2020 was disastrous for Armenian foreign policy. The defeat in the 2020 Karabakh war which resulted in the November 10 capitulation has sent shock waves across Armenia and Diaspora. Within only 44 days Armenia lost what it gained during the 1992 – 1994 first Karabakh war. Significantly reduced Nagorno Karabakh was effectively turned into a Russian protectorate and its current status can be compared with Karabakh status in 1989 when the Soviet Union put Karabakh under the direct Kremlin control through the establishment of the Special Committee led by Mr. Arkadi Volski. Now approximately 3000 square kilometers of territory with some 100000 Armenians there is again de facto governed by the Kremlin, while the head of the Russian peacekeeping mission LtG Muradov assuming the role of Volski.
However, the stunning Armenian defeat in Karabakh has not brought an end to the Karabakh conflict. There is no final agreement signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Karabakh status is unclear and despite President Aliyev’s claims that no conflict exists anymore, it’s not the case at least for Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. Thus, the situation in and around Karabakh will continue to be the top priority for Armenia in 2021. Meanwhile, the trilateral statement of January 11, 2021, on the opening up of communications between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the establishment of the trilateral working group to present concrete suggestions and road maps on this sphere until March 1, 2021, will keep the regional developments in the focus of Armenian government. Another significant topic for Armenian foreign policy in 2021 would be its relations with key players, such as Russia, the US, and China. And all these issues are under the shadow of the political crisis in Armenia and the growing possibility of the snap parliamentary elections until the end of the year.
The key challenge facing Armenia in 2021 is the necessity to clarify its position regarding the war and its outcome. Armenia either may declare that it considers all territories taken by Azerbaijan since September 27, 2020, as temporary occupied ones as a result of Azerbaijani aggression and refuses to sign any final agreement (not statements like on November 10, 2020, or January 11, 2021), which will legitimize the outcomes of the war, or pursue other options. Yerevan may state that it views as occupied by Azerbaijan only the territories within the borders of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic as of September 1991, (this means to declare occupied by Azerbaijan the entire Hadrut region, parts of Martuni and Askeran regions, and the city of Shushi), and may argue that any future agreement with Azerbaijan should not fix the status of these territories as a part of Azerbaijan. The third option is to recognize as apart of Azerbaijan entire Nagorno Karabakh including current territories under the Russian control, accept that all those territories were illegally occupied by Armenian forces, and start negotiations with Azerbaijan for getting some sort of autonomy for Armenians living in Karabakh either within the borders of the 1988 Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast or within the borders of the current Russian protectorate.
Obviously, none of these options will bring any actual changes on the ground as Armenia has no leverage to change anything. At least in the coming 5 years, Russia will continue to control these territories and do with them whatever Kremlin deems appropriate. But Armenia should make its position clear to be able to better negotiate with Russia, other OSCE Minsk Group Co-chair states, and Azerbaijan. Most probably Minsk Group will continue its activities, but Azerbaijan will refuse to discuss any issues related to Karabakh status with Armenia within the Minsk Group.
Armenia faces tough choices in its regional policy – non-existing relations with Turkey; the “negative neutrality” of Georgia during the Karabakh war and stalled relations with Iran. Russia offers an opening up of communications in the region, which envisages the linkage of Russia – Turkey and Russia – Iran railroads via Azerbaijan, Southern Syunik region of Armenia, and Nakhijevan Autonomous region. According to draft plans, Armenia will receive a railway connection with Russia via Nakhijevan and Azerbaijan, and with Iran with Nakhijevan. However, the transport routes passing through the Syunik region of Armenia along the Araks River connecting Azerbaijan and Nakhijevan will be under Russian control, while routs connecting Armenia with Russia and Iran via Azerbaijan and Nakhijevan Autonomous region will be under the Azerbaijani control. Meanwhile, the railroad passing from Yerevan to Russia via Nakhijevan, Syunik, Southern Azerbaijan, and Baku is quite a long one and it will be an easy task for Azerbaijan to create any problems or complications for Armenian trains passing that route. It would be much better for Armenia to use Yerevan – Ijevan – Azerbaijan – Russia railway launched in the 1980s, both logistically and from a security point of view, but as of today that option is not being discussed.
The full political and military Turkish support to Azerbaijan during the 2020 Karabakh war has worsened the already tainted feeling towards Turkey in Armenia. The Armenian government imposed a 6-month embargo on Turkish imports effective January 1, 2021. Meanwhile, Turkey at least publicly has not changed its core demands from Armenia for the opening of borders and establishing diplomatic relations – recognize the entire Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan and give up the Armenian Genocide international recognition campaign.
