The immediate cause came on February 25, when Onik Gasparyan, Chief of General Staff of the Armenian Army, and other senior commanders released a statement calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to step down. Pashinyan responded by firing Gasparyan.
Yet the real cause of the uproar is Armenia’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War last year, which has triggered a deeply troubled and long-drawn-out period of soul-searching and consequent instability.
Delving into the details over what are the real reasons and who is to blame may anyway be futile in the cloudy political world of all three South Caucasus states (including Georgia and its current woes). While many Armenians believe that the protests are more about internal democratic processes, there is an undeniable geopolitical context too. Perhaps what matters most is the international ramifications of the conflict, especially as the early phases of the Russian-brokered November 2020 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan are now being implemented.
The political crisis in Armenia does not affect the implementation of the agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 26. Other statements by the Russian leadership indicated that the Kremlin, which closely follows the internal development of its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) ally and the fellow member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), is nevertheless remaining aloof for now.
Over the past year, Russia has confronted multiple crises along its border with some finesse, successfully managing near-simultaneous crises in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia-Azerbaijan.
In each case, the Kremlin has sought to extract geo-economic benefits. Take the current Armenian crisis. The opposition has some support, but not as much as the current leadership. Leaders from both sides have connections with senior Russian leaders, albeit the Kremlin was far more comfortable with the pre-Pashinyan Armenian political elite. They understood what Russia likes in the near-abroad – cautious leaders mindful of Russian sensitivities and unwilling to play the reformist and Western cards that Pahinyan has used since coming to power in 2018.
And yet however much illiberal Russia feels uncomfortable with the reformist Pashinyan government, it needs for now because his signature is on the November ceasefire agreement. With the early stages of the deal being implemented, Russia is keeping its eyes on the prize — most importantly, the agreement to reopen Soviet-era railways which potentially will reconnect Russia to Armenia via Azerbaijani territory. Chaos in Armenia can only jeopardize this key aim.
Russia also understands that Pashinyan is becoming increasingly dependent as time goes by and that it can exploit this vulnerability. Equally obviously, the opposition could prevail, and that would ultimately benefit Russia too.
In the long run, Russia has caught Armenia in a cycle. To stay in power, the government would need extensive Russian economic, diplomatic, and perhaps even military support. But any new government formed by the current opposition would likely demand even more weaponry from Russia to prepare for the next confrontation, however hypothetic, with Azerbaijan. In both cases, the price for more arms would likely be deeper integration of Armenia within the EEU. And whatever remained of Armenia’s policy efforts towards the West, already under grave pressure since the Karabakh defeat, would die.
Potentially, there is a yet-greater reward for Russia – persuading Azerbaijan to allow the Russian peacekeeping mission to remain on its soil beyond the end of 2025. In which case, an openly revanchist Armenian government formed by an opposition determined to build a battle-ready military capable of offensive operations would be a useful tool for the Kremlin to justify the continued presence of its units in Karabakh.