Armenia marks new era with French military purchases

Armenia marks new era with French military purchases
Bastion APCs in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali. Georgia’s foreign minister has confirmed that 20-odd French Bastions have been shipped to Armenia. / MINUSMA
By Neil Hauer in Yerevan November 28, 2023

After months of speculation and waiting, Armenia’s growing defence partnership with France finally became tangible this month.

On November 12, reports emerged from Azerbaijani sources allegedly showing French-made Bastion armoured personnel carriers arriving in Georgia, at the Black Sea port town of Poti. The vehicles were reportedly destined for Armenia, as part of the first known shipment of French military hardware to the South Caucasian country in its history. Georgia’s foreign minister then confirmed that the shipment of 20-odd Bastions was indeed destined for Armenia.

For Armenia, this was a significant milestone. After its army was battered in the 2020 Second Karabakh War, and with its traditional supplier, Russia, both unable and unwilling to send arms shipments, Yerevan has been desperately seeking other procurement partners. Now, having already established a working defence procurement relationship with India, Armenia is hoping that the current French shipment is only the first step of a long partnership.

The arrival of the armoured vehicles came after long negotiations.

“It’s a result of at least year-long negotiations, if not more,” says Leonid Nersisyan, a defence analyst and research fellow at the Yerevan-based Applied Policy Research Institute. “I think the process actively started after the 2020 war. Relations between France and Armenia were always at a pretty high level, and now with better Armenia-EU and Armenia-US relations, these kinds of deals became realistic,” Nersisyan said.

The first official announcement of French arms sales to Armenia came on October 23, when the two countries’ defence ministers met in Paris. That deal included the transfer of three Thales-made Ground Master 200 air detection radars, along with a memorandum on the future sale of Mistral anti-aircraft missile systems. There have also been other reports that France has shipped, or will soon ship, 50 units of the VAB MK3 infantry combat vehicle to Armenia.

“France is the sole Western actor that has been adequately assessing the situation on the ground in the South Caucasus,” said Tigran Grigoryan, head of the Yerevan-based Regional Center and Democracy. “In Paris, there is an understanding that Azerbaijan poses a serious threat to Armenia's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the only viable approach to mitigate the risk of a new escalation is to assist Armenia in restoring its military capabilities,” Grigoryan said.

The 44-day war with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 resulted in heavy losses for the Armenian side. After losing control of the skies in the war’s opening days, Armenian forces were devastated by Azerbaijan’s high-tech, precision weaponry, most notably the TB-2 Bayraktar drone. The open source blog Oryx, which tracks and confirms losses based on public imagery, counts 1,676 pieces of Armenian military equipment lost during the war, including 255 tanks, 250 towed artillery pieces, and 39 surface-to-air missile systems.

There has been little breathing room in the three years since that war’s end, too. Azerbaijan has maintained a belligerent posture, launching assaults on either Nagorno-Karabakh or Armenia proper every year since then. In May 2021, barely six months after the 2020 ceasefire, Azerbaijani troops occupied heights in two border areas inside Armenia proper, followed by an assault into southern Armenia that November.

September 2022 saw a full-scale Azerbaijani offensive into Armenia itself, capturing dozens of square kilometres of territory in fighting that saw hundreds of casualties. Finally, just two months ago, a 24-hour assault by Azerbaijan on besieged Nagorno-Karabakh resulted in the effective destruction of the enclave and the forced displacement of its 120,000 inhabitants to Armenia.

Now, there are real fears that Azerbaijan will again attack Armenia itself. In this fraught environment, bolstering the country’s military has become a matter of crucial importance.

Replacing, not to mention upgrading, these capabilities will be an enormous undertaking. Alongside French systems, Armenia has been establishing a relationship with another up-and-coming player in the arms industry: India.

Following numerous reports of contracts signed in late 2022, a number of Indian systems arrived in Armenia in summer 2023, including the Pinaka rocket artillery platform and the 155mm Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (of which 90 units have reportedly been purchased). Numerous contracts for small arms from Indian manufacturers have also been signed, while Armenia will reportedly also purchase anti-drone systems from India’s Zen Technologies.

The capabilities of hardware from each country, as well as the relative prices, dovetail in a way that makes it particularly attractive for Armenia as it addresses its many defence needs, analysts say.

“Indian equipment is important because it could be too expensive for Armenia to rearm only on French equipment,” Nersisyan said. “Armenia needs hundreds of pieces of artillery, not 20 French CAESAR [self-propelled 155mm artillery pieces] that could be the same price. But talking about domains like command and control or air defence – these are the areas where you will definitely see the advantages of top Western technologies. So both [France and India] have a role to play for Armenia,” Nersisyan said.

A major hurdle in the sale of Western military equipment to Armenia had always been the country’s close relationship with Russia. As both a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a signatory to several bilateral defence treaties with Russia, Yerevan had traditionally relied almost exclusively on Moscow for its defence needs. 

But Armenia’s sharp turn away from Russia in the past year or two has reshaped geopolitical realities in the region, analysts say.

“Armenia's attempt to diversify its foreign policy [away from Russia] undoubtedly played a role in facilitating such transactions,” Grigoryan said.

It is meanwhile Russia’s failure to fulfill its arms contracts with Armenia that has led the latter to seek alternate suppliers. Whether due to unwillingness or inability, particularly following its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russia has not fulfilled an arms order from Armenia reportedly worth up to $400 million signed in 2021. Yerevan is reportedly attempting to make Moscow return the funds for the already-paid contract, which Russia has so far refused to do.

Many are now wondering if Russia’s time as an active arms supplier to Armenia is over for good.

“It’s a good question,” Nersisyan said on whether Russia may be finished as a supplier for Armenia. “With Armenia’s current foreign policy shifts, that could definitely happen. The several hundred million dollars of supplies [from 2021] have not arrived, for both political reasons and practical causes, namely Russia’s war on Ukraine. Nowadays, Russia is only supplying the countries which are politically very important for them, like India, [and Armenia] is not one of these,” Nersisyan said.

The recent French-Armenian announcements go beyond arms supplies, as well. French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu declared during the October press conference with his Armenian counterpart that France would also “help Armenia train ground defence forces and support the country's efforts to reform and modernise its military.” Paris will also be deploying a military attache to its embassy in Yerevan to aid in coordinating trainings and identifying future areas for defence purchases.

“I think that’s probably even more important than the [air defence] radars,” said Nersisyan, of the French training mission. “The French minister mentioned that [France] will help with both training [Armenian] ground forces and with doing some kind of audit of our air defence capacities, helping to understand how to modernise it. So I think that’s a very high value thing, and hopefully the Armenian side will be open to such advise and consultations and will be ready to accept the necessary [reforms],” he said.

While these are important steps, Armenia’s efforts in rebuilding and upgrading its armed forces are still in their infancy. Far more needs to be done to achieve some sort of parity, or at least credible deterrent, with their adversary, Azerbaijan. Change is happening, but its pace leaves questions.

“Changes [in the military] are happening, but slower than they should, I suppose,” said Nersisyan. “There is a serious need to speed that up, because [Armenia] is under serious pressure now and doesn’t have a lot of time. But I expect more deliveries from France in the near future, and from India as well. Procurement is historically the easy part [of upgrading a military], but reforms in command and control – those are more difficult.”