As the blockade of the truncated Nagorno-Karabakh region by Azerbaijani nationalists continues, Armenia is growing impatient with Russia’s seeming inactivity.
Food, fuel, and medicines for the large Armenian community in the area are running low, while images have been emerging of Russian troops, deployed as peacekeepers, standing yards from the blockades but taking no action. The mood is fast souring, making the current crisis in Armenia-Russia relations the worst in recent decades.
Allied from the 1990s, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between Russia and Armenia have entered a turbulent period. Reasons vary from immediate issues to deeper, geopolitical differences, yet one inescapable conclusion is that Russia is no longer able to provide for its security dependencies and that its influence in the South Caucasus is in decline.
The Kremlin has on numerous occasions turned down Armenia’s requests for help through the framework of the six-member Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes Armenia but not Azerbaijan. The problem for Armenia is that wider strategic imperatives drive Russia to seek improved ties with Azerbaijan, which is a critical transit route for Russia’s ambitious projects to connect to Iran. Azerbaijan has also chosen its friends wisely — Turkey’s ally, which has, as a result of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, established itself as a major power in the South Caucasus. It is therefore sheltered from Russian adventurism.
To this changed geopolitical landscape should be added a recent spate of signals showing Armenia’s growing disillusionment about Russia. In January, the country’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan argued that “Russia’s military presence in Armenia not only does not guarantee Armenia’s security but, on the contrary, creates threats to Armenia’s security.” He also argued that the Russian peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh are “becoming silent witnesses” to the unfolding tragedy. Earlier Yerevan even canceled CSTO drills in Armenia, and Pashinyan refused to sign a joint declaration with CSTO member states in Yerevan, presumably for failing to address the country’s worsening geopolitical situation.
This has provided an opening for Iran. Politicians in Yerevan increasingly seek diversification of foreign affairs and military ties. Unhappy with Azerbaijan’s ambitions to attain greater regional influence and of attempts to coerce Armenia into allowing the operation of the so-called Zangezur corridor through the Syunik province (thus connecting the main Azeri lands with its Nakhchivan exclave), Iran sees a meeting of self-interest and opportunity. The opening in 2022 of the Iranian consulate in a strategically located south-eastern city of Kapan, which is located on the only major road between the two countries, indicated the Islamic Republic’s growing displeasure with the changed balance of power in the South Caucasus – especially growing Turkish influence.
Armenia has meanwhile been trying to patch up things with Turkey. In February, Armenian rescuers were sent to Turkey to help Ankara battle the devastating effects of the recent earthquake. This follows continuous hints and practical moves by both sides signaling that a long-closed border could soon open and bilateral trade grow, something underlined on February 15 when the two foreign ministers met in Ankara.
Armenia is also developing ties with the European Union (EU) which announced on January 23 it would be deploying a mission of some 100 observers to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. The mission would in itself be a significant upgrade from a much weaker, 40-member mission sent to Armenia following a significant escalation in September 2022 when Azerbaijan bombed several cities deep in Armenia, and far from Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia is also working on diversifying military contacts. Almost entirely dependent on the Kremlin for its security, it has apparently struggled to import modern Russian weaponry. Pashinyan said in September that Armenia lacked arms and that the country’s allies had failed time and again to supply ordered weaponry. This pushes Armenia to seek alternatives; several military contracts signed with India underline the trend.
Tensions in Armenia-Russia relations will likely continue to grow and there are indications that there is a bigger malaise hampering Russia’s influence — the latter’s war against Ukraine. The aggression reverberates throughout the South Caucasus, where countries constantly test Russian weakness. Armenia is no exception. A preoccupied Kremlin provides Armenia with room for maneuver, which in other times would have been unthinkable. As the war in Ukraine will likely continue for a long time, so will Armenia’s willingness to question the foundation of its alliance with a weakened Russia.
Those weaknesses have become palpable in the way Moscow-led multilateral groupings have operated since the war in Ukraine began. The first is CSTO. Although many ordinary Armenians see the organization’s passivity as a deliberate Russian instrument of sabotage, there are indications that the problem with the grouping might be much more profound. CSTO’s feeble response to fighting on the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border in September 2022 was much like its inactivity on the South Caucasus front. Moreover, since the all-out war in Ukraine began, CSTO member states have been passive, bordering on hostile, to the Kremlin’s campaign. This begs the question of CSTO’s purpose if it won’t help the smaller members and the smaller members won’t help Russia.
It must be acknowledged that it would be a long and difficult process for Armenia to free itself from Russian influence. The country’s economic and security ties are linked to its giant neighbor to the north, whether it likes that or not. A near-70% growth in bilateral trade was registered in 2022.
And while Russia is distracted, it is not asleep. It will try to regain momentum. For instance, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov argued on February 9 that Moscow is working on a trilateral meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
Nevertheless, a trend is undeniable. A multipolar era has begun in the South Caucasus where growing competition from other actors limits Russia’s old claim to be the dominant power in the region. When the EU unveiled details of its new mission to Armenia, the Kremlin was reduced to blustering that the bloc was stirring up geopolitical confrontation in the region. It was a far cry from the old days.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.