Richard Giragosian

Director of Regional Studies Center (RSC), Yerevan, Armenia

Apr 06, 2022
Assessing Russian Power and Influence in Armenia


In the aftermath of the 2020 war in Nagorno Karabakh, Russia was able to seize the initiative and firmly project its power in two distinct ways. First, with Armenia and Azerbaijan compelled to halt military operations and accept the terms of a Russian-imposed ceasefire agreement, the 44-day war over Karabakh ended with a cessation of hostilities in November 2021.  By ending that war through engagement, Russia consolidated its near-monopoly over mediation of Nagorno Karabakh, effectively marginalizing France and the United States as fellow brokers within the OSCE’s Minsk Group. 

The second manifestation of the Russian power projection was the deployment of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers to the Karabakh region, tasked with enforcing the ceasefire agreement.  This was a significant development as it negated the long-standing policy by Armenia and Azerbaijan to oppose any Russian military presence in Nagorno Karabakh.

Against the backdrop of a tenuous ceasefire policed unilaterally by Russia, there is an undeniable  broader post-war trend of Moscow’s growing capacity to expand and consolidate its power and influence.  This third indicator of expanding Russian power emerged in mid- to late-2021, as Russia moved to widen its military dominance over Armenia and included the establishment of Russian border guard posts and military positions within southern Armenia, exploiting a tense escalation in border clashes and following a series of incursions by Azerbaijani forces into Armenian territory.  With its resulting central role in managing negotiations over the planned restoration of regional trade and transport, Russia’s leverage over not only Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also over Turkey and Georgia seems serious and sustainable. 

From Russian Complacency to Resolute Confrontation

In early 2022, Russia’s stance toward South Caucasus seemed particularly entrenched, with little challenge and no direct rival on the horizon.  However, since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, such certainty over Russia’s power and position in the South Caucasus has faced unprecedented and unexpected challenges. Russia finds itself in a starkly different geopolitical landscape from even a month ago, with the costs rising dramatically for maintaining its power and position well beyond the conflict zone in Ukraine.

The invasion of February 24, 2022 that punctuated months of a steady buildup of Russian military forces along the borders of Ukraine dramatically and instantly altered the already delicate geopolitical landscape in the region.  Despite repeated warnings from the West, which were bolstered by specific threats of sanctions in the event of hostilities, Russia ha blatantly disregarded all attempts at a diplomatic resolution in favor a bold determination to use force of arms to escalate its conflict with Ukraine.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a profound challenge to the European security, it has rendered a significant setback to the Russian power in the South Caucasus region.  Defined and driven by the Russian resentment of any degree of “sovereign choice” among its neighbors, the Russian position is now weakened by isolation and spiking risks.  Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine was driven by weakness and insecurity, and not strength and confidence.  Yet Russia’s graduated move from compulsion to invasion was undermined by a set of five flawed assumptions and miscalculations: 

Five Flawed Assumptions and Miscalculations

  • Since its 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia has had limited contact with and even more limited comprehension of social developments in Ukraine.  This self-imposed eight years of ignorance and isolation has only fueled Moscow’s dangerous over-confidence.  Russian planners, military and political, have been hindered by the lack of a clear and coherent strategic “end state” objective.  If the original goal was to truly impose “regime change” on the democratically-elected and popular Ukrainian government, for example, it would represent a dangerous misreading of the reality on the ground in Ukraine;
  • Russia’s reflexive obsession with the West and exaggerated perception of threat posed by NATO were bolstered by the weakness of Russian policy responses — as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union failed to match NATO and the EU.  At the same time, Russia arrogantly neglected developments in its immediate neighborhood by dismissing the potency of local agency with a disdain for the genuine aspirations and sovereign choice of its neighbors; 
  • The decision to move from military-assisted compulsion to outright invasion stemmed from profound over-confidence, partially bolstered by the recent ease of a quick Russian-led CSTO deployment to Kazakhstan deployment.  Driven by a desire to reassert and project Russian power, the decision to invade Ukraine was based on a combination of three main misperceptions: a mindset still moored to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia as the most relevant model for military intervention; a predictive assessment of American distraction and weak Western resolve; and a lesson from the 2020 war for Nagorno Karabakh, which tended to affirm the use of force and that led to expectations of a weak Western response;
  • Another key flaw of the Russian strategic decision-making is its leadership which was contained in a bubble, isolated and detached, devoid of honest advice and candid assessments, and burdened by submissive ill-informed myopic “group think.”
  • And most critically, in the military context, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has proven to be much harder than expected, exacerbated by s combination of arrogant Russian military planning and inadequate preparation with a serious under-estimation of the morale, resistance and will to fight among Ukrainian defenders. 

This last factor of underlying military shortcomings is also linked to serious operational deficiencies that have been evident in Russia’s failure to gain air superiority, its under-performance and misuse of combined arms, the dramatic shortfall in “teeth to tail” logistical support and sustenance, and the decrease in combat readiness, which was particularly degraded as a result of the months-long idle buildup prior to the invasion.  Moreover, the immediate result of the invasion for Russia has been profound diplomatic isolation, exacerbated by the imposition of systemic economic sanctions.  And most notably, Russia has achieved a significant success in only one area: in uniting and unifying the West.

