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Russia is taking Armenia for granted

Interview with Richard Giragosian, the director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC) think tank in Yerevan, Armenia. Interviewer: Małgosia Krakowska.

December 1, 2017 - Małgosia Krakowska - Analysis

Image by President of Russia

MAŁGOSIA KRAKOWSKA: Armenia’s foreign policy is rife with security contradictions. On the one hand, it hosts a Russian military base, yet on the other it has close relations with NATO. What guides this rather unique security strategy?

RICHARD GIRAGOSIAN: For Armenia, the guiding principle for defence, military security, economic development and foreign policy is defined by a “small state” strategy designed to seek balance between the competing interests of much greater regional powers, such as Turkey, Russia and Iran.  For Armenia, this quest for balance also involves efforts to maximize strategic options, as evident in the country’s approach to manage the inherent contradiction of maintaining a close relationship with Russia while deepening ties to the West.

Obviously, the danger for Armenia stems from the now apparent over-dependence on Russia, whereby after several years of a steady mortgaging of Armenian national interest, involving the Russian acquisition of sectors of the economy, a reliance on Russian gas imports, and more structurally, Armenia’s position as Russia’s foothold in the South Caucasus, have combined to upset that delicate balance. 

After 2014 (the Russian invasion of Ukraine), Russia has done quite well in losing friends rather than making them. As a result of sanctions, the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions have been humbled. Today, more aggression and nervousness are emerging from the Russian side. So what is Russia up to with Armenia?

Armenia is the host of the only Russian base in the region, a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and, most recently, of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).   

Although Armenia has sought to avoid being caught in the broader confrontation between Russia and the West, the impact of the Russian annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s aggressive actions to support a war in Ukraine have been fairly significant. 

But the most dynamic factor for Armenia has not been Ukraine, but rather, Russia’s policy to arm Azerbaijan.  Moreover, there is a deepening crisis in Armenian-Russian relations, driven by a set of factors, but most notably due to Armenian resentment over Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan and frustration over the inadequacy of faith in Russian security promises after the April 2016 four-day war over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Moreover, the crisis is also deepened by the degree of arrogance and asymmetry with which Russia takes Armenia for granted.

How does Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union and the Eastern Partnership define the nature of its national security?

In terms of overall national security, Armenia is seeking to garner greater strategic alternatives.  This is seen first in the country’s move to overcome the setback from its forced sacrifice of its Association Agreement with the European Union after Russian pressure on Armenia in 2013.   

Yet in March 2017, Armenia was able to regain European confidence and, in a rare second chance, was able to initial a new EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA). This new EU-Armenia CEPA presents a fresh start for the deepening of relations between the two parties. Despite a difficult and complicated context, both the EU and Armenia have demonstrated the necessary political will to negotiate a new compromise agreement that takes into account Armenia’s commitments and limitations as a member of the Eurasian Economic Union.

Despite the huge popularity of the pro-European block Tsarukian, Russian-funded ruling political parties and investments dominate the Armenian economy. Are Yerevan’s European aspirations under the Kremlin’s thumb?                 

Unlike many of the former Soviet states, where Russia’s reliance on instruments of soft power have triggered serious concern, in the case of Armenia, the limits of Russian power are evident.  You could say that Russian soft power in Armenia is neither soft, nor very powerful.           

I think that the main point to be made is that, from a broader perspective, the effective application of Russian soft power is inherently limited. There is little genuine appeal or attraction for the post-Soviet countries. Many, if not all, of these countries are merely seeking to manage the threat of a resurgent Russia. Even for the more authoritarian states, appeasing Moscow is about regime survival.

What values drive the formation of Russian foreign policy towards Armenia?

In the battle of ideas and ideals, Russia offers little in terms of values. The Russian position is one of threat and coercion. This stands in stark contrast to Western or European ideals of attraction or seduction, based on values of political pluralism and opportunities for economic prosperity. 

Against this backdrop, it is also clear that Russia’s position stems from one of weakness, not strength, is driven by insecurity, not confidence, and is rapidly exhibiting signs of dangerous over-extension. These fundamental weaknesses of Russia’s much-heralded, but often exaggerated, soft power are most evident in Armenia.

For Russia’s approach toward Armenia, there has been a heavy reliance on instruments of hard power, exploiting Armenian military insecurity over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan and manipulating the country’s economic insecurity. The Karabakh conflict remains the simplest instrument for leverage over both Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Armenia as a willing recipient of Russian security promises and cheaper weapons, and Moscow now as the number one arms provider for Azerbaijan.

Speaking of opportunities, would you consider China’s New Silk Road a stroke of geopolitical luck for Yerevan?

For Armenia, as the smallest country in the region, the strategic opening of the Belt Road Initiative offers an important reversal of decades of exclusion and reaffirmed the imperative for overcoming the country’s pronounced geopolitically and geo-economically landlocked status. And yes, it is a “stroke of luck” in terms of a rare case where Armenia’s geography is less a prison and more a promise for economic engagement.

Although the pace of closer Armenian-China relations has accelerated in recent years, Chinese interest and engagement in Armenia is not necessarily a new or novel development. For example, China has provided economic aid to Armenia every year since 1999, and in terms of bilateral trade, Armenia has also embarked on a low-profile effort to turn to China. 

This has also been surprisingly successful, as China recently emerged as Armenia’s second-largest trading partner, as bilateral trade increased to some 480 million in 2015 according to official Armenian statistics.  But the most important element of Armenia’s strategic “pivot to China” is not limited to trade.  The emergence of a more robust military and security relationship with China stood out as an equally significant achievement for Armenia. More specifically, despite its security partnership with Russia, Armenia is seeking an alternative to an over-reliance on Russia.

China is reaching out to the world via trade routes. However, the newly launched Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway bypassed Russia and Armenia. Some experts believe that it may intensify Armenia’s isolation.  Do you think that those fears are merited? 

China is seeking to recapture the dynamism and repeat the display of the globalised benefits from an Asia-centered trade network. Such a revitalised “Silk Road” also offers a chance of connectivity for formerly remote and isolated regions and an opportunity for connectivity over conflict and trade integration over destruction, essential for regions like the South Caucasus. 

For the three countries of the South Caucasus, the sheer scale and scope of this initiative reinforces a broader strategic vision that has been demonstrably lacking. And for each of the three states, there are unique opportunities, which only foster a convergence of mutual interests over the more traditional conflict that has impeded all efforts at restoring regional trade and reinvigorating economic cooperation. 

Paradoxically, membership of the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) may offer an advantage. More specifically, as an EEU member state, Armenia can offer a degree of dual access for the BRI to attract interest from other EEU members using Armenia as a platform, and also as a mechanism for the BRO to widen its reach by utilising Armenia as a bridge into much larger markets and to link to the more vast Russian transport networks.

Richard Giragosian is the director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC) think tank in Yerevan, Armenia.

Malgosia Krakowska is a Polish journalist focusing on international security issues.

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