Armenia’s Break With Moscow Redefines South Caucasus Geopolitics

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 34

(Source: TASS)

Executive Summary:

  •  Armenia has announced it is suspending cooperation with the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a signal that Yerevan may soon reduce or even end other forms of cooperation with Russia.
  • The almost universal assumption that Armenia, because of its geographic location and its longstanding fears of Türkiye and Azerbaijan, has no choice but to remain an ally of Russia is now in doubt.
  • Moscow will try to block Yerevan’s moves, but its ability to do so is limited by its own isolation because of the war against Ukraine and its desire to expand ties with Baku.

Despite the twists and turns in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus since the end of Soviet times, one assumption has remained essentially unchanged. Those who analyze or seek to influence the region assume that Armenia will remain closely tied to Russia (a fellow Orthodox Christian country) because it fears Azerbaijan and Türkiye, two Turkic Muslim countries with whom Armenia has long had fraught relations (Window on Eurasia, January 13, 2019; see EDM, October 8, 2020, December 16, 2020June 3, 2022). In the wake of the 44-day war in 2020 and even more since Baku restored complete control over Karabakh in September 2023, that assumption is no longer as true as it once was. Today, it is being transformed beyond recognition.

On February 23, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declared that Yerevan is putting its relations with the Collective Securuity Treaty Organization (CSTO) on hold. He claims the CSTO did not fulfill its commitment to defend Armenia. He has indicated that Armenia will leave the Moscow-dominated group unless it changes course, a threat that Moscow views as an act of betrayal (RBC, February 28). This decision suggests that Armenia will likely take additional steps to reduce its dependence on Moscow by expanding ties with others in Europe (see EDM, February 9, 2023; Apostrof, February 24). Russian analysts say that Armenia’s next moves will most likely include demands that Moscow close its base at Gyumri, where some 4,000 Russian troops are stationed, and that Armenians replace Russians as border guards in Armenia. Moreover, they say Armenia may pull out of Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Community to expand ties with the European Union (RITM Eurasia, March 3; Noviye izvestiya, March 4; Riddle, March 4).

The Kremlin will try to block all such moves, especially the demand to close Gyurmri. Its ability to do so, however, has been reduced not only by the fallout from its war in Ukraine but also by Moscow’s own desire to maintain and expand its influence in Azerbaijan and Georgia. Russian losses in Armenia and the new support Yerevan has gained from Europe, especially France, compromise Russia’s efforts to expand its regional influence (see EDM, July 28, 2020, November 6, 2023). Consequently, while Armenia remains linked to Moscow in various ways, those analyzing what is happening in the South Caucasus and those hoping to influence this region need to take Armenia’s new direction seriously. This shift will affect not only Yerevan’s relations with Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Türkiye, and the West but also the policies each of these players have regarding Armenia and toward each other.

Armenian relations with Russia have been deteriorating since Pashinyan came to power in 2018, and they worsened further after Moscow failed to come to Armenia’s aid in the military conflict with Azerbaijan in 2020 and 2023. Despite that, Yerevan, until now, has taken few concrete steps to limit Moscow’s position in Armenia besides indicating that it wanted to pursue closer ties with Europe, an intention that Putin invariably sees as a hostile action (TRT Russian, February 29;  Kommersant, March 3). Pashinyan’s announcement that he is suspending ties with the CSTO, however, has sparked rage in Moscow. Commentators close to the Putin regime warn that Russia will respond and that Armenia will collapse if it continues in that direction. In response, Armenian officials and experts have refused to back down and continue to insist that Pashinyan’s statement on the CSTO is only a small part of a much more significant shift in Armenia’s orientation from Moscow to the West, a change that will transform relationships across the region (RITM Eurasia, March 3; Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 3; Noviye izvestiya, March 4).

Two developments from the past weekend highlight just how seriously Moscow is taking Armenia’s decision. First, Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT, denounced what Yerevan is doing as a betrayal of the Armenian people. She added that within five years, neither Armenia nor any other former Soviet republic will exist as countries (Tsargrad, March 3). Second, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the Anatolian Diplomatic Forum that what Yerevan is doing will force Moscow to “revise” its approach to a country that is increasingly aligning itself with “Russia’s enemies” and warned that Armenia must consider this before it does anything irreversible and suffers the consequences (Kommersant, March 3). Lavrov indicated that he was particularly outraged by recent statements from Yerevan that Armenia had been wrong to rely on Russia since 1991. He asserted that it would have been and will be better for Armenia to cooperate with countries far away who can do little to support them than with neighbors who have been the country’s friends and supporters. To underscore Moscow’s anger, Lavrov pointedly did not meet with Armenia’s foreign minister, although he always has in the past, choosing to meet only with his Azerbaijani counterpart (Kommersant, March 3).

Besides declarations like Lavrov’s, it is not clear what Moscow will do next. It may draw on its old playbook, however, and seek to destabilize or even use proxies to overthrow Pashinyan’s government. Despite that, Armenia seems likely to expand its ties with others at Moscow’s expense, including maneuvers with Western armies and promoting trade with Arab countries. Such Armenian actions will affect all the other countries of the region. Georgia and Azerbaijan will calibrate their actions based on Armenia’s success or failure. Given its close cooperation with Russia, Iran will view what is happening in Armenia as an opportunity to expand its influence and as a threat to this prospective expansion. Türkiye will likely consider Armenia’s distancing from Russia as opening another path to closer relations with Yerevan and expanding Ankara’s influence in the South Caucasus.

Armenia’s actions are transforming the region’s geopolitical map almost beyond recognition. All players will be compelled to consider these changes, particularly those who want to see Yerevan succeed.