Is Armenia Testing a New Foreign Policy Concept?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 16

Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian (Source:

The Armenian government expects that the long-renegotiated Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between Armenia and the European Union, which was signed on November 24, 2017, will be ratified by the European Parliament by May 2019, at the latest (, January 31). Meanwhile, Armenia itself is undergoing a constitutional shift from a presidential to a full parliamentary system of government (see EDM, January 29). And in the midst of this dynamically changing political environment, Yerevan has apparently begun to reconceptualize the core principles of its foreign and security policy.

Until recently, Armenia’s diplomatic modus operandi had been shaped by an underlying concept of so-called “Complementarity,” which was originally elucidated in two key strategy documents, both dating back to 2007: the National Security Strategy (, January 26, 2007) and its Military Doctrine (, February 7, 2007). Briefly, a “Complementarian” foreign policy entails pursuing multi-vector, equilibrium-seeking diplomacy, prioritizing the simultaneous balanced development of collaborative ties with all of Armenia’s regional and international stakeholders. But these foreign policy–making mechanisms and priorities became ill-adapted to the wide spectrum of challenges facing the country—namely, a fundamentally evolved European security paradigm (particularly post–Crimea annexation) in conjunction with the reemergence of a competitive multipolar world order.

At least at the declaratory level, “Complementarity” (sometimes referred to as “and-and” theory) still exists in Armenia’s foreign policy lexicon. However, more recently, this foreign policy principle has become effectively irrelevant and inapplicable in its original form. Both politicians and observers admit that the country’s foreign policy has undergone a perceptible evolution in the post–Ukraine crisis period, requiring its reappraisal (, December 15, 2017). President Sargsyan echoed this perspective at a recent foreign ministry conference, recognizing the need to revise the country’s strategy documents (, January 30).

Russia’s conflict with the West over Ukraine and, more broadly, the resurgence of Moscow’s overtly coercive and manipulative pattern of regional policy, combined with the changing nature of the world order, have had a serious effect on Armenia’s foreign policy philosophy. Likewise, Yerevan’s withdrawal from its long-standing Euro-Atlantic integration path—having derailed its Association Agreement (AA) and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU in 2013—as well as renewed large-scale ceasefire violations in Karabakh, have given rise to a new foreign policy that can be defined as “Neo-Complementarianism.” Illustratively, Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan stressed recently that, although Armenians consider themselves a European nation, the inherent incompatibilities of integrating equally into the EU as well as the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), has meant that “we have been forced to [solely] join” the Russia-promoted bloc (, January 24).

In examining the term “Neo-Complementarianism,” an important nuance should be taken into account. Specifically, while Yerevan still genuinely prioritizes sustained and extensive dialogue with all regional powers and supra-national institutions, security matters have been wholly relegated to relations with Armenia’s main ally. Hence, Armenia’s transformed foreign policy is not Pseudo-Complementarian but rather Neo-Complementarian—emphasizing its partnerships with the West, Iran and Asian powers, while simultaneously profoundly relying on Russia and Russia-related obligations in the defense and security spheres.

Due to this adjusted approach, Yerevan has become fully co-opted into a Russia-backed security architecture—notably, as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the EEU, as well as by the creation of an integrated air-defense system with Russia in 2015, and a joint Armenian-Russian ground task force in 2016, not to mention by the continued presence of the Russian 102nd Military Base in Gyumri. And amidst the mounting Russia-West standoff, Armenia has become a significant strategic pillar for Russia in the contested Black Sea–Caucasus region. Yerevan gradually assumed this role based on perceptions regarding the simmering confrontation with Azerbaijan over the status of the breakaway Karabakh region, combined with the hypothetical threat stemming from Turkey (, January 2).

Armenia’s practical fulfilment of its new foreign policy outlook is torn between zero-sum logic and a more tailored strategy. The ultimate trajectory heavily depends on the levels of Russia’s asserted revisionism and political influence over Armenia. One way or another, Yerevan will lean heavily on its strategic alliance with Moscow; whereas, the area of potential variance in the coming years will presumably come from the potential scope, depth and intensity of Armenia’s relations with third external actors. This framework helps explain Armenia’s predominantly pro-Russia votes at the United Nations, while it continues to push for more economic and investment cooperation with the West and Western-oriented post-Soviet republics (, November 15).

Yet, so far, the inherent foreign policy contradictions of this approach have elicited mainly ambivalent thinking within the Armenian political elite. Yerevan’s foreign policy establishment has yet to properly assess to what extent Russia’s regional policy is at odds with that of Armenia’s. The common response has been denial: for instance, despite Moscow’s consistent arms sales to Baku, various Armenian officials have contended that deepening the Russian-Azerbaijani strategic partnership by no means harms Armenian security interests (, January 21).

Thus, Yerevan’s pursuit of “Neo-Complementarity” presently seems to translate into avoiding threatening Russian interests at all costs and under no circumstances questioning Russia’s politico-economic and military domination of Armenia. This is why Armenia actively participated in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)–sponsored Noble Partner 2017 multinational peacekeeping exercises in Georgia (see EDM, February 7, 2017), but firmly declined its attendance in the Agile Spirit drills later that year, which focused more on deterrence of Russia (see EDM, September 8, 2017).

Consequently, Armenia’s new international affairs concept yields no tangible option for foreign policy and defense strategy diversification; it hampers prospects for fostering strategic-level ties with other powers, like Iran, India or China. In other words, Armenian authorities are likely to take Moscow’s interference/meddling potential for granted in domestic affairs as well as in Armenia’s bilateral interactions with other countries.

Nevertheless, in the medium term, Armenia’s evolving “Neo-Complementarity” could allow for more actual flexibility if international pressure on Russia grows further. Assuming such increased pressure actually forces Moscow to reduce its regional and international ambitions as well as diminish its zero-sum attitude toward Armenia and the entire region, Yerevan could be freed somewhat to pursue a more tailored diplomatic strategy. In such a changed environment, Russia would still remain Armenia’s predominant partner in the security sphere; however, it would open up the possibility for a more “independent” foreign policy, permitting Yerevan to reinvigorate strategic-level ties with outside players beyond Russia.

It stands to reason that, at least for now—based on the downgraded association agreement reached with Yerevan last year (i.e., CEPA)—the EU has tacitly recognized Armenia as a somewhat indisputable part of Russia’s asserted sphere of exclusive influence. How soon that changes, may be up to Moscow and Yerevan.