Armenia needs alternatives to Russia and Iran — Indro

Armenia is far from perfect, but it is a democracy. Two of Armenia’s closest partners are Russia and Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran is characterized by the repression of women and minority groups. The Russian Federation is defined by its imperialist ambitions to invade and annex former Soviet republics. Whether they are good or bad options, these are existential partnerships for Armenia due to the threat posed – and strategic advantage held – by Azerbaijan. To be clear: Armenia’s geopolitical situation is precarious and needs alternatives to Russia and Iran.

Armenia’s partnership with Iran is pragmatic. Armenia is cursed by geography. Blocked by an antagonistic Turkey to the west and an even more hostile Azerbaijan to the east, the connection of Armenia with the world it depends on Georgia to the north and a border crossing with Iran to the south. While Iran’s direct military support to Armenia is limited, Armenia and Iran share a common cause in their respective disputes with Azerbaijan.

While Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan is known, the tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran are not as well known. Simply put, Baku and Tehran have quasi-territorial disputes based on incompatible worldviews. On the one hand, the Azerbaijani concept of Bütöv Azərbaycan – Greater Azerbaijan – is based on the unification of lands historically inhabited by Azerbaijanis into a single state. This includes Armenian territory west of Azerbaijan and Iranian territory south of Azerbaijan. On the other hand, Iran has long viewed Azerbaijan as a lost territory that belongs to its sphere of influence. Like Iran’s ties to Iraq and Lebanon, this is mainly due to Shiite majority of Azerbaijan.

Historically, i Azerbaijani peoples resided at the crossroads of the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Persia. Today the population of Azerbaijan is about 10 million . While Iran has over 85 million inhabitants, over the 15% of Iranians identify as Azerbaijani. Indeed, there are more Azeris living in Iran than in Azerbaijan itself. Clearly, the potential of Iranian Azerbaijani separatism threatens Iran’s territorial integrity. Similarly, Iran’s vision of incorporating Azerbaijani Shiites under the Iranian flag also endangers Azerbaijan’s sovereignty.

Since ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, Iran’s disputes with Azerbaijan result in a strategic partnership with Israel. Eg, Israel represented over 25% of all arms transfers to Azerbaijan between 2011 and 2020. In return, Azerbaijan provides Israel with access to airfields near the roughly 420-mile border with Iran. Should war break out between Tel Aviv and Tehran, this access would allow Israeli fighters to bypass Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi airspace and more easily reach military targets in Iran.

Azerbaijan is also an ally of Turkey. A regional powerhouse at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Turkey is a major transit hub at the mouth of the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey also exercises a significant influence within NATO. Azerbaijan and Turkey are both Turkish-speaking countries and members of the Organization of Turkish States (OAS).

Azerbaijan’s strategic advantage over Armenia goes beyond its special relationship with Israel and the alliance’fraternal‘ with Turkey. Unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan also has natural gas and oil.

Eurasia’s appetite for energy has made Azerbaijan one of the fastest growing economies of the 21st century. For example, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline (BTC) can transport more than one million barrels of oil per day from Azerbaijan to Georgia via Turkey to the Turkish port of Ceyhan for export to international markets. Similarly, the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) transports gas from Azerbaijan through Georgia and Turkey to Greece, Albania and Italy. Keep calm, Azerbaijan will continue to benefit of Europe’s diversification from Russian fossil fuels.

Armenia’s alliance with Russia has historical roots. Armenia was the first Christian state. Russia was seen as the defender of the Christian minorities of Asia Minor. After the Armenian Genocide, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the fall of the Russian Empire and the failure of independence movements in the Caucasus, the Soviets took control of Armenia and incorporated it into the Soviet Union. Armenia gained independence and began its transition to democracy only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today Armenia is a member of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), has a defense agreement bilateral with Russia, hosts several Russian military bases and relies on Russian guards to protect its borders.

The CSTO is the Russian equivalent of NATO. Its members are Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Armenia. While NATO has its problems, the cohesion of the CSTO is non-existent. For example, conflict erupts between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan every few months . Similarly, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are also members of the Organization of Turkish States (OTS). In other words, both share close diplomatic ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey despite owing security guarantees to Armenia. Clearly, this deal does not work in Armenia’s favor.

