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Richard Giragosian

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

Jan 06, 2022
Assessing Russian Power & Influence in Armenia

Report is prepared in the framework of the Border Zone project

Summary

With the unexpected Armenian military defeat in the 2020 war for Nagorno Karabakh, Russia has been able to significantly expand and consolidate its power and influence in Armenia. Faced with an Armenian government endowed with a rare degree of legitimacy, stemming from the re-election of its democratically-elected leader, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Moscow has been careful to avoid and direct interference or intervention in domestic Armenian politics, however. Instead, Russian power projection has focused on Armenia’s dependence on Russian security and military ties, with the unilateral peacekeeping deployment of Russian forces into Nagorno Karabakh representing the most visible display of this dependence. At the same time, Russia also relies on consolidating its leverage over Armenia from Russian-owned and -controlled sectors of the Armenian economy, as well as the application of pressure on Armenia’s limited room to maneuver and less options in conducting its foreign policy. Thus, for post-war Armenia, despite gains in democracy and reform, the outlook remains challenging, as each step increasing Russian power and influence results in a corresponding erosion of Armenian independence and sovereignty.

Introduction

Of the various states of the former Soviet Union, Armenia has long been seen as the most loyal, and perhaps most subservient, to Russia. For Russia, its leverage over Armenia has depended on a “3G” approach, consisting of a combination of Guns and discounted weapons, below market Gas supplies, and Goods, as both a major trading partner and as the dominant force of the Eurasian Economic Union. And for Armenia, the alliance with Russia is acutely defended as a “strategic partnership,” it is more accurately defined by a dangerous Armenian over-dependence on Russia. Driven by an imperative of threat perception over the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and the internet promise of a security guarantee, Russia has long represented Armenia’s priority partner. And over time, Armenian-Russian relations have steadily devolved as Armenia has mortgaged its own independence.

Russia & Armenian Political Developments

For Russia, Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution,” which ushered in a sweeping change in leadership and heralded the onset of a more democratic and accountable government, was an important test. As a model that only undermines the authority of the authoritarian regimes throughout much of the post-Soviet landscape, it also stood out as a rather unacceptable challenge to the Russian preference for subservient states and co-opted elites. Yet Russia’s response to developments in Armenia was surprisingly and uncharacteristically passive and permissive, largely due to several factors. First, from a broader perspective, Moscow has been especially wary over the past year of how it deals with Armenia. That wariness stems from a belated recognition of the need to address what has become a deepening crisis in relations between Armenia and Russia, which peaked afterthe April 2016 fighting over Nagorno Karabakh, in the most serious fighting since the 1990s and that was a rare victory for Azerbaijan.

A second serious driver for a softer Russian policy is rooted in the Russian recognition of a dynamic and unpredictable situation on the ground in Armenia, where demonstrators posed a combustible situation that Moscow was ill-equipped to understand, let alone to counter. At the same time, with no demonstrable role of either the United States or the European Union on the ground, there seems to be a related decision by Moscow to not unnecessarily prompt or provoke a Western response by adopting a more direct policy of engagement on the Armenian street.

Nevertheless, by virtue of the very success of the “Velvet Revolution,” Armenia stands out as a still vulnerable exception to the traditional Russian preference for compliant partners. As a dangerous model of potential inspiration for other opposition forces in other counties, Moscow will clearly be closely watching developments in Armenia while waiting for any danger signs of discord in its authoritarian post-Soviet partners and client states.

More recently, Russian pressure on Armenia has continued. Despite the reelection of the Pashinyan government the June 2021 early parliamentary election, Moscow benefited from several disturbing trends in Armenian domestic politics, with growing concern over the implementation of democratic reforms. These trends include three main areas of vulnerability:

