Opinion: New twists in Armenian-Russian relations

Armenia-Russia relations have been the cornerstone of Armenian foreign policy since Armenia’s independence in September 1991. Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union Armenia found itself in a multi-dimensional crisis – the war in Karabakh, a blockade imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey, and steep economic decline. In those circumstances, Armenia had no alternative but to forge a strategic alliance with Russia. Thus, Yerevan signed the Collective Security Treaty in May 1992, Russian border troops were deployed along the Armenia–Turkey and Armenia–Iran borders, and in 1995 Russia took over the former Soviet military base in Gyumri.

Bilateral relations have not been based only on pure geopolitical calculations. History played a significant role too, and it should be noted that Armenians had both positive and negative memories of their past interactions with Russia. The Russian Empire took over Eastern Armenia in the first half of the 19th century and this was perceived as a positive development as Muslim Persian rulers were replaced by Christian and more modern Russian Empire. However, the close cooperation between Bolshevik Russia and Kemalist Turkey in Autumn 1920 during the 1920 Turkey - Armenia war which resulted in territorial losses for Armenia, inflicted significant damage to Armenians’ perceptions of Russia.  On the other hand, the impressive economic and demographic growth of Soviet Armenia during the Soviet period was perceived as one of the best times in Armenian history, starting from at least the 11th century AD.

Since the end of the first Karabakh war in May 1994, Armenia has been firmly anchored in the Russian sphere of influence. The 2002 membership into the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Summer 2010 agreement to extend the Russian military base deployment in Armenia until 2044 were perceived as necessary steps to guarantee Armenian security. Economic ties were developing too, though several deals such as the "Assets for debt” agreement signed in November 2002 triggered a tacit anti-Russian sentiment in society. However, the key for Armenia was the settlement of the Karabakh conflict. The strategic alliance with Russia was perceived as an absolute necessity to prevent direct Turkish military involvement, while Armenia was supposed to counter Azerbaijan by its own military. The membership into CSTO provided Armenia with an opportunity to buy Russian weapons at reduced prices, and this was a significant advantage given the growing financial gap between Armenia and Azerbaijan due to the Azerbaijani oil and gas boom.

The second Karabakh war has put new dilemmas into Armenia–Russia relations. It should be noted that the former Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan was ready to accept the OSCE Minsk Group offered Kazan document, which envisaged the return to Azerbaijan of 5 regions around Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous region within its 1988 borders, while forcing Azerbaijan to accept the results of the legally binding expression of will planned to be held in Karabakh. However, as Azerbaijan rejected the Kazan document and the idea of the referendum which was one of the key components of the so-called “Basic principles”, Russia put forward a revised version of the Kazan document the so-called “Lavrov plan”, which included some additional amendments favourable for Azerbaijan. Russia proposed the return of five regions to Azerbaijan immediately, and the remaining two regions one year after the signing of the Lavrov plan, while dropping the idea of a referendum. The Armenian authorities rejected the "Lavrov plan”, and initially the plan was not welcomed by Azerbaijan either. Baku launched a military pressure campaign in 2014 which culminated in the 2016 April four-day war. After that war, Russia continued to push forward the Lavrov plan, while Armenia was insisting on the implementation of the “Basic principles” and managed to bring a new parameter into the negotiation process during Vienna and Saint Petersburg OSCE Minsk Group Co chairs-initiated Summits of May and June 2016 – the introduction of the ceasefire violation investigation mechanisms. Thus, we may assume that even before the "Velvet revolution” of 2018 there were disagreements between Armenia and Russia on the settlement prospects of the Karabakh issue.

