This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
For centuries, Armenians have had a tight relationship with Russia. But those ties have come under strain over the past year and a half as Russia, bogged down in Ukraine, has largely stood aside as its Armenian ally faces ever increasing pressure from Azerbaijan.
Over the past two weeks, that strain has neared a breaking point as the Armenian government under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has made several demonstrative moves criticizing and distancing itself from Russia. To top it off, Yerevan announced that it would be hosting U.S. soldiers for an unprecedented joint military exercise, which started on September 11.
“Pashinian Changing Country’s Politics To Align With West,” read one headline in the Russian state news agency TASS. That kind of speculation has led senior officials from both Armenia and Russia to deny that Yerevan is moving toward membership in NATO.
While a full turn to the West is not in the cards, analysts say, Armenia is making a concerted effort to diversify its foreign policy away from its previous strong dependence on Russia. And it is accelerating that effort just as its own security situation is as precarious as ever, and its need for external support acute.
Over the last two weeks, Armenia has sent a series of loud signals about its relationship with Russia that, analysts say, appear to be calculated to draw international attention. Yerevan sent a package of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, which was delivered personally by Pashinian’s wife, Anna Hakobian. That earned her a friendly photo op with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Moscow’s enemy No. 1.
It was a dramatic — albeit symbolic — departure for Yerevan. Armenia has hitherto tried to keep a low profile in the Russia-Ukraine war, neither criticizing Russia’s invasion nor supporting it. Russia’s Foreign Ministry responded to Hakobian’s trip by calling in Armenia’s ambassador to Moscow for consultations and accusing the country of aiding “the Nazi Kyiv regime.”
At the same time, there have been a series of sharp criticisms of Russia from top Armenian officials. Pashinian gave an interview to an Italian newspaper in which he said dependence on Russia was a “strategic mistake.” The speaker of Armenia’s parliament, Alen Simonian, got into a war of words with Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, which culminated in him dismissing her as “some secretary in some department.”
Simonian also said that Armenia was likely to ratify the Rome Statute, a 1998 treaty that went into force four years later, establishing the International Criminal Court. Ratifying the statute would mean Armenia is obliged to arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is wanted by The Hague-based court. Simonian had earlier suggested that ratification was not a priority for Armenia.
“Each of these small steps would have been enough to create some scandal in Armenia-Russia relations, but taken all together, they create the impression that this is more serious than anything [that] has happened before,” said Mikayel Zolian, a political analyst based in Yerevan.
Armenia’s recent moves are indicative of “an attempt to restore [its] independent foreign policy,” Zolian told RFE/RL. But, he added: “I don’t think this means that Armenia is going to become kind of a Western proxy, or that that’s what we want.”
Armenians Feel Let Down By Moscow
Armenians have had close relations with Russia since the early days of the Russian Empire’s expansion into the Caucasus more than two centuries ago. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been Armenia’s main security guarantor: Moscow maintains a military base with several thousand troops in Gyumri, close to the Turkish border, and Russian border forces guard Armenia’s frontiers with Turkey and Iran.
Armenia is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a mutual-defense pact. And since the end of the 2020 Second Karabakh War, a 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping contingent has been deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-controlled breakaway region that is at the heart of Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan.
But since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Armenians have felt let down by their ally. The Russian peacekeepers have proven unable or unwilling to push back against repeated Azerbaijani efforts to take new territory or improve their positions. Azerbaijan has also launched repeated offensives into Armenia itself, and the CSTO has failed to respond to Armenian requests for intervention. In this context, Zolian said that “basically, Armenia has nothing to lose” by moving away from Russia.
Yerevan has been diversifying its foreign policy in several directions. It has been actively cultivating India as a new source of weapons after shipments from Russia, its traditional supplier, dried up following the start of the Ukraine war. Armenia is also nurturing its relationship with its neighbor to the south, Iran, which has suggested that it would defend Armenian territory against a potential Azerbaijani attack.
And most conspicuously, it has boosted ties with Western countries as well. It has welcomed European Union border monitors, as the EU has taken a leading role in negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve their conflict. Yerevan hired a former NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, as a lobbyist; in that role, Rasmussen has advocated for American security guarantees and European military aid.
While relationships with Iran and India do not alarm Moscow, ties with Western countries are more sensitive.
“In Russia, it is highly likely that it will be perceived as Armenia going over to the West. Whatever Armenia does, if it’s not pro-Russian, then Russia sees it as pro-Western and anti-Russian,” analyst Zolian said.
Publicly, Russia has for the most part responded coolly. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on September 12 that his country has “no problems with Armenia.” There are also signs of increasing discontent in Moscow.
