Armenia is in the midst of a two-week-long protest against the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) that has already dislodged the prime minister and looks likely to deliver a new government of a far different hue. Although it is difficult to tell how the demonstrations will culminate, there are nevertheless several underlying geopolitical themes that are now in play for the country.
Compared to its neighbours, Armenia is a lot more influenced by external circumstances. That is much attributable to its poverty and military weakness. Yerevan is strongly aligned with Moscow, with the Russians controlling much of Armenia’s strategic infrastructure. Protests inside the country, if they get out of hand, can endanger the Kremlin’s position in the country and this could easily occur if there was an escalation of the confrontation with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh into the seven territories that surround the breakaway region (Azerbaijani territories controlled by Armenian forces).
Regardless of MP and de facto leader of the opposition Nikol Pashinian’s protestations of neutrality, he has in fact gone out of his way to emphasise that Russia remains a key partner for Armenia as the country remains dependent on the Russians in the economic and energy spheres. Indeed, when last week he was confronted over past statements he has made expressing opposition to Armenia’s membership of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) trade bloc, he somewhat backpedalled, diplomatically saying that if he became prime minister he would have to approach the matter from a different perspective to that of an MP.
But the most crucial point is the military aspect of the Armenian-Russian cooperation. Russia sells weaponry to Armenia, as it does to Azerbaijan. This playing of both sides causes discontent among the Armenians and the effectiveness of the alliance with Moscow is often questioned. This was particularly true after the 2016 Nagorno-Karabakh military escalation, the worst seen since the end of the conflict in the early 1990s, when it became clear that Azerbaijan has significantly increased its military capabilities thanks to purchases of advanced Russian weaponry.
Distancing itself from Russia is difficult for Armenia to do because the country is sandwiched between the two enemies: Turkey and Azerbaijan. Without Russian military help and diplomatic support, it would be difficult for Armenia to keep the existing status quo in the occupied territories. Baku will be less hesitant to act, while Turkey even if it does not support its ally Azerbaijan militarily, will definitely back it in every other way.
Thus from a higher geopolitical standpoint, the Russian presence in Armenia is important to the country’s security and each new Armenian government that comes along has no choice but to take this into account. Hypothetically, there can only be one scenario where Armenia will no longer need Russian assistance: a change in the Nagorno-Karabakh status quo in favour of Azerbaijan and Armenia pulling its forces from the occupied territories.
Russia Versus Revolutions
As things stand, Russia retains a strong position in Armenia. But for the Kremlin the current Armenian protests go to show that its influence can be subject to change. Demonstrations that turned into revolutions have in the past shaken Russian influence in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The revolutions questioned Russia’s right to dominate in the countries, undermined Moscow’s soft power and reoriented the states towards Europe.
The Russians are right to feel some anxiety about the situation in Armenia, even if they do not express any of it clearly in veiled official comments.
Historically, one of the foundations of Russian influence across the Eurasian landmass has been an ability to position Russia as a source of economic and political progress. Even communism, with all its fundamental failures, was still politically attractive for many nations across Eurasia.
Yet no matter how the standoff ends in Armenia, the country will constantly face internal problems as the Armenians increasingly regard their Russian ally as a problem. At the same time, although discontent will grow, everything will necessarily come down to the country’s geopolitical preferences: whether to keep the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh and remain allied with Moscow, or to make concessions; without Russian help Yerevan will be unable to withstand the pressure brought to bear by both Turkey and Azerbaijan simultaneously.
Armenia as a Russian military outpost
To Moscow, Armenia is important as it serves as an outpost of Russian military and economic influence in the South Caucasus and also as a tool for influencing Turkish and Iranian policies in the region.
Russia has a military base in Armenia and from a strategic point of view Moscow has retained a military perimeter, which it enjoyed before in the Soviet times.
The Russian long-term strategy is quite simple: to have as many military bases in the region as possible. The military base in Armenia is crucial for forestalling a western military presence in the South Caucasus, specifically in Georgia. Indeed, a quick glance at the South Caucasus map reveals how the Gyumri base together with military bases in Samachablo (the so-called South Ossetia) and Abkhazia virtually encircle Tbilisi. This is important when we discuss potential Nato expansion in the South Caucasus and how this could cause a direct military confrontation between the west and Russia.
Armenia is also important to Russia as it can serve as another corridor to Iran along with those offered by the Caspian Sea and Azerbaijan.
For the Russians, losing Armenia would mean fundamental changes in Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus. A much stronger Azerbaijan would emerge and Russia would no longer dominate the process aimed at finding a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh question.
Armenia without Russia would produce a militarily less hesitant Azerbaijan, which would signal the start of renewed hostilities around Nagorno-Karabakh. In that scenario, Yerevan would likely face difficulties in defending its positions.
An undermined Russian position in Armenia would directly impact on Russia’s ability to influence Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, due to its strategic position by the Caspian Sea, and its location between Russia and Iran being a source of large gas and oil export potential, would have a more invigorated foreign policy if Russia weakened its hold on the Nagorno-Karabakh process.
It would almost follow the domino principle. A stronger Azerbaijan would also re-invigorate talks on the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (although, admittedly, this process is also influenced by other factors such as the Russian military presence that can dictate Caspian Sea matters). Georgia too would be less frightened and ever more vocal in its pro-western aspirations. A weaker Russia in the South Caucasus overall would also strengthen Turkey’s position in the region and enhance the important Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan trilateral format.
Thus, it is for the moment very unlikely that Armenia’s foreign policy will be placed in question. Even the protest leader Pashinian noted during one of his press conferences that no big geopolitical changes can be expected from Armenia.
The Russians will be very keen to keep Armenia in their fold. They will limit the possibilities for Yerevan to diminish the Kremlin’s influence over the country. Moreover, many, if not the majority, of Armenians understand all too clearly that it would be extremely tough for their small country to withstand a two-pronged alliance of Turkey and Azerbaijan. The very security of Armenia depends on what force the Russian troops in Gyumri can bring to bear.
It is patently true that a changed government that emerges as a result of protests might indeed be based on very sincere national sentiments. But they are bound to raise fundamental – geopolitical – questions such as potential foreign policy reverberations. Armenia can be no exception here.
Emil Avdaliani teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University. He has worked for various international consulting companies and currently publishes articles focused on military and political developments across the Eurasian continent.