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Armenian support for Russian “peacekeeping” in Eurasia and Syria

Armenia’s support for the recent CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan may seem unusual at first glance. However, this move is ultimately part of a wider strategy in Yerevan that involves both domestic and international affairs.

February 16, 2022 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

Armenian soldiers deployed as part of a CSTO force in Almaty, Kazakhstan in January 2022. Photo: Screenshot from a video released by the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

Many commentators were surprised that Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power in the 2018 “Velvet Revolution”, fully supported the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation’s (CSTO) assistance to the autocratic regime in Kazakhstan. Despite this, Pashinyan’s reasoning was rather simple. The Armenian leader hoped that this example of “peacekeeping” would lead to the deployment of the CSTO in Karabakh and on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

Nevertheless, Pashinyan is taking a big gamble, as many Armenians are uncomfortable with the military’s participation in the CSTO’s Kazakhstan operation. After all, Pashinyan became prime minister following street protests focused on political reform. Yerevan’s previous ruling authorities refrained from using violence to suppress these protests. However, the Kazakh protests quickly turned violent, making them different to those in Armenia and closer to Ukraine’s Euromaidan in 2013-14.

What exactly would Pashinyan do if he was threatened with a rebellion against his rule? Military analyst Karen Vrtanesyan has argued that “If something threatens Nikol’s government tomorrow or the next day, Kazakhstan will send its troops to Armenia.” Would Pashinyan follow in Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s footsteps and call for CSTO “peacekeeping forces” to come to his rescue against “externally supported terrorist forces”?

This is not the first time that Pashinyan has tried to ingratiate himself with Russia. In 2019, Armenian forces deployed to Syria to support Russia and its military intervention in support of the brutal Assad regime. As of 2021, the Syrian government has murdered a staggering 606,000 of its own citizens. The US rebuked Yerevan’s participation in Russian-led operations in Syria. In both Syria and Kazakhstan, Armenia’s democratically elected prime minister was and is supporting brutal autocrats accused of massive human rights violations. How did the Biden administration reconcile this massive contradiction in values when it invited Armenia to its Summit for Democracy in December?

Russia’s 2000-strong “peacekeeping force” in Karabakh was introduced as part of the November 2020 ceasefire agreement that ended the Second Karabakh War. Azerbaijan was able to liberate the bulk of its territories that had been under Armenian occupation since the First Karabakh War three decades ago. Russian “peacekeepers” ostensibly protect one small enclave that remains under the control of Armenian separatists.

Pashinyan and other Armenian leaders consistently pushed for the CSTO to intervene in the Second Karabakh War. However, the Kremlin refused to become directly involved throughout the conflict. Russia’s official stance was that Azerbaijan was not infringing on territory internationally recognised as part of Armenia. The CSTO would only intervene if Azerbaijani forces crossed into Armenia proper.

In fact, the only cross border attacks during the conflict were launched by Yerevan against Azerbaijani territory outside that occupied by Armenia. Human Rights Watch “documented 11 incidents in which Armenian forces used ballistic missiles, unguided artillery rockets, and large-calibre artillery projectiles that hit populated areas in apparent indiscriminate attacks”. It was also reported that “Armenian forces repeatedly launched missiles, unguided rockets, and heavy artillery into populated cities and villages in violation of the laws of war.” “Again and again in the course of the six-week war, these attacks unlawfully destroyed civilian lives and homes and should be impartially investigated,” the group further stated.

The Kremlin did not authorise the CSTO to intervene because it wanted to strike a balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Unlike Georgia and Ukraine, which seek to join NATO and are therefore targets for Russian-manufactured frozen conflicts and pro-Moscow separatists, the Kremlin does not see the need to punish Azerbaijan. Baku has no desire to pursue integration with NATO or the EU.

With Armenian society dispirited after the country’s crushing defeat and loss of territory, Pashinyan is planning to improve his political capital in two ways. First, the leader is pressuring the CSTO to support Armenia the next time a border clash erupts with Azerbaijan. In November and December, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces clashed in the Kalbajar, Lachin and Gegharkunik regions. This resulted in the deaths of 15 Armenian soldiers and an unknown number of Azerbaijanis. Azerbaijan also captured some Armenian prisoners. Based on past experience, it is likely that they will be exchanged for maps of mines planted by the Armenian occupation forces or returned to Armenia through some other arrangements.

During these clashes, Yerevan appealed to three entities in order to “remove Azerbaijani armed forces” from Armenian territory. Whilst the government asked Russia for help in line with its 1997 “mutual assistance” treaty, it also discussed such issues with the CSTO (Armenia is a founding member) and the Minsk OSCE Group.

Pashinyan argued that Russia had a duty to intervene under the 1997 treaty or activate the CSTO because, unlike during the recent war, Armenian sovereign territory was being attacked by Baku. Azerbaijan still considers these lands to be disputed territory until a peace treaty is signed regarding the border. Soviet era maps are not precise enough to undertake a proper delimitation of the border. Moscow has subsequently offered to provide better military maps from the same period. Nevertheless, delimitation and demarcation will take many years of negotiations and can only take place after the signing of a peace treaty.

The second chance for Pashinyan will come in 2025, when the Russian “peacekeeping” mandate is up for renewal. It is likely that he will try to replace these troops with CSTO forces. This would require both Russian President Vladimir Putin’s consent and the agreement of Baku, which is highly unlikely. Russia’s so-called “peacekeepers” in Moldova and Georgia have been present since the early 1990s. Their real purpose is to strengthen the Kremlin’s power projection and maintain a sphere of influence in Eurasia.

As aforementioned, Armenia asked Russia for assistance during the November clashes as part of their 1997 “mutual assistance” treaty. This agreement on “friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance” marked the first time in the post-Soviet era that Russia agreed to defend an ally militarily if it was attacked by another country. The treaty envisaged that an attack on Armenia would be considered an attack on Russia and vice versa.

Russia has two military bases in Armenia at Gyumri and Erebuni Airport near Yerevan. Russian border guards are also based on Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran. Pashinyan is currently offering Russia a third base in the country.

The clashes in late 2021 are likely to be repeated as Armenia continues to drag its heels regarding the signing of a border treaty with Azerbaijan. This is because it would have to recognise Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory. With Armenia’s foreign and defence ministries under the influence of the nationalist diaspora and Russia respectively, a breakthrough in treaty negotiations is unlikely. An uncertain border means that clashes are inevitable.

Pashinyan will therefore seek to use his support for the CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan as an example of how Russia’s own version of NATO in Eurasia could also play a role in the South Caucasus. This step though, is both hypocritical and dangerous.

By supporting Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan through the CSTO, Pashinyan has opened a dangerous Pandora’s box that will have ramifications for both the South Caucasus and domestic Armenian politics. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned, “I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.”

Taras Kuzio is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think tank in London and a professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. His newly published book is Russian Nationalism and he Russian-Ukrainian War

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