An Armenian-Russian split? Armenia’s new foreign policy and reorientation abroad9 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Politics, Russia

As Armenia still reels from its loss in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, its sense of continued betrayal by its Russian ally has led to a diversification in foreign policy with greater cooperation between India and the EU now on the table. But where will it lead?

“Armenia is not Russia’s ally in the Ukraine War,” Nikol Pashinyan said in a recent interview, sparking interest in which direction Armenia will go with its foreign policy. As a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Armenia used to be an especially close ally of the Russian Federation. The countries’ economic relations also demonstrate this closeness: Russia is Armenia’s top export destination, and in 2021, Russia stated that it was preparing to invest $1 billion into further developing the country’s infrastructure, adding to its commitment as the main energy supplier to Armenia.

However, even prior to Pashinyan’s declaration at the beginning of June, doubts had surfaced as to the validity of this pre-existing notion, with continuous downgrades in Armenia’s CSTO participation being the most striking development. To understand Armenia’s shifting positioning on the international stage, the recent developments in the region should be taken into account. In the preceding three years, two events have massively reshaped Armenia’s view of its ‘ally’: the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020 and its aftermath, and Russia’s aggressions against Ukraine which escalated with Russia’s all-out invasion in 2022.

The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War was the violent renewal of hostilities between Armenia and its long-time rival Azerbaijan, which, with the help of advanced weapon technologies and the element of surprise, managed to recapture territories previously lost in the first iteration of the conflict in the 1990s. The CSTO by and large kept a low profile during the conflict, which led to much dismay in the Armenian public.

Indeed, the expectation that Article 4 of the CSTO Treaty would be triggered to defend member states against outside aggression was erroneous. Following the war, skirmishes on the new ceasefire line propelled Armenia to seek military assistance from the CSTO in September 2022. However, the call for assistance was left unanswered despite Armenia having aided another treaty member, Kazakhstan, in putting down anti-government protests in 2021.

Armenia’s relation with the CSTO and Russia became even more strained after Azerbaijan commenced the blockade of the Lachin Corridor in December 2022. Despite calls for assistance, Russia neglected its ally in the CSTO. As a result, Armenian society experienced a profound sense of betrayal connected to Russia’s unwillingness to provide help in order to protect fellow Armenians living in symbolically sacred land. With Russia’s inability to supply Armenia with promised armaments, relations have only become more tense between the two countries as the former hegemon fails to maintain its role as a peacekeeper in the South Caucasus.

Armenia appears to have reached a point of sufficient dissatisfaction, and in January 2023 Pashinyan announced Armenia’s refusal to host the CSTO’s annual military drills later this year, expressing that such an event would be inappropriate. This stance was later matched by Armenia’s overt criticisms of the alliance and its refusal to accept the role of Deputy General Secretary within the CSTO in March.

Short-term possibilities for post-war Armenia

In the short-term, Armenia’s recent pivot towards alternative partners has yielded some interest from both Iran and India. It is therefore not surprising that neighbouring Iran is slowly playing a greater role in Armenia’s security strategy, a point that has been confirmed in recent talks between top security officials as tensions between Iran and Armenia’s rival, Azerbaijan, have come to the fore.

The recent intensification of contacts, on top of well established cultural and historical ties, has increased cooperation between the two nations and has led to more prolific use of the pro-Armenian term ‘Artsakh’ in Iran’s rhetoric. The symbolic significance of this rhetorical shift enables Armenia to leverage a small amount of international support over its claim on the contested region, despite overwhelming international recognition of Azerbaijan’s control over the area since the 1990s.

Despite this growing cooperation, based on the mutual rivalry both countries have with Azerbaijan and Turkey, the Armenian pivot towards Iran is merely a regional consequence. Armenia’s government has thus far restricted the reorientation of its foreign policy to its immediate neighbours. This regional diversification, however, is hardly sufficient to stabilise the country’s geopolitical position in the absence of meaningful Russian influence. Iran as a regional partner can only offer a limited scope of economic opportunities and security. Armenia therefore needs stronger allies outside of the region. 

To overcome these regional limitations, Armenia will need to either look westward towards nations that ultimately do not look favourably on Iran (thus moving Iran’s cooperation to the periphery) or look for other partners in the medium-term while fostering ties with other potential partners, which could satisfy Armenia’s long-term economic and security interests.

Medium-term alternatives

As a means of gradually moving away from the internationally isolated Iran, Armenia needs other stronger and more influential partners. It is in this context that India has recently become a more prominent player in the South Caucasus.

India has supplied Armenia, arguably its closest partner in the South Caucasus, with its own military equipment, such as radar systems worth $40 million, and has given political support for Armenia’s concerns about Karabakh. In return, India receives support in its expansion of influence to the Persian Gulf and Black Sea region along with support in its ongoing disputes with Pakistan (which coincidentally does not recognise Armenia as a sovereign nation). 