“Yerevan’s motivations need to be assessed and explained and articulated by the Armenian side, not by us,” Zakharova said the next day. Listing several of the anti-Russian statements Armenian officials have been making, she added: “We assess these steps as unfriendly, and we have discussed them with our Armenian colleagues, partners, friends in bilateral channels, but now it’s reached the stage of speaking about this publicly because there keep being more and more questions.”
Military Drills Amount To ‘A Message’
Amid the anti-Russian rhetorical campaign, Washington and Yerevan announced that they would be holding joint military drills in Armenia. The Eagle Partner 2023 exercise currently under way at the Zar and Armavir training facilities near Yerevan is expected to wind up on September 20.
The exercise itself is not of much significance from a military perspective: The drills are oriented toward peacekeeping missions and involve just 85 U.S. troops. But analysts say they amount to a clear signal, in particular considering that Armenia refused earlier this year to take part in CSTO exercises.
The drills amount to “a message to both Baku and Moscow that Armenia has more options and is being courted by friends,” said Richard Giragosian, head of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center think tank. The timing is likely a coincidence; exercises like this are typically planned months or more in advance. (The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan referred questions about the military exercise to the Armenian Defense Ministry, which did not respond to requests for comment.)
Nevertheless, as the date of the exercise approached, the planners were surely aware of the fraught geopolitical moment but decided to proceed as planned, said Bob Hamilton, a former American defense attaché in the Caucasus and now a research professor at the U.S. Army War College in the state of Pennsylvania.
“Probably a large part of that was: We don’t want to be seen as backing out of an exercise because the Russians are upset about it,” Hamilton said. He compared it to “freedom of navigation” exercises, in which naval vessels sail in international waters simply to demonstrate that they have the right to do so.
Still, the United States’ security interests in Armenia are limited, Hamilton said.
“I don’t think we’re trying to send some message that the U.S. is now stepping in as a major military partner for Armenia, because that’s just not true,” he said. “We don’t really have interests in Armenia that would justify a major military partnership.”
To some analysts, the messages Armenia has been sending to Moscow have been gratuitous.
“I have a feeling there is no strategy at all, it’s more reactions to actions from Azerbaijan, from the West, from Russia,” said Benyamin Poghosian, a senior fellow on foreign policy at the Yerevan-based think tank APRI Armenia. But what is clear is that since the beginning of September, “for whatever reasons, the government decided to take steps to irritate Russia,” he said.
“It looks like Pashinian believes that to make better relations with the West he should do something that irritates Russia,” agreed Nikolai Silaev, a foreign policy analyst at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “So, in Russia’s eyes, it looks like a shift to the West. Of course, one needs virtuoso diplomacy to diversify partnerships in the conditions Armenia is in, and Pashinian isn’t a very good diplomat. Yet what he does looks like not mere diplomatic mistakes but rather like a deliberate decision.”
The strategy may be to create the impression of a pro-Western orientation in order to rally support against Azerbaijan, Zolian said. Armenians have been alarmed by reports of troop movements by Azerbaijani forces toward the border, new arms shipments from Israel, and increasingly impatient rhetoric from Baku.
“For a long time, Armenia was perceived as an ally of Russia, and that was used by Azerbaijan and Turkey to justify the use of force and whatever they were doing,” he said. “So, I think now, this is a message meant for the West and for Azerbaijan to show that we are on the side of the West and any attack against Armenia would be an attack on a potential ally of the West or on somebody who is trying to get out of the Russian sphere of influence.”
While the need for external support is rising, Russia’s neglect over the last months suggests that “there’s basically no alternative” but to court the West, Zolian said.
“But I think it’s more possible that Pashinian has received some messages from the West, which have encouraged him to be more bold when it comes to relations with the Russians,” he said.
It remains a risky strategy, though: “Even if there have been some messages from the West, it doesn’t mean that the West will necessarily follow through with whatever is promised. So, it is a very dangerous time for Armenia and for Karabakh too,” Zolian said.
If Russia perceives that Armenia is drifting too far, it has several levers on which it can still exert pressure on Armenia. Yerevan is heavily reliant on remittances from migrant workers in Russia, a channel that Moscow could interfere with if it chose to. Armenia gets nearly all of its natural gas from Russia. And the Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh are still carrying out a critical security role there.
“To get rid of the Russians would be probably even worse than keeping Russians there,” Zolian said.
Still, it’s not clear that Russia is willing to take such dramatic steps.
“As Armenia has been consistently standing up to Russia, there’s never been a response from Russia beyond words…. The Armenian government is careful enough to push the envelope but not go over the line,” Giragosian said.
“I don’t expect Russia to activate these levers,” he said. “Russia’s approach is that we are committed to the alliance with Armenia, and it is not Moscow who worsens the relations. It seems that Pashinian wants to make Russia responsible for all Armenia’s failures and misfortunes, so why should the Russian government give him additional arguments for that by putting pressure on the Armenian people? Words are enough.”