Armenia seeks to be Western ally in Putin’s backyard

Armenia seeks to be Western ally in Putin’s backyard

While international attention has been focused on the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, with fears of a conflict between Iran and Israel, a crisis of great geopolitical significance is unfolding in the Caucasus.

After a short and brief conflict with Azerbaijan, a neighbouring adversary, Armenia is in the process of breaking away from its historic ties with Russia to become a Western ally in Vladimir Putin’s backyard.

Players engaged in the bloody strife in Ukraine and the Middle East are also present in this one. Russia – the supposed ally of Armenia – failed to protect the country from Azerbaijani invasion and has appeared to have changed sides. Israel, which has sent huge quantities of weapons to help Azerbaijan – and Shia Iran, which has declared that it will not allow its border with Armenia to slip into control of hostile Azerbaijan and the “Zionist entity” backing it.

Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, knows the pitfalls he faces in managing the pivot to the West while, at the same time, avoiding another war with Azerbaijan which holds the whip hand militarily, and whose ruler, Ilham Aliyev, has continued to threaten further offensives.

Pashinyan’s attempts at a balancing act have led to accusations of appeasement at home, with claims he is making too many concessions to Aliyev with little in return. Protests are taking place over his government’s decision last week to hand over four villages to Azerbaijan.

In the week Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day is marked in the country, held to commemorate the death of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 under the Ottoman empire, there are reflections not just about the past, but worries about what lies ahead. Defeat in the recent war with Azerbaijan, and the loss of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, has led to deep concern, and the need to find allies for possible trouble ahead.

Speaking in the capital, Yerevan, to a small group of British journalists, Pashinyan acknowledges that “the Russian Federation is a serious and significant player in the South Caucasus region”. But says there have been moves by Armenia to forge strong links with Western states and the European Union, especially since protests led to political reforms six years ago.

In that sense, Pashinyan says: “We never were far from the West. Our achievements in the field of democracy have created an objective reality where our relationship can develop dynamically but for a moment … we’ve said that democracy for us is not a policy adopted by circumstances, it is a strategy we have adopted.”

Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh and European Union observers drive their cars past a checkpoint on the road from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia’s Goris (AP)
Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh and European Union observers drive their cars past a checkpoint on the road from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia’s Goris (AP)

The turbulences of recent years has led to new alliances being formed, Pashinyan says: “We are indeed diversifying foreign relations but we're not the only ones who are doing it. Practically around the world you would not find any actor which is not diversifying its foreign relations. Armenia could not step aside this new trend.

“As to further rapprochement with the European Union. I said in my speech before the European parliament that the Republic of Armenia is ready to be as close with the European Union as the European Union sees possible. At the moment, we seem to be moving in this direction because, very importantly, this is a public process. Transparency is of the utmost importance for us.”

The prime minister described the passing of the villages to Azerbaijan as a local issue and carried out to maintain peace.

“The quality of implementation of these local agreements will increase or decrease trust in the peace agenda and the feasibility of peace.” The deal had been put together “molecule by molecule, to build trust, to build confidence, and, if treated delicately and with care, it can develop. And if not treated with care, it may fall apart,” he argues.

The move towards the West has been coupled with rising antipathy and distrust towards Russia, once viewed as a staunch ally – a fellow Christian state in a predominantly Muslim Caucasus. Moscow signed an agreement with Azerbaijan just before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which made many in Armenia wonder what they may face in the future.

There was no help from Moscow when Azerbaijani forces went into Nagorno-Karabakh last year. Pashinyan feels the Russia had failed a regional security pact the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) by refusing to stop the invasion. Armenia has, in response, frozen its membership of the pact and: “If things continue the way they are, if the political statements continue, then that line will be crossed, and resuming participation in the CSTO will then be rendered impossible in practice.”

A recent poll showed Armenians see Russia as the third most unpopular country after Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Mineral-rich Azerbaijan has military support from a number of states and questions have been asked whether the West is doing enough to help Armenia.

France has sent arms to Yerevan, whose other main defence backer has been India. Britain has expressed support for Armenian territorial integrity, but BP has provided $35bn (£28.2bn) worth of oil and gas to Azerbaijan in the last four years – four times the country’s national budget.

Asked whether the UK should be using this as leverage to persuade Azerbaijan against pursuing aggressive action, the prime minister says: “Usually I would not like to comment based on business activities and investments which are made in neighbouring countries. But one thing I would say is that any investment is or should be motivated by having peace in the region or the environment in which the investment is made. And I think generally, establishing peace, achieving peace for the international community and for the investors is of interest, but of course the very first beneficiaries of peace are Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

The Aliyev government has reacted to Armenia acquiring weapons with claims that it will destabilise the region. Pashinyan says “in the military budgets, there is a major misbalance in favour of Azerbaijan. But even with this misbalance Azerbaijan is responding very aggressively to our [military] reforms. These acquisitions are solely of a defensive nature, a strong army is sometimes used for war, but having such an army is also important for peace and for the balance of power.

“Beyond the internationally recognised borders, Armenia has no aspirations, no claims, and we hope that in the border delimitation process, the territorial integrity of the Republic of Armenia will be restored.”