The defeat in the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war shocked Armenia and Armenians all around the world, and destroyed many deeply entrenched perspectives on Armenia's geo-political realities, writes Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed for commonspace.eu. "Armenia should establish new partnerships that will allow Yerevan to decrease its economic and military development gap with Azerbaijan while adding a new layer of deterrence against Turkey in addition to the existing strategic alliance with Russia.
"In this context, India is the natural choice for Armenia", he argues. "All the necessary ingredients are there to boost Armenia – India relations and bring them to the level of strategic partnership. There is an urgent need to institutionalize the ties, and the first step toward that direction could be establishing an Armenia - India high-level cooperation council. It should have annual sessions with the participation of Armenian and Indian Prime Ministers. At the same time, joint strategic planning groups should be established under the council to develop concrete projects in different spheres."
The defeat in the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war shocked Armenia and Armenians all around the world. It ruined many perceptions deeply entrenched in political elites, expert and academic communities, and broader society: including that the Armenian army was the strongest in the South Caucasus, that Russia would not allow Turkey's involvement in Azerbaijan's war against Armenia, and that the West would not allow authoritarian Azerbaijan and Turkey to attack democratic Armenia. All these assumptions were crushed within 44 days, leaving Armenia facing a much harsher geopolitical reality.
Despite this terrible outcome, many in Armenia believed that November 10, 2020, trilateral statement would foment a new status quo. Russia would firmly guarantee the security of Nagorno Karabakh by deploying peacekeepers there. At the same time, Armenia might seek to normalize relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey without being under the constant pressure of new military attacks. However, the start of the war in Ukraine shattered these hopes too. Russia appeared to be focused on Ukraine, as the growing Russia – West confrontation consumed Russian resources. The rise of the new 'iron curtain" between Russia and the West has significantly increased the role of Turkey for Russia as a hub for export/import operations. Reliance on Turkey emphasized the need for Russia to keep friendly relations with Azerbaijan to launch Russia – Azerbaijan – Iran transport corridor.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan and Turkey pursued a coercive diplomacy strategy toward Armenia. Baku and Ankara want Armenia to accept their vision of future regional security architecture, and are ready to use force, as was proved in May, November 2021 and September 2022. The ongoing blockade of Lachin corridor is a part of the same game.
In the current circumstances, Armenia has few options. Yerevan may acquiesce to Azerbaijani – Turkish pressure and sign a peace agreement on their terms. However, as the rules-based international order is unraveling, there are no guarantees that Azerbaijan and Turkey will not demand new concessions from Armenia in the future, while Yerevan will have no internal or external resources to resist.
The second option is to continue multiformat negotiations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, seeking to use the presence of different external actors in the South Caucasus as a deterrence against new large-scale aggression of Azerbaijan. Currently, the military power balance is in favor of Azerbaijan, and Armenia should do its best to avoid a new war. However, the essential pillar of this second strategy should not be a simple postponement of new Azerbaijani aggression. Armenia should establish new partnerships that will allow Yerevan to decrease its economic and military development gap with Azerbaijan while adding a new layer of deterrence against Turkey in addition to the existing strategic alliance with Russia.
In this context, India is the natural choice for Armenia. The Armenian and Indian nations share a long history of friendly interactions, and during their millennia-long relations, the two countries have never acted against each other. The vibrant Armenian community in India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries played a significant role in fomenting ties between the two people. At the same time, friendly relations between India and the Soviet Union contributed to the re-emergence of contacts.
However, history is not the primary bond between Armenia and India. As the global order passes through its most significant transformation since the end of the Cold War and the unipolar moment fades away, India is set to become one of the primary actors of the emerging multipolar world. It is too early to assess when and how this transformation will end, but one thing is clear, in the twenty-first century, several actors will yield global influence, and India will be among these few. Meanwhile, as Turkey under President Erdogan has embarked on the path to becoming a regional powerhouse in its neighborhoods, including Central Asia, South Asia, South Caucasus, Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, and Western Balkans, India is increasingly concerned about the growing Turkey – Pakistan strategic partnership, which recently was enlarged by the inclusion of Azerbaijan. Turkey brought Pakistan into South Caucasus, and on November 10, 2020, as Azerbaijan celebrated its military victory over Armenia, the Azerbaijani capital was full of Pakistani flags as a sign of gratitude to Pakistan for its support during the war.
The emergence of the Turkey – Pakistan – Azerbaijan partnership, which may very soon be transformed into a strategic alliance, brought the South Caucasus into the focus of Indian foreign policy. As Armenia faces pressure and military blackmail from Azerbaijan and Turkey it is well suited to become an indispensable partner for India in the South Caucasus, to play a role of buffer against Turkey.
The friendly relations between Armenia and Iran and India’s interest in using Iran as a country to reach Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Europe add additional geopolitical and geo-economic value to Armenia – India relations. Iran, like India, does not want to see Turkish dominance in the South Caucasus and is extremely concerned about the growing Panturkism fever spreading in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. As India pursues a balanced policy in the Russia – West confrontation, growing Armenia – India relations will not raise many concerns in Moscow. The Kremlin does not view a potential Indian involvement in the South Caucasus as detrimental to its interests, which cannot be said for the EU, and especially the US activities.
An Armenia - India partnership also has a geo-economic dimension. Since 2016 Armenia and Iran, along with Georgia, Bulgaria, and Greece, have been negotiating the launch of the "Persian Gulf – Black Sea" multimodal transport corridor to connect Iran with Europe. The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and re-imposition of American sanctions created additional obstacles for this project, but it did not lose its significance. India is looking to establish new India – Europe transport routes. As reaching Europe via Iran and Russia (International North-South Transport Corridor) seems unlikely due to Western sanctions imposed on Russia, the "Persian Gulf – Black Sea" corridor may become a valuable platform for India to reach Europe via Iran, Armenia, and Georgia.
Another area for Armenia – India economic cooperation is IT and pharmaceuticals. Armenia and India have vibrant IT industries, and the IT sector in Armenia recorded an average of 25 percent growth in the last ten years. The 22 percent appreciation of the Armenian currency in 2022 put significant pressure on the IT sector, and new partnerships with Indian companies may decrease the negative consequences of currency fluctuations for the Armenian IT sector. In recent years, the Armenian pharmaceutical sector has been among the best-performing sections of the Armenian economy, while India is one of the world leaders in this sphere.
All the necessary ingredients are there to boost Armenia – India relations and bring them to the level of strategic partnership. There is an urgent need to institutionalize the ties, and the first step toward that direction could be establishing an Armenia - India high-level cooperation council. It should have annual sessions with the participation of Armenian and Indian Prime Ministers. At the same time, joint strategic planning groups should be established under the council to develop concrete projects in different spheres.