Article 4 of the CSTO states that an attack on one member state is considered an attack on all member states. When President Tokayev asked for assistance in suppressing protests in January 2022, the CSTO, including Armenia, has sent peacekeepers to Kazakhstan. When Prime Minister Pashinyan has invoked Article 4 Following Azerbaijan’s violation of the ceasefire agreement in September 2022, the CSTO did not respond to Armenia’s call for help let alone condemn Azerbaijan’s aggression. As far as Armenia is concerned, the CSTO’s security guarantees are not worth the paper they are written on.

Moscow mediated the ceasefire agreement of November 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia’s obligations include deploying peacekeepers and protecting the Lachin Corridor which serves as a lifeline for more than 120,000 Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh. Unlike peacekeeping operations in Cyprus and Kosovo, Russia’s deployment in Nagorno Karabakh is not requested by the United Nations and is devoid of international commitment. Evidently, Russia’s unilateralism lacks the civilian oversight and accountability mechanisms that make other peacekeeping arrangements work. As the Lachin Corridor has been blocked by the Azeris since 12 December 2022, the Russian peacekeeping mission it clearly doesn’t work.

To make matters worse for Armenia, Moscow’s unilateralism is complemented by Russian ambisiderism. For Armenia, Russia is an ally. For Russia, Armenia is a client. In terms of Russian grand strategy, Moscow wants to maintain its influence in Baku while limiting that of Ankara, at the expense of Armenia. Thus, Russia is still the largest arms exporter to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, despite its security guarantees in Yerevan. For example, Russia represented the 60% of arms transfers to Azerbaijan and a huge 94% of arms transfers to Armenia in the run-up to the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.

From a geopolitical perspective, it appears that Russia and the CSTO helped Azerbaijan checkmate Armenia. Of course, Baku maintains a strategic edge over Yerevan. However, Armenia still has options at its disposal to save the day. The key lies in Armenia’s democratic orientation and the influence exerted by the Armenian diaspora in other democracies such as the United States and France.

The West has repeatedly signaled its intention to intensify engagement with Armenia. In September 2022, spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi became the highest-ranking US official to visit Armenia since it gained independence. In October 2022, President Macron and President Michel negotiated an EU fact-finding mission to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border with Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Aliyev. In December 2022, Canada opened its consulate in Armenia in Yerevan. The list goes on and on, but the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine will either push Armenia closer to the West for the better or increase Armenia’s dependence on Russia for the worse.

There are two policies Armenia could pursue to improve its strategic position. In the first place, Armenia should push for greater international engagement in Nagorno Karabakh. The request for an international fact-finding mission to the Lachin Corridor is a step in the right direction. However, Yerevan needs to go further. Armenia’s hardliners should demand that an international peacekeeping force be deployed to replace or accompany Russian peacekeepers in the Lachin Corridor. Armenia’s Red Line is expected to be a permanent multilateral civilian monitoring mission in Stepanakert to complement the Russian-Turkish Joint Monitoring Center in Aghdam. Increasing the number of international stakeholders and deepening their engagement is key to improving Armenia’s strategic position and reducing the likelihood of Azerbaijani aggression.

Secondly, Armenia is expected to withdraw from the CSTO. Unfortunately, the CSTO’s security guarantees are undermined by alliances and divergent interests within the alliance. Armenia cannot rely on Russia and the CSTO to prevent – nor protect it from – Azerbaijani aggression because Yerevan’s national security concerns diverge from Moscow’s strategic designs. Worse, CSTO membership makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Armenia to diversify its supply of military equipment, modernize its military, and seek alternative bilateral or multilateral security arrangements from the West or elsewhere. Evidently, withdrawing from the CSTO would allow Armenia to pursue a policy of strategic ambiguity.

One thing is certain: Azerbaijan maintains a strategic advantage over Armenia. If the balance of power remains unchanged, Baku is unlikely to wait 26 years before launching the next war; this time, he aimed to build a land bridge from Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan.

Armenia needs alternatives to Russia and Iran — Indro