Impact & Implications

For Russia’s neighbors, concern over the rising tension through the past several months was replaced with worry once Russia invaded Ukraine.  As an element of Russia’s determination to impose greater control over the “near abroad” as its self-perceived sphere of influence, Ukraine has now become a central but not sole component of a new frontline of democracy.  For Russia’s neighbors, the implications are as far-ranging as the landscape itself, stretching from Ukraine through the South Caucasus and into Central Asia.  In this context, there are several significant implications, comprised of likely factors over the short, medium and longer term:

Short-term Impact

  • In the wake of the serious systemic sanctions imposed on Russia, every economy in the Russian neighborhood will face immediate challenges and looming pressure, marked by a sharp and sudden decline in remittances, which are largely denominated in the Russian ruble, triggered by the steep currency crash.  For Armenia, the value of its own currency, the dram, has fallen by as much as five percent against the US dollar since Russia launched its invasion;
  • These countries will also face the negative short-term shock from restrictions on broader regional trade and from limits on foreign travel resulting from the closure of airspace access.  And Armenia is especially vulnerable to a negative spillover from a downturn in trade, as Russia remains Armenia’s leading trading partner and primary export market, with bilateral trade expanding by 21 percent, to reach $2.6 billion last year, and because much of its wheat, cooking oil and other basic foodstuffs are imported from Russia.  In fact, even prior to the Russian invasion, food prices in Armenia increased by roughly 13 percent in 2021, with a continued upward trajectory for January and February 2022.[1]

Medium-Term Implications

  • Over the medium-term, an angry, resentful and isolated Russia will become an even more volatile driver of instability, likely tempted to leverage and provoke other conflicts in the immediate neighborhood to weaken Moldova and Georgia and to maximize pressure Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Thus, a weak, more unpredictable Russia will pose a different and even more dangerous challenge to regional security and stability;
  • Against that backdrop, we should expect a more assertive Russian crackdown throughout the “near abroad” undermining struggling democracies and targeting aspiring reformers.

Long-Term Drivers

  • Over the longer term, the post-war drivers of insecurity and instability will likely emanate from a more threatening projection of Russian power and influence across an embattled frontline of democracy, matched by greater Russian impatience and intolerance of reforming neighbors;

In turn, this will feature a new more restrictive environment as Russia demands greater fidelity and submission by its neighbors, friend and foe alike.

An Armenian Perspective

Since the time of the rare victory of non-violent “people power” in what was hailed as Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution, democracy has been consistently strengthened by two back-to-back free and fair elections.  Yet despite substantial gains in reform and serious achievements in consolidating its democracy, Armenia’s credentials have fallen short in safeguarding the country from the impact of the 2020 war for Nagorno Karabakh.  Most significantly, the 2020 war posed dangerous and distressing precedents for Armenia, standing out as a destructive demonstration of a victory of authoritarian Azerbaijan and Turkey, while also seemingly reaffirming that there was a military solution to a political conflict.[2]  Each of these dangerous precedents, if left unchallenged, only undermine Western values and elevate force of arms over diplomacy.  

The post-war Armenia faces a new challenge from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  For over twenty years, Armenian foreign policy has been defined by a pursuit of “complementarity,” where Armenia struggled to maintain a strategic “balance” between its security partnership with Russia and its interest in deepening ties to the EU and the West.  This policy has been difficult to maintain over the years, especially given the underlying trend of Armenian dependence on Russia driven by security and military ties.[3]

Since the 2020 war for Nagorno Karabakh, the limits of Russian security promises to Armenia have become open and obvious. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Armenia now faces an even more imposing and perhaps impossible challenge to meet Moscow’s expectations for loyalty and support for Russian aggression against Ukraine.

A Limited Direct Impact on Armenia

In the case of Armenia, however, concern and worry are somewhat assuaged by two factors:

  • First, the lack of any direct military involvement in the Russian invasion provides Armenia with a degree of safety from punitive measures and sanctions.  In the event of Russian attempts to use Armenia as a means to subvert or sidestep sanctions on Russian companies, there is a risk of Armenia becoming subject to secondary sanctions, however, as confirmed by the Armenian Economy Minister.[4]  But given Armenia’s demonstrable success in conforming to similar Western sanctions against Iran, and considering past precedents of Western sanctions imposed on Russia (imposed for its 2008 war in Georgia and its seizure of Crimea in 2014), which have never included Armenia, the Armenian government is expected to try harder to avoid such risk;
  • Second, Armenia holds a rare advantage of geography, defined by its distance (Armenia is further than 1400 kilometers away from Ukraine) and the lack of any land border with Russia (see map below).  In that context of geography, Armenia is far removed from the conflict and is not engaged in Russia’s war against Ukraine in any form.

