On January 23, the European Union announced it would be sending a civilian mission to Armenia for a two-year term to document tensions on the border with Azerbaijan (Consilium.Europa.eu, January 23; see EDM, February 8). The EU’s recent decision follows earlier attempts by Brussels to establish itself in Armenia and represents a significant upgrade from previous initiatives. Moscow responded angrily, tacitly accusing Yerevan of not pursuing other options, most notably a mission from the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) (Mid.ru, January 26).
These tensions highlight the increasingly difficult relationship between Armenia and Russia since the end of the Second Karabakh War in 2020, when Azerbaijan won a decisive victory over Armenia in the disputed Karabakh region. Since then, at least in the eyes of Yerevan, Russia’s attitude toward Armenia’s geopolitical predicament has been ambivalent. However, Moscow has opted to maneuver in accordance with its own national interests, one of which has been keeping cordial ties with Azerbaijan, a country that the Kremlin has seen as a more effective regional actor (TASS, November 26, 2021; Report.az, November 17, 2022). Baku has also leveraged its strategically important geographic and economic positions to boost its influence vis-à-vis Moscow. Indeed, Azerbaijan is a critical regional gas producer; a key transit node in the east-west directions connecting Europe, Central Asia and China; as well as a link in the north-south transportation corridor between Russia and Iran.
Given Russia’s pragmatism, Yerevan no longer feels confident in its relationship with Moscow. Crossing a psychologically significant red line, in January 2023, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan claimed that Russian “peacekeeping” forces on Armenian territory not only failed to ensure the security of the country but also represented a threat to Armenia itself (Armenian Weekly, January 11; see EDM, February 8). Following that, Yerevan even called off drills that the CTSO had scheduled to be held on Armenian territory. These decisions were in turn built on Pashinyan’s earlier refusal to sign onto a joint CSTO statement that failed to mention Azerbaijan’s infringement on Armenian territory during the clashes in September 2022 (Panorama.am, November 24).
Thus, though widely considered to be unavoidable before 2020, Armenia’s geopolitical dependence on Russia has now been increasingly contested in Yerevan. The alliance between the two countries was first struck in the 1990s. At the time, the South Caucasus was a different place. Armenia had emerged victorious after the First Karabakh War and Russia, though weak, still held enough prestige to maintain its power.
Following 2020, however, Armenia’s geopolitical situation deteriorated, and Moscow seemed unable or unwilling to help. As a result, Yerevan has been attempting to diversify its international relations through improved relations with Turkey and more involvement with the EU. Most importantly perhaps, Armenia is building a closer partnership with Iran, an increasingly significant player in a region where Turkish influence is growing and endangering Tehran’s core interests. Iran is also feeling deep discomfort with Azerbaijani and Turkish actions along Baku’s shared border with Tehran, a development which favors Armenia in its efforts to forge stronger ties with the Islamic Republic (see EDM, December 13, 2022).
Another factor contributing to the weakening relationship between Armenia and Russia is Moscow’s waning image due to its protracted war and heavy military miscalculations in Ukraine, lack of resources and declining prestige. These developments have wide-ranging effects, including in the Russian-led regional blocs, such as the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union, which have frequently been plagued by internal weaknesses. And that fragility is now becoming all the more apparent as Russia’s global standing continues to decline.
Although Armenia is a member of Russia’s military alliances, Moscow has repeatedly refused to heed Yerevan’s pleas for security assistance. As the Yerevan-supported separatist state in Karabakh is not considered to be Armenian territory, Russia has contended that the CSTO security commitment does not apply there. In September 2022, as Azerbaijan bombarded cities within Armenia proper, far removed from Karabakh, the Kremlin merely sent a fact-finding delegation to the South Caucasus (Azatutyun.am, September 14, 2022). From this, the message was loud and clear: Russia was incapable and unwilling to help Armenia.
Russia’s troubles create a certain geopolitical vacuum in the South Caucasus. For Armenia, it is both a dangerous development and a budding opportunity. As Yerevan seeks to diversify its foreign policy, it is moving, along with other options, toward forging closer ties with the West. For its part, the West has much to gain if it uses this geopolitical opportunity to build influence in the region, and the EU’s January 2023 decision to send a special mission to the region is a good sign in that regard. Another positive sign is Brussels’ active diplomacy within the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace process, as Russia has been absent at most of the summits between Yerevan and Baku (see EDM, October 17, 2022). While its waning influence in the region provokes worry in the Kremlin, the Russian authorities can do little more than make angry statements from the sidelines. With this in mind, the region may now be moving into a new era, with the end of the so-called “post-Soviet period” and Russia’s notion of regional hegemony.
Looking ahead, Armenia and Russia are unlikely to return to the previous form of their alliance, in which Yerevan often unhesitatingly followed the Kremlin’s line. Instead, in the future, Russia will have to dedicate more time and resources in persuading Yerevan to follow its lead in foreign policy, whether on Karabakh or any other matter. While less forcefully than Azerbaijan, Armenia is testing Russia’s resolve and ability to protect its once enviable position in the South Caucasus amid the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. However, while Armenia may want to diminish engagement with Russia, it does not want to completely disengage—as a total Russian withdrawal from the South Caucasus would not augur well for Yerevan. Thus, Armenia will be forced to strike a delicate balance between Moscow and its other partners over the coming months.