Why is Yerevan looking toward the Atlantic?
(Photo by KAREN MINASYAN/AFP via Getty Images)
The Karabakh war of 2020 significantly altered the geopolitical realities not only in Transcaucasia but in the entire Eurasian continent.
The roots of the current crisis emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Let us recall that the centrifugal processes in the last years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy led to the actualization of complex ethnic conflicts that had been suppressed and frozen by the early Soviet leadership of the Lenin-Stalin era. In 1988, activists of the Soviet Armenian intelligentsia created the Miatsum movement that demanded the Soviet leadership to exclude the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR) from the Azerbaijan SSR and return it to the Armenian SSR. In fact, this was the first large-scale national movement within the USSR that set the task of revising the empire’s physical boundaries.
In the later stages of its existence, in terms of the Karabakh issue, the Soviet Union acted nervously and irrationally, using the tools of suppression and intimidation of the Armenian side. This policy only intensified the conflict and turned it into a hot phase. It ended up with the proclamation of the independent Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) by the majority of the inhabitants of the NKAR on an equal footing with Azerbaijan and Armenia. The military confrontation ended with the victory of the Armenian side and the conclusion of the Bishkek Protocol on a ceasefire in 1994.
The status quo was fixed with a de facto independent Karabakh controlled by Armenians without any internationally recognized status. In many respects, this suited the Armenian leadership as the citizens of Armenia and the NKR were given the illusion of final victory and control. This, in turn, created vital conditions for the preservation and reproduction of power.
For 26 years, the maintenance of this configuration relied on a strategic alliance with Russia. Yerevan saw Moscow as a guarantor of its security, which it felt included the protection of the NKR in a potential war. Armenia joined in an alliance with Russia and entered into its integration projects: the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
For Azerbaijan, the situation was different. On the one hand, Baku needed time to stabilize the country after a series of coups d’etat and to strengthen its economy. On the other hand, there was an understanding that the long-term preservation of the status quo posed a threat to the ruling Aliyev clan.
Therefore, Baku chose a diversification strategy: a long-term strategic alliance with Turkey, maximum rapprochement with Russia to balance the influence of Armenia, military-technical dialogue with Israel and the use of its lobbying potential in the world, targeted rapprochement with the United States (by supporting Washington during the campaign in Iraq 2003) and the EU (by providing an alternative to Russian energy resources).
In fact, Baku launched a full-scale multi-vector political and lobbying war against Armenia at the international level. Yerevan lost this war not due to poor preparation, but because it did not fight at all, remaining in its usual geopolitical comfort zone and counting on Russia’s help. As a result of this war, Azerbaijan began to be perceived in the world as an independent player with its own interests while Armenia is seen as an outpost of Russia and an insignificant factor in terms of Russian neo-imperial projects.
Over the past 10 years, Moscow has been trying to build a balance of power system to maintain strategic relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Russia declared a strategic alliance with Yerevan, it also became the main supplier of offensive weapons for Baku. This strategy contributed not to the formation of the balance of power but to its destruction. Azerbaijan built a military-technical dialogue with Israel, Turkey, and some European countries. In addition, back in 2012, the Azerbaijani side decided to eliminate the last remnant of Russian military presence in their country—the radar station in Gabala.
Meanwhile, the Armenian side acquired up to 95% of its weapons from Russia alone and agreed to extend the presence of the Russian military base at Gyumri until 2049. Moreover, Armenia retained an agreement by which Russian border guards would guard the Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-Iranian borders. This configuration convinced the Kremlin that Armenia was in its pocket, so it redirected its attention to Azerbaijan. This was a strategic miscalculation. It mistakenly decided that the alliance with Armenia was already formalized so Russia could sacrifice Armenia’s interests to strengthen Moscow’s influence in Azerbaijan.
Another reason for the Russian failure in Transcaucasia is the growing crisis in Moscow’s relations with the West. It forced Moscow to reconsider its priorities. The Kremlin chose a strategy of rapprochement with those members of the Western bloc who were dissatisfied with the policies of their leader, the United States. In this context, Turkey, being an important NATO member, with its ambitious leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was regarded by Russia as a promising partner in the upcoming battle to end the unipolar world order.
Moscow’s desire to defeat the West was so great that it defused the situation with Ankara even after the downing of the Russian fighter jet and the murder of its pilot in 2015. Moreover, a year later, Russia played an important role in saving Erdogan’s regime when a military coup was organized against him. Since then, Russian-Turkish relations have progressed rapidly, especially in the energy and military-technical spheres.
Trusting and even friendly relations between the leaders of these countries formed the solid basis of this dialogue. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly emphasized the reliability of Erdogan, calling the latter the strongest leader of our time. It looks like the Russian president strived to achieve at least Turkey’s neutrality in the Ukrainian track, its key operation in the fight against the West. And his calculations were correct. In today’s Russian-Ukrainian confrontation, Turkey plays an important political and diplomatic role, performing many mediating functions, from brokering negotiations between the U.S. and Russia to underwriting the Black Sea grain shipping deal.
In turn, it was important for Erdogan to get concessions from the Kremlin in the Syrian and Transcaucasian directions. The first case is more difficult since the victory in Syria is a vital achievement for Russia and, in a sense, a symbol of the first major geopolitical victory over the West. Therefore, Moscow considered it more expedient to give up some interests in Transcaucasia. It was precisely for these reasons that the Russian side allowed Turkey’s active political and military-technical intervention in the Karabakh conflict.
The status quo breakdown, the military defeat of Armenia, and the transfer of huge territories to Azerbaijan’s control formed a different regional configuration. Russia believed that its passivity in protecting the interests of its ally, especially after the entry of Azerbaijani troops into the territory of Armenia itself, would not cause crucial changes in Yerevan’s foreign policy.
Russia, which Yerevan considered its security guarantor for more than 20 years, did not support its ally either in maintaining control over Karabakh or when Azerbaijani troops entered directly into Armenia. Since then, the nature of Russian-Armenian relations has undergone major changes. Moscow does not take any steps to remove Azerbaijani troops from Armenian territory, and for more than 20 days has not fulfilled its obligations to unblock the Lachin corridor that links Armenia and Karabakh. Obviously, in the current war with Ukraine, the Turkish and Azerbaijani factors are becoming not just crucial for Moscow but irreplaceable.
In relation to Armenia, there is growing interest on the part of the United States, France, and India. From September 17th to 19th last year, an American delegation headed by Nancy Pelosi—then the Speaker of the House—visited Armenia. During meetings with the country’s leadership, she noted that this visit was a powerful symbol of the unwavering determination of the United States to have a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Armenia and a stable and peaceful region. This visit was of great political importance since it happened when the armed forces of Azerbaijan invaded the territory of Armenia. The authorities of the country and the Armenian society were at that time waiting for the reaction of Russia, but Moscow again failed to take action.
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During the 2020 war, France gave support to Armenia, providing Yerevan with a political, informational, and lobbying campaign. President Emmanuel Macron repeatedly confirmed France’s intention to prevent any violation of the right of Karabakh Armenians to self-determination and to defend Armenia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. India went the furthest and signed a $260 million weapons sale contract with Armenia in September 2022.
A simple logic guides Yerevan: why is it necessary to maintain an alliance with Russia if it is not ready to neutralize the challenges and threats from Ankara and Baku? Considering this, the conditions for a gradual but steady retreat of Armenia to the Western Atlantic camp are being inevitably formed. The question now is how quickly and with what losses it will be possible to do this.
Russia’s loss of influence in its own back yard serves as a warning to major powers: Distractions abroad may lead to the weakening of even the most historically reliable alliances.