The establishment of a secure railway connection with Iran may somehow reinvigorate Armenia – Iran economic relations if the new US administration returns to the 2015 nuclear deal and cancels the new sanctions imposed by President Trump in May 2018. The interim free trade deal between the Eurasian Economic Union and Iran may also facilitate this process. However, Iran still looks suspiciously toward Pashinyan’s government. The statements from Yerevan of Armenia being a new beacon of democracy in the region after the ‘Velvet revolution” of May 2018 have been perceived in Iran as a sign that Armenia was going to change its pro-Russia policy and was looking to establish closer cooperation with the US, which Tehran believes is detrimental to its vital national interests.
Georgia continues to view Turkey and Azerbaijan as its strategic partners while Armenia as its neighbor. This situation is based on objective reality and corresponds to the declared Georgian strategy of the Euro-Atlantic integration and its animosity towards Russia. However, the “negative neutral” policy of Georgia during the 2020 Karabakh war has triggered some anti-Georgian sentiments in parts of Armenian society, which will not disappear very soon. State to state relations will continue to be based on declared friendship but with little essence in the political or economic dimension. If the railway connection to Russia via Azerbaijan is reliable, it will decrease also Georgia’s significance for Armenia as a key gateway to the world.
Russia has significantly increased its influence over Armenia as a result of the 2020 Karabakh war. Paradoxically, the political force which came into power in May 2018 by the slogans of restoring Armenia’s genuine sovereignty and decreasing its overdependence on Russia made Armenia more dependent on Moscow than any time since September 1991. Now Russia is effectively implementing demarcation of Armenia – Azerbaijan border and Yerevan has zero possibility not to accept anything said by Russia even if it means to give to Azerbaijan control over the parts of the Armenia – Iran highway passing through the Southern Syunik region.
Some circles in Armenia understand quite well that the 2020 war was a result of Russia – Turkey – Azerbaijan understanding, but even most of them don’t blame Russia. Pashinyan rejected Russian offers (Lavrov plan) plan in spring 2020, last version of which, according to the Minsk Group Russian Co-Chair’s January 13, 2021 interview, was presented to Armenia and Azerbaijan in June 2019. Doing this Pashinyan deprived Russia a possibility to implement its long dream to establish a military base in Karabakb under the veil of the peacekeeping mission, while he was warned that big war was coming. He didn’t accept Lavrov plan even after mid – June 2020 Armenian Chief of General Staff warnings that war would have catastrophic implications for Armenia. After these steps why Russia should behave another way and not come into understanding with Azerbaijan and Turkey to start war and compel Armenia to accept Lavrov plan. In 2021 Armenia most probably will continue to implement every Russian whim and this will be the case regardless of who will be the Prime Minister in Armenia.
Armenia – US relations were in a significant decline in 2017-2020. President Trump’s policy resulted in the US retrenchment from several parts of the globe, including the South Caucasus, while the Armenian government declarations on being the bastion of democracy in the world after May 2018 had zero impact on President Trump. Yes, Armenia and the US launched the strategic dialogue in May 2019, but during the virtual meeting of the dialogue on September 22, 2020, just 5 days before the launch of the Karabakh war, the key issue raised by the American side was the necessity to increase the role of women in the Armenian society.
The key for Armenia would be Biden’s strategy towards Russia. If the new US administration will imply a tough policy toward the Kremlin seeking to decrease its influence in the Post-Soviet space including the South Caucasus, it may create complications for Armenia. Yerevan now is fully dependent on Moscow and if it seeks to accommodate Biden’s Russian policy, the punishment of the Kremlin may be even severe than the 2020 Karabakh war. If Yerevan continues to be fully under the Russian shadow, Armenia – Georgia border may become a new dividing line between the US and Russia in the South Caucasus. In any case, Armenia should seek to emphasize the significance of economic relations with the US and to use Diaspora capabilities to bring American investments. FDIs from the US are the only tangible thing which Armenia should look for in 2021 – 2024 sending signals to Washington that the sole way to make Armenia more stable and more self-reliant is economic development. Obviously, the Biden administration will have neither time nor a wish to be fully involved in the Karabakh settlement process and bear any responsibility for the Russia – Turkey generated outcome of the 2020 Karabakh war.
The shock of the Karabakh war will inevitably force Armenia to re-evaluate its foreign policy priorities and the development of relations with China should be one of the key components of this process. As the first step, Armenia should bid a farewell to the old paradigm, according to which China was perceived as an ATM with limitless cash that is ready to pour money everywhere. The economy matters more for Armenia, given also the disastrous consequences of the 2020 Karabakh war. Armenia needs Chinese investments but first of all, Yerevan needs both to increase and to diversify its exports to Beijing.
However, it’s impossible to fully separate economics from politics. Yerevan needs a serious strategy to improve its political relations with China. Here Armenia, as a minimum, should refrain from participation in projects which are viewed as hostile in Beijing. In this context, the first tangible message which Armenia may send to China should be the cancellation of Armenia’s participation in the “International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance” or a public statement that Armenia will not sign any declaration or statement of the alliance criticizing China.
Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies