The current conflict in Ukraine has preoccupied Western media, analysts, scholars, and policymakers for well over a year now – and has left many of the assumptions that once governed relations between Russia and the West in tatters. There is little doubt that the outcome of the drama being played out in the east of that country will shape new rules of the game between Moscow, the former Soviet republics, and Brussels, possibly for decades to come. Conscious of this fact, the smaller states in the Eastern Partnership region – Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan – view the Ukrainian crisis as a decisive moment: one that might determine the nature of their statehoods in the foreseeable future.
To some extent, the plight of the weakest, and most dependent of these smaller states – Armenia – should have alerted policymakers to the seriousness of Russia’s intentions in re-asserting its position within ‘its’ near abroad. Indeed, Yerevan was clearly strong-armed into the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU). The country had been expected to initial its Association Agreement with the EU in Vilnius during November of that year, after the successful conclusion of negotiations in June. So when its president, Serj Sargsyan, announced his dramatic U-turn on 3 September 2013, it came as a shocking surprise to both officials and seasoned observers of Armenian politics.
Yerevan was clearly strong-armed into the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU)
Previously, the Kremlin had tolerated Yerevan’s limited co-operation with NATO and participation in the ENP, partly because Yerevan’s already deep and apparently irreversible military-strategic dependence on Moscow paradoxically made such engagement palatable; and, in any case, as was often pointed out by Yerevan in its refusals to join the Russian-led bloc, Armenia’s small economy did not share a border with the ECU. For Russia, the marginal gain of Yerevan’s membership was therefore minimal, both in geopolitical and geo-economic terms. The fact that it was nonetheless strong-armed into a policy shift should have been an early signal to all concerned – primarily in the former Soviet Union – that the Putin administration ‘meant business’ in pressing ahead with its regional project.
While Russia may have gained little with Armenia’s accession to the ECU – which was formalised at the beginning of this year – the costs for Armenia have been considerable. These costs go beyond the clash between the country’s WTO and ECU commitments, or the further deepening of its economy’s dependence on Russian energy and remittances. They include Armenia’s much reduced ability to hedge against major geopolitical shift in its region – something the country once aspired to through the ‘complementarity’ of its foreign policy.
Armenia’s dependence on Russia was apparent during the Nagorno-Karabakh war – won in no small part because of Russian material support; and it intensified following the 1998 removal of the country’s first post-Soviet president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, under his successors, Robert Kocharyan and Serj Sargsyan. But throughout these periods, Yerevan’s strategic dependence on Moscow was (however partially and imperfectly) counterbalanced by active participation in Western structures, like various EU programmes – from TACIS to the ENP – and NATO’s Partnership for Peace.
Armenia’s dependence on Russia was apparent during the Nagorno-Karabakh war
Even after its accession to the ECU, Armenia has displayed a dogged determination to adhere to the last remnants of complementarity: it has declared its readiness to negotiate with the EU on an Association Agreement ‘lite’, and its representatives in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) pointedly abstained during a recent resolution suspending Russia’s membership of that body.
To some, this combination of a clear strategic dependence on Russia with sporadic interaction with the West might seem inconsistent; it is, however, the result of the contradictory pressures Armenia’s elites have to contend with – from the domestic and regional levels, pitting the shadows of the past against the realities of the present and the uncertainties of the future.
Armenians have largely accepted their country’s pro-Russian orientation for two reasons. Firstly, the overwhelming focus of domestic politics on the Karabakh conflict has obscured the costs paid by Armenia in terms of the hollowing-out of its sovereignty and independence; secondly, on a regional level, Armenia’s interest in maintaining the de-facto status-quo in Karabakh has – so far at least – coincided with Russia’s interest in maintaining that very status quo.
The first, domestic element is related to the place of history in Armenia’s national identity, and should therefore be taken as a constant. If anything, the emphasis laid by Armenian governments since 1998 on ethnic rather than civic notions of nationalism has reinforced the place of Nagorno-Karabakh in local existential narratives. Continued control over the enclave remains a matter of life and death for Armenians as an ethnic group; issues of state sovereignty and independence become secondary considerations that emerge sporadically, when post-colonial sleights – like the aftermath of the recent Gyumri massacre, or the humiliation of an Armenian citizen in Russia – temporarily overwhelm that existential fear.
Much of Yerevan’s pro-Russian ‘strategic lock’ thus emerges from linkages between the Karabakh conflict and relations with Turkey, in effect precluding the unequivocal pro-Western, pro-NATO orientation evidenced in neighbouring Georgia. Ankara and Baku are seen as greater threats than Moscow; and threats are to be balanced against.
But viewed from the second, regional perspective, Armenia’s alliance with Russia becomes far less secure. Granted, military agreements with Moscow have provided for security guarantees and preferential arms supplies. But those security guarantees remain untested, and technically do not extend to the one issue that has moved Armenian politics since independence – Nagorno-Karabakh; meanwhile, Yerevan’s Russian ally has become one of Azerbaijan’s largest arms suppliers (admittedly charging full prices in light of Baku’s enhanced, oil-fuelled purchasing power).
Moscow has a fundamental interest in keeping the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict frozen
Divide and rule
Moscow’s – some would say cynical – claim to act as peacemaker within the Minsk Group while simultaneously arming both sides in the conflict is part of a long-running divide-and-rule policy. After all, Moscow has a fundamental interest in keeping the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict frozen: Karabakh can be used as a disciplinary mechanism against both Yerevan and Baku (in fact, sources close to the Kremlin claimed it played a role in Putin’s pressuring of Sargsyan in 2013). More importantly, this regional sore precludes any tri-lateral co-operation between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. It is part of a divide-et-impera approach to the region that pre-dates by more than a century the transformation of its three main nations from colonial subalterns to legally sovereign states.
Armenia’s openings to the West have, partially at least, been driven by worst-case scenarios: a withdrawal of Russia from the Caucasus, or a reconfiguration of the divide-and-rule policies outlined above against Armenia’s interests. Both have been well within the realm of possibilities at various points in the past two-and-a-half decades.
Such hedging has now become much less plausible; and needless to say, being at the mercy of one single great power is not an enviable position for a small state to find oneself in.