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Armenia sides with Russia again, this time in Syria

Even after the change of power last year, Armenia continues to adhere to Russia on foreign policy and tolerate Russia’s massive role domestically. Most recently, this is demonstrated by Armenia supporting Russia’s vast military effort in support of the Syrian regime.

March 20, 2019 - Abbas Zeynalli Rusif Huseynov - Articles and Commentary

Before a meeting between President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan. 14th of May 2018. Photo: The Russian Presidential Administration (cc)

On February 8th, the Armenian Defense Ministry declared that 83 Armenian specialists – doctors, de-miners and security officers – will be dispatched to the Syrian city of Aleppo. According to the news release, this group was to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. Severe humanitarian conditions, UN Security Council’s Resolutions 2393 (2017) and 2401 (2018), Syria’s formal requests, as well as Aleppo’s big Armenian community have been referred to as the main reasons for the deployment of the so-called non-combat team, which is supposed to work in those areas which are not engaged in any military operations.

This action is actually not the first engagement of Armenia in the Syrian civil war. Since the outbreak of the conflict, thousands of Syrian refugees, mainly of Armenian origin, were accepted by the South Caucasian nation. However, some of the refugees were illegally settled in Nagorno Karabakh, an Armenian-occupied conflict area which is internationally recognised as part of neighboring Azerbaijan.

Answering Moscow’s call

While some questioned the legality of the action, as Armenian law has no provisions for protecting civilians or involving its military personnel in such humanitarian activities, several politicians spoke out against the government’s decision. For instance, Hovsep Khurshudyan believes that Russia dragged Armenia into the Syrian conflict, which will have unpredictable consequences for Armenia, which has not received and will not receive anything in return.

The first international reaction to the Armenian team naturally came from Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s key ally Russia, who covered the trip’s logistics and security issues. On the same day, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu thanked his Armenian counterpart David Tonoyan, stating, “You were the first to respond to our call to provide assistance to the Syrian people”. The hypocrisy of this Russian statement, given that Russia is largely responsible for the Syrians’ suffering, is nothing new from Putin’s government[.

For a long time, at least since 2012, the Kremlin had been seeking support for its Syrian partner from its military allies. Although some news on a CSTO peacekeeping mission circulated in the following years, with Russia being especially interested in involving Central Asian Muslim countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, those speculations never materialised as other CSTO members seemed less enthusiastic to get engaged in the bloody conflict.

The negotiations on possible Armenian participation in the Syrian war started a few years earlier. In 2016, the Russian and Armenian foreign ministers discussed the deployment of army sappers to the Syrian town of Palmyra. These discussions took place during the presidency of Serzh Sargsyan, openly pro-Russian, who stepped down as a result of the Armenian revolution in spring 2018. The protests were led by Nikol Pashinyan, who had long criticised his predecessors foreign policies, opposing Armenia’s joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and calling it a “serious threat” to Armenia.

What revolution?

Therefore, Armenia`s teaming up with Russia in Syria now should raise some questions about Yerevan`s post-revolution government; Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his team have already worsened their relations with Moscow but was nto willing to make any dramatic U-turn westward either, despite the expectations both from within and outside of Armenia.

In fact, the current government’s Syria deal with Russia was announced back in summer 2018, when Pashinyan disclosed on August 17th 2018 that Yerevan and Moscow were to undertake an “unprecedented humanitarian initiative”, as he called it, in the Middle East. Later in September, both Pashinyan and Defense Minister Tonoyan confirmed Armenia`s plans of dispatching troops to Syria.

The negative reaction by the United States arrived immediately in September 2018, during the visit of U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton to Yerevan. The top official warned Armenia against sending its troops to Syria to back up government forces or their allies. “It would be a mistake for anybody else to get involved militarily in the Syrian conflict at the moment… There are already … seven or eight different combatant sides. To get involved with anyone of them for any other country would be a mistake,” he noted.

In February 2019, the U.S. Embassy to Armenia issued a special statement of the State Department, which “did not welcome” the initiative: “We do not support any interaction with the Syrian Armed Forces, regardless of whether it is about providing assistance to civilians or is of a military nature”.

This action was cited as why the planned visit of Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan to Washington was canceled by the U.S. State Department, which followed a conversation between Mnatsakanyan and John Bolton.

Interestingly enough, Armenian plans were announced and then realised amidst and despite the tensions between Yerevan and Moscow, as well as within the CSTO. Having not heavily interfered with the revolution and post-revolution processes in Armenia, the Russian authorities still did not welcome Armenia’s new officials warmly. Moscow seemed particularly upset with Pashinyan’s policies and attempts to bring to trial his pro-Russian predecessors.

As for the CSTO, during the Khachaturov case, when the post of Secretary General of the organization became vacant and the Armenian authorities tried to fill in the position with another representative[, they faced the resistance of other member-states, especially Belarus and Kazakhstan. The situation has fully exposed Armenia’s vulnerable position in the organization.

Among the main factors of Armenia`s decision to enter Syria could be Pashinyan`s desire to appease Putin, who considers any revolutions and attempts at democracy in Russia`s “near abroad” – neo-imperial objective – a threat. Moscow may have been especially interested in such a serious move in order to demonstrate to the Western community Armenia`s alliance with Russia despite the increased pro-Western sentiments in Armenian society, the cooling of Armenian-Russian relations and inner problems within the CSTO.

It is not the first time Armenia has openly sided with Russia against the West. After the violent and illegal annexation of Crimea into Russia, an event condemned by many countries, especially the Western community and those who support international rule of law, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan was the first person to congratulate Vladimir Putin on a happy annexation. No surprise then that Armenia was also one of the 11 states which voted against the United Nations Resolution calling upon the states not to recognise changes in status of the Crimean region.

A humanitarian mission sent by the new government is said to either appease Putin or to acquire some concessions (e.g. non-interference in Armenia’s domestic policy) from the Kremlin.

No matter what could be the calculations of the post-revolution Armenian authorities who replaced a pro-Russian government, it is obvious that they cannot turn to the West or even balance between Russia and the West without overwhelming resistance from Russia’s government. Russia`s omnipresence in Armenia (Russian military bases, the dominance of Russian companies in the Armenian economy) leaves little or no room for maneuver for Yerevan, making it virtually impossible to shift its domestic and foreign policies.

It will be too difficult for Armenia to get rid of the Russian umbrella and diversify its foreign and security policies, given that the landlocked and resource-short nation has problems and sealed borders simultaneously with two of its neighbors – Turkey and Azerbaijan. Moscow`s relatively calm attitude towards the Armenian Maidan (unlike the cases of other color revolutions in the post-Soviet space) may also stem from the fact that the Russian authorities are fully aware of their strong positions in Armenia and realise that this country cannot dis-anchor from Russian sphere of influence. Perhaps the revolution did not change that much.

Rusif Huseynov is the Co-Founder of the Topchubashov Center, Azerbaijan. His main interest is peace and conflict studies, while his focus areas cover mainly Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Abbas Zeynalli is a Research Fellow from the Topchubashov Center, Azerbaijan. His areas of interest include the Middle East, Chinese foreign policy, the South Caucasus and European integration. 

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