India aims to enhance its global footprint as a major player on the international stage, in a strategy akin to the Belt and Road Initiative launched by China, seeking new partners on its periphery to increase its influence in the light of growing regional competition with Pakistan and China. From the perspective of Delhi, Armenia provides a promising starting point, which opens up potential markets for Indian goods and services.

In April 2023, India and Iran joined Armenia in a new format for trilateral discussions concerning an enhanced partnership on geo-economic and security affairs. Armenia’s initiative to bring these countries together is a bold move given their contrasting reputations on the international stage, but highlights the way in which Armenia will transition from its short-term options to medium-term alternatives. India is a less contentious partner for Armenia than its southern neighbour, which will make westward overtures more feasible in the long-term. 

In the medium-term therefore, Armenia will likely gravitate towards greater cooperation with India as opposed to Iran. India provides a strong economy and military to ensure that Armenia can sustain itself and develop in these areas as it weighs the pros and cons of a fully-fledged transition to a long-term solution in the shape of Western cooperation.

Long-term solutions

One of the goals of Armenia’s foreign policy is the acknowledgement of the country’s position and interests by the international community. Armenia’s recent experience showed that Russia does not necessarily help Armenia to maintain its interests and obtain its goals. Consequently, Armenia may need to become more pragmatic in its foreign policy outlook and decisions.

Recent dynamics in Armenia’s relation with its neighbouring rivals Turkey and Azerbaijan serve as a striking example of such pragmatic reorientation. In May 2023, Pashinyan shocked Armenians in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and in the Armenian diasporas across the world when he declared that his government is willing to recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan.

This unprecedented overture occurred after successive rounds of diplomatic engagement, which were initiated and mediated by Brussels and Washington, D.C. The United States hosted both nations in May 2023 and the European Union continued its mediation effort shortly after in the context of the summit of the European Political Community in Moldova (with previous forays in EU mediation having taken place in Prague last October). Talks at the end of June and as recently as mid-July reinforced the commitments of both parties to the peace process and the mutual recognition of borders. These moves could potentially override previous Russian-led negotiations which solidified the frozen nature of the conflict.

In seizing the opportunity to act, the EU launched its own mandated monitoring mission in February, which seeks to maintain stability in the Armenian border regions. The EU’s growing influence has brought condemnation from Russia, which considers the EU’s involvement as a blatant attempt to usurp Russia’s own, albeit dwindling, authority in the region.

Armenia also tentatively pursues reconciliation with its historical rival Turkey. In early June, a senior Armenian delegation, led by Pashinyan, attended Erdoğan’s swearing-in ceremony in Ankara as a continuation of previous diplomatic moves, including the decision to send humanitarian aid to Turkey after the catastrophic earthquake in February.

Normalisation with Azerbaijan and Turkey certainly demonstrates the country’s determination to take on board Western-led proposals while attempting to replace Russia as its main security provider. Essentially, rapprochement with Armenia’s rivals, one of which being a NATO member, is a step in the right direction to fulfil the long-term goal of enhanced Western cooperation and integration. 

Russia has prevented Armenia from spreading its foreign policy wings for far too long, and Armenia can no longer count on the assistance of its traditional ally. This does not mean, however, that either Turkey, NATO, or the EU will be welcoming Armenia with open arms immediately. Not only does the country still need to deepen domestic reforms in the areas of education, media, justice, and anti-corruption, it is also unclear to what extent Ankara and other countries with an interest in stable relations with the Ankara–Baku axis will adopt a more open position vis-à-vis Armenia. Moreover, the war in Ukraine has taken over not just Russia’s priorities, but also the West’s. With the war in Ukraine continuing, Armenia is certainly not a priority in Brussels or Washington. 

In the immediate future, the short- and medium-term solutions are the most feasible options for Armenia. As an immediate move to fill the Russian void, Iran offers short-term benefits such as advantageous cooperation in the spheres of trade and security. However, these are merely ephemeral as Iran remains hard-hit by international sanctions and aligns closely with the Russian Federation in its foreign policy. 

India, therefore, demonstrates a viable medium-term option with a stronger economic and political capacity to support Armenia. This medium-term solution could also enable Armenia to build a foundation from which to diversify its foreign policy further and broker longer-term partnerships with the EU and the US. 

If one thing is apparent, it is that Armenia has begun a process of reorienting its previously restricted foreign policy away from the Russian Federation. This pivot reflects both Russia’s inability to maintain tabs on its perceived ‘area of privileged interest’ as well as the newly won dexterity and room to manoeuvre of countries which were for a long time perceived as Russia’s ‘allies’.

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