The "Velvet revolution” and Pashinyan’s statement that the new government rejects all documents elaborated before April 2018 created a vacuum in the negotiations. The new Armenian government rejected the Basic principles, the Kazan document, the Lavrov plan, as well as agreements reached during the Vienna and Saint Petersburg summits. In turn, no clearly defined new formula for negotiations was offered besides the rather ambiguous statement that the settlement should satisfy peoples of Armenia, Karabakh, and Azerbaijan. The demand to bring back the representatives of the unrecognised Nagorno Karabakh Republic to the negotiation table, while stating that “Karabakh is Armenia”, added more confusion. Meanwhile, Russia was actively pushing forward the "Lavrov plan” and most probably at the beginning of 2020 got preliminary agreement from Azerbaijan. Armenia’s continued rejection of the "Lavrov plan", the Basic principles, and the absence of any proposals regarding the new formula most probably laid the ground for some sort of Azerbaijan–Russia understanding about the possibility to start a large-scale war, to defeat Armenia, and to force it to accept the Lavrov plan. As of today, it’s impossible to assess with precision if Turkey was part of these discussions or not, but obviously, there was active Azerbaijan–Turkey preparation for the war, and Russia was aware of that.

The end of the Karabakh war, the trilateral statement, and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers has now created a new framework for Armenia–Russia relations. Two narratives prevail in Armenia now. According to the first one, Russia betrayed Armenia the same way as the Bolsheviks did in Autumn 1920, by tacitly supporting Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s war against Karabakh, and reached a deal with Baku and Ankara to divide the Nagorno Karabakh Republic between Azerbaijan and Russia. In this logic, the Nagorno Karabakh Republic is currently occupied by Azerbaijan and Russia.

The second narrative accepts that Russia gave a 'green light' to Azerbaijan to start the war on 27 September, but only after Armenia rejected to accept 'Lavrov plan' while being warned that in that case, large scale war was inevitable. Meanwhile, according to that narrative, Russia was interested to have Azerbaijani troops advancing only up to the 1988 borders of Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region, while Azerbaijan and Turkey decided to change the “deal” during the war and invade the whole NK. This was the reason for President Putin’s offer to stop the war on October 20, when Shushi was still under Armenian control. However, after the Armenian Prime Minister had rejected that offer, and after on 5-8 November Azerbaijani soldiers entered Shushi, Russia took decisive action to force both Armenia and Azerbaijan to sign the trilateral statement, thus preventing Azerbaijan from taking over the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh. Had that happened it would have meant that no Russian troops would need to be deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh to balance the Turkish influence in Azerbaijan, and possibly could have created conditions for the Armenian authorities to blame Russia for the loss of NK, triggering anti-Russian sentiments, and starting the process of leaving the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union.

Meanwhile, the supporters of both narratives agree that as a result of the 10 November trilateral statement, and deployment of Russian peacekeepers, Armenia now is more dependent on Russia than at any time since September 1991. The hasty process of the de facto demarcation of the Armenia–Azerbaijan border in the Syunik region of Armenia, without any legal process, resulted in the deployment of Azerbaijani soldiers along the Goris-Kapan highway and along several roads connecting Goris and Kapan cities to several Armenian villages in the Syunik region. This situation forced Armenia to ask Russia to deploy Russian border troops in the Syunik region along the Armenia–Azerbaijan border to provide security for the roads that are now partly under Azerbaijani control. Thus, now not only the Armenian borders with Turkey and Iran, but also part of the Armenian border with Azerbaijan is protected by Russian border troops, and furthermore, without Russian border troops support and protection people simply can’t drive from Yerevan and Goris to Kapan (capital of Syunik region), and can’t drive from Yerevan to Iran and vice versa, as the Armenia - Iran international highway passes through Goris and Kapan. Currently, an old alternative Goris-Kapan road is being renovated, but it could not fully replace Armenia - Iran international highway. The deployment of Russian border troops in the Syunik region significantly increases Russian influence and leverage over Armenia, something which will definitely impact Armenia–Russia relations in the future.

Source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
Photo: An Armenian woman presents a cake decorated with the flags of Russia and that of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic to a Russian soldier part of a contingent recently deployed to Karabakh (picture courtesy of the press service of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation).
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