‘Mortgaging’ security: The notion of the ‘external saviour’ and the failure of Armenian diplomacy8 min read

 In Caucasus, Opinion, Politics

In the wake of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s capitulation, Armenia grapples with a socio-economic crisis, a political vacuum, and a deep-seated diplomatic failure. The roots of Armenia’s predicament go back to a centuries-old political culture that leans heavily on ‘external saviours’ for security. This reliance, akin to mortgaging the nation’s security, has left the country vulnerable and its foreign policy framework fragile. Armenia must learn from its past, reassess its alliances, and strive for a more self-reliant and diversified approach to safeguard its future.

The ceasefire agreement between the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, also known as the Republic of Artsakh, and Azerbaijan, signed on 20 September 2023, marked the end of a protracted struggle between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region. Beyond this defeat, Armenia also faces a number of internal challenges, including the influx of more than 100,000 Karabakh refugees, presenting an immediate socio-economic challenge for the Armenian government. To make matters worse, a political vacuum punctuated by a general sense of apathy prevails in Armenian society. A recent poll on public opinion showed that Nikol Pashinyan receives only 15 percent of public trust. Despite this figure being higher than any other politician, 68 percent of the respondents preferred no-one or refused to answer, signalling a genuine political crisis.

The diplomatic failure which led to this crisis can be attributed to an excessive reliance on assistance from external security guarantors, specifically the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Russia. Unfortunately, these expected allies did not respond to Armenia’s pleas for support when Azerbaijan attacked Armenian territory in May 2021 and again in September 2022.

A fundamental problem has persisted for centuries in Armenia’s political culture, which cultivates a dependence on ‘external saviours’ to address both internal and external challenges, effectively mortgaging the country’s security. The outcome has been a security and foreign policy framework that is intrinsically fragile and susceptible to breakdowns, akin to mortgaging one’s security in exchange for external intervention. While these foreign policy inadequacies are historic to the ancient country, so too are the seeds of what could prove to be its deliverance.

The notion of the external saviour in Armenian history

The roots of this mentality are surprisingly deep, and can be traced back as far as the 18th century. As early as 1701, Israel Ori, an Armenian statesman from the Syunik region of Armenia, embarked on a journey in hopes of soliciting aid for the liberation of Armenians oppressed under Persian rule in Syunik and Karabakh. Ori’s mission culminated in an audience with Tsar Peter I, also known as Peter the Great, during which the Tsar promised to provide help. 

In reality, the Tsar’s promises did not result in any immediate change for the suffering Christian Armenians under Persian rule. Russia had other pressing diplomatic priorities, namely the Great Northern War in the Baltics. The failure of Ori to grasp the geopolitical reality of his time — namely the fact that Peter the Great would not rescue Armenians at the expense of his Empire’s pressing interests in the Baltics — mirrors the contemporary relations between Armenia and Russia, as Moscow again neglects prior commitments to Yerevan in pursuit of objectives further north. 

Tsar Peter I did ultimately enter the fray, albeit with designs of his own. While ostensibly to liberate Christians from the oppression of Persian Transcaucasia, the Tsar was more interested in discouraging Ottoman incursions into Persian Transcaucasia and consolidating trade routes through the Caspian and Baltic Seas. In 1722, approximately 50,000 Armenian and Georgian troops congregated near Ganja in anticipation of Peter the Great’s intervention. However, Tsar Peter I never came, and the hopes of Armenians and Georgians were ultimately dashed by the signing of the Treaty of Constantinople in 1724.

The treaty partitioned substantial portions of the Safavid Empire’s Transcaucasian holdings between the Ottomans and Russia. Armenians in Karabakh and Syunik, meanwhile, were rendered Ottoman subjects and left to migrate to the newly annexed Russian territories. The outcome grew only more ironic for Armenians, as the 1723 Treaty of St Petersburg between Russia and Safavid Iran traded territorial concessions in Derbent, Gilan, and various Caspian basin regions for Russia’s protection of the very Shah who had been oppressing them.

Some continued to harbour futile expectations that Peter’s successors, such as Catherine I and Peter II, would eventually intervene in favour of Armenian liberation when the opportune moment arrived for Russian involvement. These hopes were largely in vain.

