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Armenia as a mere pawn in Russia’s Kazakhstan strategy

Recent unrest in Kazakhstan naturally attracted the attention of a Kremlin administration eager to bolster its position as regional hegemon. Despite this, the event also further revealed Yerevan’s increasing reliance on Moscow.

January 17, 2022 - Aleksandar Srbinovski - Articles and Commentary

Soldiers of the Armed Forces of Armenia in Kazan, Russia, during military exercises of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. November 2021. Photo: Kosmogenez / Shutterstock

When Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called for military assistance from his Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) allies on January 5th to quell anti-government protests, it was Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan who first took to social media to announce his support. As the chair of the CSTO, he stated that the organisation would send a peacekeeping contingent to stabilise the situation in the country. According to Pashinyan, civil unrest in different parts of Kazakhstan was orchestrated from abroad. As a result, the CSTO charter’s mutual defence clause (Article Four) would be activated to respond to the situation. On January 7th, Armenia’s defence ministry confirmed that it had sent 100 soldiers to Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO peacekeeping mission. In photos shared on various social media platforms, Armenian soldiers are seen guarding Almaty’s main bakery.

Armenian involvement in Kazakhstan’s affairs quickly generated backlash back home. As the current government came to power through popular street demonstrations in 2018, Pashinyan’s support for the CSTO intervention against anti-government protesters was viewed as an attack on the democratic values he once claimed to follow. For some, this move could also signal Pashinyan’s gradual authoritarian turn in domestic politics, adding a new tone to the already fragile political situation in the country. On the other hand, the deployment of troops to Kazakhstan just a year after Yerevan’s humiliating defeat in its war with Azerbaijan enraged the Armenian population. This move naturally placed further strains on Armenia’s limited military capabilities. It is a well-established fact that Yerevan struggled to reinforce its positions along the state border with Azerbaijan and asked for Russian help in this regard. Moscow’s soldiers already guard Armenia’s borders with Iran and Turkey.

Strained western ties

What intrigued external watchers the most, however, was Armenia’s active participation in yet another Russia-led operation despite its recent attempts to present itself as a reliable western partner. Pashinyan’s participation in American President Biden’s virtual Summit of Democracy on December 9th was part of wider efforts to be viewed as one of Washington’s “like-minded allies”. Success would open up certain avenues for American support regarding the state’s vulnerable post-war position. Despite this, recent events have only made Yerevan’s remarkable dependence on Russia even more clear. This is especially true with regards to security affairs, with Armenia’s involvement in Kazakhstan mirroring its deployment of security officers to help Russia’s Syrian mission in 2019. Notably, this dependence reached its peak after the 44-day war with Azerbaijan. Finding itself in control of much of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku emerged as the ultimate winner and upgraded its relationship with Turkey to the level of an alliance. At that time, the US embassy in Yerevan condemned Armenia for joining Russia’s partnership with the Assad regime, which had slaughtered civilians and triggered a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. The CSTO’s intervention in Kazakhstan to prop up an authoritarian regime also does not bode well for Armenia’s relations with the West. Various western political circles already view the CSTO’s military presence in Kazakhstan as an integral part of Russian efforts to restore the Soviet Union’s former borders. As a result, Armenia’s involvement with this process can only damages its western links.

A counterproductive relationship?

Armenia’s willingness to participate in CSTO operations in Kazakhstan is interesting given its recent experiences with the group. Contrary to Yerevan’s expectations, the military alliance did not come to its rescue during the Second Karabakh War in 2020. As a result, Armenia had to return a significant part of the occupied territories in and around the Karabakh region to Azerbaijan. The CSTO reasoned that the area on which the Azerbaijani army had been conducting military operations was not internationally recognised Armenian territory. The organisation was subsequently unable to trigger CSTO Article Four and provide military support. Furthermore, the group did not take any action during Armenia’s border clashes with Azerbaijan in May 2021. Indeed, it limited its reaction to a general statement claiming that it would closely follow developments and take steps if necessary.

Azerbaijan’s continued role as an important strategic partner for many of the CSTO’s member states (especially Russia) has played a key part in the alliance’s unwillingness to get involved in Karabakh. Certainly, CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) member Kazakhstan has recently taken many decisions that are clearly pro-Azerbaijan in nature. In a recent visit to Baku, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mukhtar Tleuberdi congratulated the country on the restoration of much of its territorial integrity and implementation of UN Security Council resolutions. At the same time, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan closely cooperate within the Organisation of Turkic States format. Through close cooperation with the EU and China, both states are realising strategic connectivity projects that will further facilitate intercontinental trade.

What is striking is that Armenia’s unprecedented dependence on Russia since the 1990s has impacted both its own security and that of its neighbours. For example, Russia’s deployment of peacekeepers to Azerbaijan after the Second Karabakh War could have been avoided if Armenia approached negotiations in a constructive manner. Western countries should subsequently take note of the possible geopolitical repercussions of Armenia’s pro-Russia foreign policy and build their engagement policies accordingly.

Aleksandar Srbinovski is a journalist with over 15 years of experience working in print and online media. He has worked for Nova Makedonija, Newsweek, Europa, Blic, Politika, ABC News, Vecher, TV Sitel, and Skok. He holds a BA in journalism from the Saints Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje and has pursued continued training with the University of Oklahoma.

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