  • A Prolonged “State of War.” Armenian society has been unable to overcome the shock from the unexpected military defeat in the war for Karabakh that ended in November 2020. While this was exacerbated by the Armenian government’s failure to prepare public opinion for the scale and severity of the military defeat in the 44-day war, it was also due to the prolonged “state of war” as a result of Azerbaijan’s failure to release a sizable number of Armenian military prisoners of war and civilian hostages.
  • Post-War Uncertainty & Insecurity. A second factor contributing to the escalation of the post- war crisis has been the uncertainty and insecurity in the new post-war reality. With a delay in the resumption of diplomatic negotiations, this uncertainty stems from the vague and incomplete terms of the Russian-imposed agreement that ended the war in November 2021. Although that agreement resulted in an important cessation of hostilities that allowed for the deployment of a Russian peacekeeping force to Karabakh, it fell far short of either a peace deal or a negotiated resolution to the conflict itself. Moreover, the Russian-crafted agreement deferred the status of Karabakh to a later stage of diplomatic negotiations and left several important issues unanswered. At the same time, this uncertainty was compounded by insecurity, which stemmed from blatant border incursions by Azerbaijani military units along the south-eastern border of Armenia.
  • Lack of Accountability & State Paralysis. And the third driver of this political crisis is rooted in the general perception of a lack of accountability for the military losses and political decisions through the war. From a broader perspective, this lack of accountability is related to the fact that the Karabakh conflict predates Armenian independence, which places the Pashinyan government in politically uncharted territory, as the only Armenian leadership to have “lost” Karabakh. But more specifically, the response of the government to the unexpected loss in the war has been both inadequate and insufficient.

More broadly, the Armenian government’s demonstrable failure to adjust and adapt to the new post-war reality, as evident in the absence of a new diplomatic strategy and a failure to alter or adjust the country’s military posture or defense reform, only contributes to a continuing “state of denial.” And despite achieving hard-fought democratic gains since coming to power, thegovernment’s inadequate response to the demands of the post-war crisis has only fostered a perception of state paralysis.

Post-War Security: The Regional Context

Drivers of Post-War Instability. Despite the acceptance of the Russian-imposed ceasefire agreement in November 2020 that ended the 44-day war for Nagorno Karabakh, post-war stability and security have been undermined by three factors. First, and more broadly, the absence of diplomatic negotiations and the very limited engagement between Armenia and Azerbaijan have fostered an environment of insecurity and uncertainty. The failure to resume diplomatic negotiations also exacerbates the fragility of the Russian-imposed ceasefire agreement and poses a significant obstacle to the transformation of the ceasefire into a more lasting and durable peace agreement. In turn, this only compounded the underlying uncertainty that stems from the vague and incomplete terms of the ceasefire that is neither a peace deal nor a resolution to the conflict.

A second factor contributing to post-war instability is the tenuous position of Nagorno Karabakh and the physical security of the Armenian population of Karabakh, which is overwhelmingly dependent on the presence of Russian peacekeepers. The lack of a diplomatic process focusing on the Karabakh conflict and a delay in the resumption of mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group also compound the inherent vulnerability and insecurity of Karabakh. Moreover, this reliance on the presence of the Russian peacekeeping force in Karabakh is tenuous, especially given Russia’s self- imposed five-year deadline for its peacekeeping deployment.

The third factor of instability stems from the lingering burden of Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) and civilian hostages still in Azerbaijani captivity. Despite the November 2020 ceasefire agreement’s provision calling for the exchange of all POWs and prisoners, Azerbaijan has repeatedly resisted, offering only one-time partial releases of small numbers of Armenians. These transactional moves were largely attempts to extract concessions from the Armenian government.

Escalating Confrontation & Insecurity. Against that backdrop of post-war instability, there is also a more recent crisis of insecurity. This crisis was triggered in May 2021 with an escalating confrontation between Azerbaijan and Armenia consisting of border disputes and a series of border incursions by Azerbaijani units into Armenian territory (see graphic below).

This crisis also triggered a Russian military buildup in southern Armenia and at strategic points along the Armenian side of the border with Azerbaijan. Although separate and distinct from the Russian peacekeeping operation in Nagorno Karabakh, this expansion of a Russian military presence secures the Russian role to control and manage the potential restoration of regional trade and transport links, including the planned establishment of road and railway links between Azerbaijan and its exclave Nakhichevan through southern Armenia.

In addition, the recent Russian military buildup also suggests a subsequent acquisition of the Armenian border with Azerbaijan by Russian border guards, a development with strategic implications, as an inherent threat to Armenian sovereignty and independence given existing Russian control over two of Armenia’s four external borders: complete control over the Armenian- Turkish border and supervisory control and oversight of Armenia’s border with Iran.

Recent Developments: Two Areas of Progress

A Return to Diplomacy. Despite the several months of post-war tension and insecurity, there were two important recent breakthroughs. The first of these breakthroughs came in September 2021 with a meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. With the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmen, this meeting marked an important return to diplomacy between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This resumption of diplomacy, which includes a planned visit to the region by the OSCE Minsk Group, is further crucial to widen post-war security in the wake of border tension and Azerbaijani incursions since May 2021.
Such diplomatic re-engagement also offers more than a reliance on negotiations over force of arms but lessens the risk of resumed hostilities and paves the way for a resumption of the return of Armenian prisoners from Azerbaijani captivity [1]. The latter issue is especially important, as Azerbaijan’s failure to return all Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) and non-combatants is an emotional element contributing into the Armenian perspective of an ongoing war. This issue is also a case of Azerbaijan’s open defiance of the terms of the Russian-imposed ceasefire agreement in November 2020, thereby adding to an atmosphere of mistrust, especially as the Armenian side returned all Azerbaijani prisoners immediately after accepting the ceasefire agreement.

The Restoration of Regional Trade and Transport. A second breakthrough came in the resumption of the meetings of the tripartite working group on regional trade and transport. After a suspension of meetings by the Armenian side in response to Azerbaijani border incursions in May and due to Baku’s intransigence over the return of prisoners, Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigoryan reported significant progress in these talks. More specifically, the working group’s negotiations resulted in an important preliminary agreement that reiterated and reaffirmed Armenian sovereignty over any and all road and railway links between Azerbaijan and its exclave Nakhichevan through southern Armenia. It also confirmed unilateral Russian control and supervision of road and rail traffic, including legal provisions for customs control and access.[2] The successful agreement over the restoration of regional trade and transport is limited to the links between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan as the first stage, however, with the planned reconstruction of the Soviet-era railway link and the construction of a highway[3] (see map below).

The broader second stage of regional trade and transport encompasses a more expansive (and significantly more expensive) strategy that includes the reopening of the closed border between Turkey and Armenia, and the restoration of the Soviet-era railway line between Kars and Gyumri, as well as the eventual extension of the Azerbaijani railway network to allow Armenian rolling stock from southern Armenia in a north-eastern direction through Baku and on to southern Russian (see maps below).

Discussions in this tripartite working group also include a Russian pledge to provide a new gas pipeline “spur” running through Azerbaijan to provide Russian natural gas to Armenia, in part as an alternative to Armenian dependence on the sole gas pipeline from Russian through Georgia.

Russian Limits & Leverage over Armenian Foreign Policy

Russia has also limited and exerted leverage over Armenian foreign policy, while also countering Western attempt to re-engage in the post-war region. This was most recently evident in a much- needed return to diplomacy after the most serious violation of the fragile ceasefire of November 2020, when Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Aliyev met in Sochi on 26 November for an important “mini-summit” convened by Russian President Putin.

The Significance of the Sochi Summit: Three Factors

The 26 November meeting in Sochi was significant several reasons, in terms of both what the meeting represents as well as what it does not. First, the meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders offered an essential return to diplomacy over force of arms.

A second significant aspect of the Sochi meeting was the value for Russian President Putin in convening the “mini-summit” prior to the 15 December Brussels meeting, which was organized first by the European Union. In this context, Putin sought to preempt the EU and used Sochi to reassert Russia’s role as the dominant actor in the South Caucasus. Yet this does not exclude Western engagement. Rather, the return of the OSCE Minsk Group offers Moscow a rare endowment of legitimacy for their unilateral deployment of peacekeepers to Nagorno Karabakh.

And a third important detail in the significance of this Sochi meeting stems from what it was not. This was an exercise in diplomatic engagement focusing on verbal commitments, and there was never any expectation for the signing of any document. This is part of a longer and more complex process, although the meeting in itself was a success, especially after recent attacks by Azerbaijan and due to the return of two Armenian POWs, freed from captivity by the Azerbaijani side.

What to Expect Next

In this context of a seeming climbdown by Azerbaijan, with a reluctant yet important resumption of diplomacy, there are two main expectations in the coming months.

First, largely driven by pronounced Russian frustration, there is a justified expectation for a coming agreement on the implementation of the first stage of the restoration of road and railway links from Azerbaijan to its exclave Nakhichevan. This is of particular importance to Azerbaijan, both as an important post-war victory and as a fulfillment of the most important component of the larger plan for restoring regional trade and transport.

But it is also very important to Russia, especially in the wake of the failed Russian attempt to convene an online meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to endorse this new breakthrough agreement that was to be timed with the anniversary of the 2020 Russian-imposed ceasefire. Although this issue was on the agenda for the Sochi meeting.

The second expectation to come soon centers on the issue of border demarcation. While the “unblocking” of road and rail links to Nakhichevan are more of a propriety for Azerbaijan, border demarcation is a critical priority for Armenia. More specifically, this expectation consists of two likely scenarios or options: the formation of a trilateral “working group” empowered to negotiate the delineation and demarcation of the Armenian-Azerbaijan border, or instead, the incorporation of this work into the existing working group on trade and transport. Regardless of the precise model, either option would provide an essential legal and institutional framework for border demarcation, thereby contributing to a critical de-escalation of addressing border disputes by force and through armed incursion, as Azerbaijan has done since May 2021.

The Broader Context

Finally, both the Sochi and Brussels meetings are part of a broader context, with Azerbaijan following a post-war strategy comprised of three specific elements. First, from the refusal to release Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) and non-combatants from captivity to its May 2021 military incursions into Armenian territory, Azerbaijan has adopted a relatively successful “transactional” approach designed to extract as many concessions from Armenia as possible. In this way, the constant and consistent application of pressure on Armenia not only seeks to weaken the Armenian government, but also to strengthen its position both diplomatically and militarily. And using the POWs as diplomatic currency and as a political commodity, Baku is only likely to continue to rely on incremental partial prisoner releases over a long and drawn-out timeframe.

The second element of this new Azerbaijani post-war strategy is rooted in an ambitious and rather bold move to challenge Russia, openly defying Moscow by refusing to implement the terms of the Russian-imposed ceasefire of November 2020. This has been matched by a potentially dangerous and reckless pattern of attacks along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border that undermines the planned expansion of the Russian military presence in southern Armenia and along the border, while also exposing the operational impotence of security guarantees from both Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

And a third component of this strategy stems from internal considerations of domestic Azerbaijani politics, based on the reality that for the longer-term survival of the Aliyev regime, the “victory” of the war for Nagorno Karabakh in 2020 was neither clear nor convincing enough. Moreover, the military outcome of the war did not force the “settlement” of the Karabakh conflict and for Azerbaijan, the war failed to deliver a total victory. In fact, without the political utility of using the Karabakh conflict to justify the lack of democratic reform and to distract from the entrenched corruption of the Aliyev family, there is a looming and lingering challenge to the stability of Azerbaijan and to the security of the Azerbaijani leadership.

Thus, the border tension and attacks offer Aliyev with an important short-term way to continue to bolster his popularity and to prolong a “state of war” with Armenia (and Karabakh) that provides critical political dividends. Yet, this is a limited short-term strategy that is unsustainable for the Aliyev government, especially in the face of dangerously high expectations and demands for a more convincing and complete victory.


[1] According to Armenian government sources, Azerbaijan has returned 114 Armenian POWs and civilian non-combatants to date, but still holds 62 Armenian POWs in captivity

[2] These legal provisions reportedly consist of some 300 documents derived from the Commonwealth of
Independent States (CIS) Legal Framework and the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU).

[3] The rather ambitious terms of the agreement envision road construction and railway restoration over a
period of 2-2.5 years, with an additional lack of clarity over financing.