Elsewhere, pockets of more independent-minded leadership emerged. Military commanders in Syunik and the Melikdom of Karabakh recognized the imperative of self-reliance. When the Ottoman army advanced to conquer Syunik and Karabakh in 1726, Davit Bek, an Armenian military commander from Syunik, understood the futility of relying solely on external saviours, and developed a more pragmatic strategy to ensure the security of Armenians. Bek mirrored Russian pragmatism, aligning with the weakened Safavid Persia against the Ottomans and securing autonomy over Persian-controlled Armenia in 1735.

The modern implications of ‘mortgaging security’ in Nagorno-Karabakh

Unfortunately, the historical inclination towards overreliance on foreign security partners has typically dominated, even after Armenia’s independence in 1991. Following the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, the foreign policy trajectories of Armenia and Azerbaijan markedly diverged. Armenia forged a close alignment with Russia, culminating in its membership in the CSTO in 2002 and diminishing geopolitical autonomy thereafter.

Despite Armenia’s membership, the CSTO explicitly excluded Nagorno-Karabakh from its ‘zone of responsibility’ for collective defence as the region lay outside Armenia’s internationally-recognised territory. As a result, Yerevan would never have enjoyed formal CSTO support in the event of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. While cognisant of this situation, Yerevan failed to take proactive measures to prepare for potential contingencies. Instead, it further deepened its pro-Russian foreign policy by joining the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, abandoning the EU’s Association Agreement. This coincided with a high dependence on trade and remittance payments from Russia.

Baku, meanwhile, adopted a more pragmatic approach in engaging with external powers, buoyed by its robust economic position as a major energy exporter in the region. Azerbaijan has nurtured close cultural and politico-economic ties with Central Asian states, including CSTO member states (though it formally withdrew from the organisation in 1999), and fostered strong relations with Georgia and Turkey, with which it shares cultural and historical affinities. This created an unfavourable diplomatic environment for Yerevan to counterbalance its militarily superior neighbour effectively. 

Following its defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia’s new attempts to align itself with Western states has not proceeded without scepticism. Part of this has been due to its tepid response to Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. Moreover, Armenia’s ongoing economic reliance on Russia deeply complicates the pursuit of a more pragmatic strategy. Little progress will be made without addressing the economic imbalance Armenia currently shares with Russia.

As a result, the practice of ‘mortgaging’ security to external security guarantors remains entrenched within the decision-making circles of Yerevan, though it is increasingly being challenged by the Armenian leadership. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan recently reiterated his criticism of reliance on the CSTO, and hastily announced Armenia’s decision to freeze its participation in the CSTO. Going further, Pashinyan argued in a speech before Parliament on 10 April that Armenia should abandon ethnic (rather than statist) visions of nationhood that preclude “the ability and knowledge to live in our environment without outside help, and therefore we will always need a sponsor [or] an elder friend.”

While the Armenian leadership may be commended for (belatedly) noting the dangers of external dependence, it should be cautious of openly challenging and further severing its relations with Russia. Armenia still finds itself deeply integrated into the Russian-led economic and military sphere, and Russian state-owned companies continue to control significant sectors of the Armenian economy. The country is further constrained by limited economic resources, and faces the potential threat of Azerbaijani aggression along its non-demarcated eastern border, highlighting the perilous nature of ‘burning bridges’ with Russia.

Armenia’s primary imperative thus lies in enhancing its own capabilities and adopting a longer-term grand strategy. Although Armenia has started a process of diversifying its arms suppliers over the past two years — by buying advanced weapons systems from India and France — the integration of these platforms within Armenia’s command and control systems remains a challenge.

Armenia should manage its resources more effectively, gradually diversifying its diplomatic engagements and economy. In essence, Armenia must consider ‘placing its eggs’ into more varied diplomatic baskets to safeguard its security and promote its interests on the international stage. For the time being, this includes the need for Armenia to reconstruct a working relationship with Moscow on the basis of areas of mutual interest.

Armenia must realise that Russia and Turkey remain the two key players in the South Caucasus region, and this reality is unlikely to change over the coming years. As other experts have pointed out, the rewards for a more grounded and pragmatic approach to regional relations by Yerevan are plentiful. In contrast, a continued failure to reckon with Armenia’s circumstances could condemn it to an even more grave future.

Feature Image: Liam Martin / Wikimedia Commons / Canva
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