Ukraine in green

Armenia in orange

Armenian Lessons

For Armenia, in terms of lessons for and from the war in Ukraine, perception is as important as reality, as defined by two reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine:

  • A demonstrable double standard in the media coverage and the concerted Western response to the war in Ukraine, in stark contrast to the elements of the 2020 war for Nagorno Karabakh;
  • Despite significant differences and the distinctly separate context between the Ukrainian and Karabakh wars, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered a robust Western reaction that imposed punitive costs and sanctions against Russian aggression that were never invoked against Azerbaijan and Turkey for their war against Karabakh in 2020.

Moreover, there is an inescapable degree of Armenian vulnerability, comprised of four factors:

  • First, and most notably, Armenia is exposed and subject to competing and contradictory demands from Russia for loyalty and submission[5], against expectations from the international community to stand against Russian aggression.  This poses a strategic risk of Armenia’s isolation on the wrong side of history, misperceived as a supplicant state or pro-Russian vassal;
  • Second, in the face of more restricted room to maneuver and fewer options under Russian pressure, the Western commitment to Armenia is in danger of coming under question, with a lack of Western understanding and patience, greater Russian intolerance, and diminished strategic significance of Armenia.  Each of these factors could combine to only enhance Armenian timidity and trepidation regarding Russia and perhaps impacting Armenian commitment to the West;
  • The third factor stems from the reality that the accidental “convergence of interests” between Russia and the West defined by a shared interest of post-war stability in Nagorno Karabakh no longer holds, with likely developments that include the demise of the OSCE Minsk Group as a mediating diplomatic format, new doubt over Russian support for Armenia-Turkey “normalization,” and a questionable Russian commitment to the restoration of regional trade and transport going forward, as well as a more bleak outlook for a Russian-supported process of border delineation and demarcation between Armenia and Azerbaijan;
  • Finally, a broader challenge to Armenian domestic efforts at reform and democratic development is the onset of new Russian pressure, and a new Russian policy framework using Armenian post-war insecurity and Nagorno Karabakh as a key “pressure point” while also leveraging Karabakh as the most attractive commodity to barter with Azerbaijan and Turkey.  

Armenia’s Response: “Strategic Silence”

In response to the changing dynamics, Armenian foreign policy establishment has engaged in a delicate diplomatic positioning, jockeying between placating and mollifying Russia while keeping its support and commitment to the Russian side minimal.  This adaptive diplomatic response relies on a tactical policy of employing “strategic silence,” designed to do and say as little as possible while avoiding any open or outright defiance of Moscow. 

This is most clearly seen in the lack of statements by the Armenian Prime Minister or Foreign Minister, and instead, issuing a diluted statement of support for a “diplomatic resolution” of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine through the Foreign Ministry spokesperson.  It is from this perspective that Armenia also exercises abstentions in key diplomatic votes in the UN and Council of Europe as a policy response. [6]

But there are limits to what such “strategic silence” can achieve for Armenia, as demonstrated by Armenia’s reluctant vote in the Council of Europe against the move to suspend Russia from that body. [7]   And although Armenia’s position, as the only other country besides Russia to oppose that move, dangerously isolates Armenia, there was little choice and even less of an alternative for Armenia.[8]  Yet the danger now is as Russia demands greater support and more open loyalty from Armenia after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, any sense of diplomatic balance may be lost, threatening to push Armenia into a vulnerable and isolated position on the wrong side of history. 

Beyond possible Russian demands for more overt signals of Armenian loyalty, Armenia facing a real risk of an even more assertive Russian policy that would seek to limit sovereign choices and strategic options of each of its neighbors. This likely Russian efforts to tighten the control over the “near abroad,” as a Russian-dominated “sphere of influence,” may only impose new limits and invoke greater demands on Armenia’s developing ties to the West, while also threatening to overturn hard-fought gains in Armenian democracy.

This report is prepared within the framework of the Border Zone project.
Director of the project: Mr. Egor Kuroptev,
director of Free Russia Foundation in South Caucasus.

[1]  Harutyunyan, Sargis, “Government Sees Tough Economic Times Ahead for Armenia,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Armenian Service, 3 March 2022.

[2]  Richard Giragosian, David G. Lewis and Graeme P. Herd, “Russian Crisis Behavior, Nagorno-Karabakh and Turkey?” Marshall Center Security Perspectives, no. 19, January 2021.

[3]  Giragosian, Richard, “Armenia’s transition: The challenges of geography, geopolitics and multipolarity,” in Broers, Laurence and Anna Ohanyan, Editors, Armenia’s Velvet Revolution. Authoritarian Decline and Civil Resistance in a Multipolar World (I.B. Tauris, September 2020).

[4]  Khulian, Artak, “Russian Firms Relocating to Armenia, Says Minister,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Armenian Service, 1 March 2022.

[5] Armenia can never contribute to transfer & deployment of foreign terrorist fighters to through its territory – PM Pashinyan

[6]  “Armenia Abstains from UN Vote on Ukraine,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Armenian Service, 3 March 2022.

[7]  For more, see: Avetisyan, Ani, “Armenia stands alone in support for Russia in Council of Europe,” OC Media, 26 February 2022.

[8]  Nalbandian, Naira, “Yerevan Defends Opposition to Council of Europe Action against Russia,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Armenian Service, 1 March 2022.