such influential countries in the newly established Foreign Intelligence Service of Armenia resulted from the Armenian diaspora, or “spurk“. Armenians have huge intelligence gathering potential, as they have a large and rich diaspora spread throughout many countries of the world. In addition, the Armenian diaspora actively participates in international business, which makes it even more attractive in terms of that intelligence. It is thus conceivable that the Iranian special services will also become actively interested in Armenian intelligence capabilities in the near future.
The review and analysis of what has been taking place within the Special Services of Armenia in recent years gives us the opportunity to draw certain conclusions. In particular: