Relations with Russia were always a cornerstone for Armenian foreign policy. Since Armenia has regained its independence in 1991, Russia has been its essential political and military ally. Several reasons were behind such a choice – geopolitics, history, significant Armenian community in Russia. The Russian military base and border troops have been deployed in Armenia, and Yerevan joined Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union. Meanwhile, in the last 10-15 years, a discourse about Armenia’s dangerous overdependence on Russia was prevalent in Armenian and Western experts’ circles. Many perceived Armenia as a client state of Russia and called for changes.
The Velvet Revolution in Armenia in Spring 2018 and the election of Nikol Pashinayn as Prime Minister of Armenia seemed to have created favorable conditions for such a shift. Just a year before the revolution, Pashinyan was arguing for Armenian withdrawal from Eurasian Economic Union. Part of the new elite who came to power after revolution had an overt anti-Russian and anti-Putin stance. Many of them participated in rallies arguing for the Russian military base’s withdrawal from Armenia or criticizing President Putin’s tilt towards authoritarian rule. The new government’s first actions – criminal investigations against incumbent CSTO Secretary – General Yuri Khachaturov, the arrest of former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan, criminal cases against key Russian companies operating Armenia, were perceived as the steps towards decreasing Armenian dependence on Russia. The new foreign Minister of Armenia declared that one of the three pillars of the Armenian new foreign policy was the concept of sovereignty, a thinly veiled hint that the Pashinyan’s government was not going to tolerate the status of the Russian client state.
Since late 2018 the fundamental question raised by many while discussing the future of Armenia – Russia relations was about possible Russian actions against the new government. Almost all experts agreed that Russia had two main leverages to pressure Armenia – economy, and Karabakh. Thus, there was some anticipation that if Armenia continued its policy, it would face significant backlash on both fronts. However, even the most pessimistic experts could not anticipate the launch of the large-scale war by Azerbaijan in September 2020 and Armenia’s total defeat and capitulation.
During the war and aftermath, one of the most debated issues was the claim that by allowing Azerbaijan to start the war with Turkish support and by not intervening immediately in favor of its ally Armenia, Russia had two primary goals: to force Armenia to accept Russian offer and to establish a Russian military base in Stepanakert and punish Nikol Pashinyan. According to conventional wisdom Armenian society would not tolerate the capitulation, humiliation, huge territorial and human losses, and would force Pashinyan out of power after he signed capitulation on November 10, 2020. However, more than three months have passed, but Pashinyan still holds power. Even more, he rejected the idea of organizing snap parliamentary elections in 2021, while opposition forces as of today were not able to bring to the streets significant number of people to force him out.
Meanwhile, surprisingly Russia seems not keen to facilitate the quick departure of Pashinyan. President Putin called Pashinyan a brave and smart leader who had adopted uneasy but right decisions for his country. President Putin organized Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia trilateral summit in Moscow on January 11, 2021, moving forward to open up regional communications. To better understand Russian policy in Armenia after the November 10 statement, we should assess vital Russian interests in the region. The key for Russia was establishing the Russian military base in Stepanakert with Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s consent. The actual borders of the Russian protectorate in Karabakh were not of much interest to Kremlin. Will Russia control the entire former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region or only part of it – both options were equally acceptable for Russia.
Meanwhile, by controlling the unrecognized Nagorno Karabakh Republic’s remnants, Russia received significant leverage over Armenia and increased its influence as a result of the de facto delimitation and demarcation of Armenia – Azerbaijan borders in the southern Syunik region of Armenia. After November 10 statement, the Armenian government agreed to withdraw its forces from parts of the former Soviet Azerbaijan Zangelan and Kubatli districts, even though this withdrawal breached the statement’s first article. That article clearly stated that all forces should remain in the territories they controlled except former Soviet Azerbaijan regions of Kelbajar, Aghdam, and Lachin, which Armenia agreed to return to Azerbaijani control.
As a result of this move by the Armenian government based either on an oral agreement or on some signed secret deal, many villages and cities of the Armenian Southern Syunik region now face Azerbaijani forces and border troops in close vicinity, while having no trenches and other means of protection. The Armenian government asked Russian border troops to establish several block posts in the Syunik region to protect Armenian villages and roads. Russia is now providing security to Nagorno Karabakh Armenians and Armenians living in Syunik within Armenia’s internationally recognized borders. Thus, now Armenia is more dependent on Russia than ever since gaining independence in September 1991, and Kremlin should thank Nikol Pashinyan for such an outcome.
Russia is satisfied by the current status quo in the region while dividing it with Turkey. Russia also supports the opening up of communications in the region, which will provide Azerbaijan railroad and highway access to Turkey via the Syunik region of Armenia and the Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic while providing Armenia railroad access to Russia and Iran via Azerbaijan.
The government of Nikol Pashinyan is one of the guarantors of the implementation of the November 10, 2020, and January 11, 2021 agreements. Thus, as of now, Russia has no reason to fight against Pashinyan. Armenian Prime Minister significantly increased Russian influence over Armenia, and his efforts were much more successful than alleged Pro-Russian Robert Kocharyan’s and Serzh Sargsyan’s activities. It is difficult to assess whether this outcome resulted from a preliminary planned deal between Pashinyan and Kremlin or was a result of the Kremlin’s heinous game after May 2018 and incompetence of Pashinyan. Meanwhile, Kremlin has no candidate to replace Pashinyan. The second President of Armenia and personal friend of President Putin, Robert Kocharyan, has approximately 15 percent of support, while Pashinyan enjoys 30-35 percent of support.
Moreover, if Kocharyan comes to power, he would be forced to take a much more tough stance on implementing November 10, 2020, and January 11, 2021 statements. He may reject an idea to provide Azerbaijan land corridor to connect with Nakhijevan and Turkey. He may also call for a revision of the November 10 statement to give back to Armenians at least territories of the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region. Any other candidate who would like to fight Pashinyan should follow the same line. Otherwise, a question may arise as to why he or she should replace Pashinyan while fully accepting November 10 and January 11 statements. Simply telling that Pashinyan must go because he is a traitor is a non-starter. Meanwhile, Russia is not interested in creating obstacles for implementing both statements by bringing to power in Armenia forces who would argue for amendments. Better for Kremlin to have weak Pashinyan, whose ratings will continue to decrease slowly and who is ready to implement whatever Kremlin, Turkey, and Azerbaijan will agree between themselves on the future of the region.
Thus, most probably, Kremlin will not seek to push Pashinyan out of power in Armenia in a short-term perspective. Meanwhile, Kremlin will use its resources to weaken his positions even more by disseminating new information about his actions/inactions before and during the war, thus preventing him from even thinking about disobeying Kremlin and find or re-find new patrons in the US or EU.
Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies