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Armenia has taken another significant step in reducing its cooperation with Russia. After de facto suspending its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Yerevan has sent an official letter to Moscow demanding a halt to the activities of Russian border guards at Zvartnots Airport. Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has increasingly become a target of the Kremlin’s propagandists, and now his country is faced with a dilemma: its former ally in Moscow proved to be unreliable, and the West appears unwilling to offer anything more than moral support. Armenia must now fend for itself in a volatile region.

  • Testing the red lines

  • The Illusion of Alliance

  • The Kremlin's retribution

  • The West has little to offer

Testing the red lines

This past winter, rumors swirled about a potential visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Armenia. Although never officially confirmed and ultimately not realized, Yerevan's reluctance to deny the possibility seemed like a deliberate provocation. When asked about Moscow's potential reaction, Gagik Melkonyan, a deputy from Armenia’s ruling Civil Contract party, did not ease the tension, stating, “We are not concerned with Russia's response; that's their affair...”

Ultimately, Zelensky did not make it to Armenia, but Yerevan's explanation as to why was also less than conciliatory. In this telling, Zelensky had initially planned to visit both Yerevan and Baku, but when Azerbaijan succumbed to pressure from Moscow, the trip to the Caucasus was canceled altogether.

Such ambiguity has become, to some extent, characteristic of Armenia’s evolving political approach. Recently, prime minister Nikol Pashinyan gave an interview to France24 in which he seemed to announce the suspension of Yerevan's participation in the CSTO — or at least, it seemed that way until Pashinyan explained that he had been speaking about the current state of affairs within the alliance. A few days later, addressing the Armenian parliament, Pashinyan clarified: “We have de facto suspended our participation in the CSTO,” he said, “and if this trend continues, we will do so officially.”

What may have seemed like a withdrawal from the CSTO was, in fact, an acknowledgment of the current state of affairs

In his interview, Pashinyan brought up the issue of the CSTO and linked it with other grievances against Moscow. He referenced the case of Dmitry Setrakov, a Russian citizen detained in the Armenian city of Vanadzor by Russian military personnel and taken to Russia without the knowledge of Armenian authorities. However, this incident occurred back in December 2023, and at the time, the Pashinyan government’s public response was minimal, suggesting that the recent statement might have been more of an emotional gesture than a genuine political stance.

A similar situation has arisen with an ongoing campaign in Armenia demanding the withdrawal of Russian border guards from Yerevan's Zvartnots airport. Frankly speaking, in all my years of arrivals and departures from Yerevan, I have never once encountered a Russian fellow countryman in a border control uniform, and those acquaintances of mine who have been so fortunate are few. Meanwhile, not a word has been said about Russian personnel guarding Armenia’s borders with Iran and Turkey, nor about the Russian guards protecting the Russian 102nd Military Base in Gyumri.

Some may argue that Yerevan is openly trolling Moscow, while others suggest it is simply testing the boundaries.

The Illusion of Alliance

Armenia has long been regarded in Moscow as a satellite, even though the Kremlin's true strategic interests lie with Azerbaijan. In private discussions inside Armenia, it was often acknowledged that Moscow would never risk its special relationship with Baku by coming to the defense of Yerevan in a conflict between the two — not under the CSTO, nor based on the bilateral 1997 Treaty of Friendship between Armenia and Russia. While many in Yerevan cited these documents as evidence of Moscow’s fraternal obligations, any such claims were unfounded.

Firstly, there are no equivalents to NATO's Article 5 in these agreements. Secondly, in 1997, Russia signed a similar treaty with Azerbaijan, affirming mutual assistance of a similar strength. Notably, this document’s Article 5 (a bureaucratic irony!) explicitly states: “The High Contracting Parties condemn separatism in all its forms and commit not to support separatist movements.” Thus, even from a formal perspective, the idea of an exclusive alliance between Armenia and Russia was greatly exaggerated.

Even from a formal perspective, the idea of an exclusive alliance between Armenia and Russia was greatly exaggerated

But with time, this myth became the foundation of Armenian policy: Yerevan could not cross certain “red lines” in matters of security. The Karabakh issue seemed indefinitely frozen, cementing the supposition of Moscow’s backing into a law of nature. Russia supplied weapons to Armenia (as claimed by informed sources) on mutually beneficial terms, but this form of support proved ineffective upon its first real test.

The so-called “Electric Yerevan” protest in the summer of 2015 added an allegorical layer to this narrative. Thousands of Armenians, mainly youth, took to the streets of Yerevan to protest a sharp increase in electricity prices. As all of the country’s energy infrastructure, along with its railways and gas pipelines, were under Russian control, Armenia’s then president Serzh Sargsyan pinned responsibility for the price hike on the Russian company InterRAO. But InterRAO was largely unaffected, as the risk of too aggressively challenging Russian interests just one year after the Ukrainian Maidan revolution of 2013-2014 was out of the question for Armenia at the time.

Current prime minister Nikol Pashinyan himself had long understood the true cost of Armenia’s reliance on Russia. His understanding permeated many articles in the liberal newspaper Aykakan Zhamanak (Armenian Time), which he led from 1999-2012. Few were bold enough to publicly dispel illusions regarding Russia's relationship with Armenia during a time when, unfortunately, nobody was archiving such texts online. Therefore, we are forced to quote from memory: one does not turn a fortress into a blooming garden, one surrounds the fortress with barbed wire.

However, the popular revolution that brought Pashinyan to power in 2018 largely steered clear of any liberal, pro-Western, or anti-Russian demands. Perhaps amidst the widespread resentment of today, the prime minister finally saw an opportunity to do something greater — to truly indicate a direction of change. Yet he remains ever mindful of boundaries in order to avoid triggering destabilization.

Furthermore, the Russian theme in the Armenian system of mythology is secondary — a mere continuation of the system-forming myth of existential threats spanning centuries. The tragic history and legends of fading grandeur serve as the foundation of identity and the basis of educational tradition. Ultimately, this motif determines everything that happens in the world in mass perception.

Anything that aligns with this myth is deemed good and right. But if Kyiv, like Tbilisi, keen on securing its territorial integrity, showed solidarity with Baku on the Karabakh issue, then so much the worse for Kyiv. This influenced the stance taken by many Armenians in choosing which side to support in the war, leading to understandable questions in the West about the expected shift in public opinion. Consequently, official Yerevan proceeded with extreme caution, wary of both foreign and domestic policy risks, gradually transitioning from neutrality to a more explicitly stated position: “we are not allies of Russia in this conflict.”

Yerevan proceeded with extreme caution gradually transitioning from neutrality to a more explicitly stated position: “we are not allies of Russia in this conflict”

The Kremlin's retribution

Moscow’s options when considering its response are also limited. The longstanding issues at the Upper Lars border crossing in Georgia, the primary route from Armenia to Russia, have become somewhat routine: while they are painful, they aren't necessarily catastrophic, especially given that Moscow cannot exploit them to its advantage either. The same goes for the regulations enforced by Rosselkhoznadzor (Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance), which in November 2023 began blocking the import of various Armenian agricultural products on “safety” grounds that were largely understood to be geopolitically motivated.

But escalating from restrictive measures to outright prohibitions would signify more than just a reassessment of relations; it would effectively indicate a willingness to sever ties, something that didn't even happen with Georgia during periods of heightened hostility that included five days of open war in August 2008. Closing air travel with Armenia today would be akin to self-punishment, as travelers from Moscow to Yerevan would simply seek alternative routes. These routes would quickly expand, unlike the maneuverability of Russian airlines.

Economic ties, in general, have their own momentum, particularly in the present day. Armenian exports to Russia surged by almost 40% in 2023, with the Russian share in trade turnover standing at about 35%. It's no secret that the term “export diversification” often hides ordinary re-exports, serving as a means to circumvent sanctions. However, nobody in Moscow is willing to risk this today.

Armenian exports to Russia surged by almost 40% in 2023

The risks of provoking a conflict with Azerbaijan are also being exaggerated. Baku has its own set of priorities, and there is no compelling reason for Baku to resume large-scale acts of aggression against Armenia today, following the resolution of the Karabakh issue. As for the Zangezur Corridor, it holds greater importance for Moscow, and Baku may be more interested in observing Moscow's efforts rather than engaging in excessive activity.

However, on the other hand, assuming complete impunity would represent an overly confident move for Yerevan. Moscow may not respond hastily, but its response would be thorough nevertheless: a bit of Rosselkhoznadzor action, some adjustments in gas prices, and perhaps assisting Baku with local escalations. In short, Moscow still has the ability to make life difficult for the Armenian authorities, who are already experiencing some unease, even if the feeling is not always justified.

Moscow still has the ability to make life difficult for the Armenian authorities, who are already experiencing some unease

It seems that both Moscow and Yerevan proceed from the assumption that the system of pressure tactics is a delicate and complex matter, one requiring careful consideration at every step.

The West has little to offer

The crux of the “Turnaround” project isn't so much Russia as it is Armenia itself. Departing from the CSTO and reducing one’s reliance on Moscow isn't the start of a journey, but rather the culmination of a series of actions, extending far beyond matters of mere foreign policy. Ultimately, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia, as part of the Istanbul Summit of the OSCE in 1999, was grounded in an established framework of relations with Georgia, agreed upon by both Moscow and the global community. However, it was only with Mikheil Saakashvili’s ascent to the presidency in 2004 that Georgia’s grievances against Russia were effectively harnessed as a component of reform. This transformation garnered the country the Western recognition that propelled it towards candidacy for EU membership — a status now under discussion in Armenia.

Yet, just as the Armenian “Velvet Revolution” of 2018 was spurred by different, non-reformist slogans, today's distancing from Russia is seen as necessary but hardly sufficient for further development. Endeavoring to channel the grievances over Karabakh into a genuine surge of reform — one that challenges tradition and established ways of life, like in Georgia — is a highly precarious undertaking, especially for a leader who, after the defeat in Karabakh, isn't merely lame duck, but a crippled one. This reality, we can assume, is recognized both in Russia and the West.

Furthermore, for the West, Armenia is, bluntly put, already an outlier. Even for Georgia, with its access to the Black Sea and transit opportunities primarily tied to the South Caucasus' key player — Azerbaijan — the feat of capturing European interest seemed almost improbable. Armenia remains a piece of the local mosaic for the West, its significance evolving as the concepts of the “post-Soviet space” and the “South Caucasus” undergo erosion.

Efforts to assist Yerevan in breaking free from Russia's orbit — those like the European Parliament resolution or the deployment of EU military observers — appear to be little more than gestures of moral support for the current government in its diplomatic struggle with Russia and its domestic political challenges. While the idea of a Russian security guarantee for Armenia may have been a myth, it at least had some theoretical validity, something not on offer by France, India, or even NATO. Moreover, given the current global context and resource constraints, these alternative options are not particularly appealing. While a fundamental overhaul of Armenia's security framework is indeed necessary, support from Paris in this endeavor may not be immediately viable given the complexities involved.

In Russia, there is likely an understanding of the considerations guiding Western and Armenian perspectives, particularly within governmental circles. It's recognized that the most effective security strategy for Armenia lies in regional stability, with the resolution of Armenian-Azerbaijani and Armenian-Turkish conflicts being pivotal. This entails a departure from historical enmities and strategic alliances, a shift that neither Armenia nor its allies can achieve alone. However, it's also acknowledged that no external force has the capacity to impede Armenia's pursuit of such a transformation.

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