COMMENT: Armenia's decisive turn towards the West

COMMENT: Armenia's decisive turn towards the West
Today, Azerbaijan faces a choice: whether to join Russia in hindering Armenia's integration with the West or to maintain good relations with the West. / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Ananyan in Yerevan April 18, 2024

Armenia is making a strategic turn, away from Russia and towards the US and the European Union. The ultimate goal of this process is Armenia's accession to the EU.

The forced deportation of 120,000 ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan's military attacks and occupation of Armenian territories – while Russian peacekeepers looked on – have finally pushed Yerevan to start security, economic, and political cooperation with the West. 

Russia made a strategic choice in favour of cooperation with Azerbaijan and Turkey in which Armenia was sacrificed. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan afterwards announced that the country’s previous unilateral dependence on Russia had been shown to be a strategic mistake.

The tripartite meeting of Pashinyan, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on April 5 should be considered in this context of Armenia's turn towards the West.

Although the tripartite statement of April 5 was economic, the political component was certainly also discussed behind closed doors. Sources from Armenia’s ruling party report that there has been a political decision to freeze relations with Russia and move closer to the West, including eventual membership of the European Union. Brussels and Washington have of course been notified about it, but the process must be smooth and cannot be mentioned publicly, considering the security threats against Armenia.

Armenia and its Western partners have conducted a risk assessment, during which the retaliatory blows that Russia could deliver were assessed. The threat of carrying out terrorist acts against the Armenian authorities has been looked at. Naturally, the Kremlin will also try to apply crushing sanctions against Armenia in an attempt to make Armenia's economy collapse.

The Brussels meeting aimed to make the Armenian economy resilient and immune to Russian sanctions. Yerevan received serious homework, and the possibility of EU membership will depend on the effectiveness of its performance.

In Brussels, the US and the EU offered economic assistance that will ease the cost of leaving the CSTO defence pact and EEU trade bloc, which are led by Russia.

The West will provide material resources to reduce structural dependencies on Russia – in trade, exports, communications, transport infrastructure, energy and the political sphere – that prevent Yerevan from making sovereign decisions in foreign policy.

Armenia received an offer from the EU to implement projects worth €2.6bn in 2021, of which €500mn have already been spent. The fresh €270mn allocated by the European Union and the $65mn offered by the USA will be spent on business modernisation and finding new markets.

Armenia must successfully implement the programmes proposed by Brussels, which aim to increase the economic capabilities and resilience of the country. These include the EU's funding programmes for Armenian businesses, which will help them improve the standards of their products and gain access to European markets. Access to the EU market will create an important alternative for the Armenian economy, preventing it from collapsing in the event of Russian economic sanctions against Armenia.

Thus, Armenia will acquire economic immunity to possible Russian sanctions. With full guarantees, Armenia will then publish the political decision to withdraw from the CSTO and EEU.

Energy is a key issue. At the moment, Armenia supplies about 30% of its own energy, which is insufficient to be independent of Russian supplies. If Russia closes the valve of the gas transported to Armenia, to meet the shortfall, the Armenian side could only import gas from Iran, and could possibly import more from Azerbaijan.

According to the trilateral statement, the United States is committed to Armenia's safe, reliable, and secure energy future and is working to support energy diversification by exploring the feasibility of new options for nuclear power. Although it has not been announced yet, we have information that Armenia and the USA will jointly build a nuclear power plant.

In addition, USAID is supporting the Armenian government in developing a strategy to liberalise the energy market. Additionally, in terms of ensuring energy independence, Armenia's participation in the project to lay an energy cable across the Black Sea is important, a topic that was also discussed in Brussels.

With the support of American partners, energy independence reform is underway. Achieving political independence from Russia is impossible if the establishment of economic and energy independence does not precede it.

Pressure points

Russia has more pressure points to hinder Armenia's progress towards the West. There are pro-Russian political groups in Armenia, which often organise anti-government protests on the order of the Kremlin. However, at least five major actions have failed. Although their slogans were in national-patriotic vocabulary, the calls of Russian propagandists to Armenian citizens to participate in actions against Pashinyan's government revealed their Russian trace.

The discrediting of Russia, the co-author of the Karabakh forced deportation programme, has also weakened the position of pro-Russian forces in Armenia. These have become unviable political groups.

But of course, to neutralise Pashinyan's power, Russia and its proxies in Armenia have the tools to carry out terrorism. In the past, there have been several terrorist attacks in Armenia. In 1999, terrorists killed all the leaders of the country, except for the president. In 2008, during the rule of Robert Kocharyan, 10 protesters were killed. On the night of November 9, 2020, protesters attacked today's Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan, whose life was miraculously saved. In recent months, Armenia's security bodies have discovered attempts to prepare terrorist attacks that targeted Pashinyan and his colleagues.

Azerbaijan can also be used to pile pressure Armenia. In Armenia, the prevailing view is that Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has moved to occupy sovereign territories of Armenia in coordination with Russia over the last three to four years. Even during the meeting in Brussels, the armed forces of Azerbaijan fired irregularly at Armenian settlements.

However, despite having been repeatedly attacked by the Azerbaijani military, Armenia has not agreed to give the "Zangezur Corridor" to Russia and Azerbaijan.

In a telephone conversation with Blinken on the eve of the April 5 trilateral meeting, Aliyev revealed that he hoped that the meeting would be cancelled.

However, the US refused to cancel the meeting. Instead the US – a leading player in the institutional rapprochement of Armenia and the West – warned Aliyev about the inadmissibility of the military scenario.

Aliyev loses his 'big game'

If Azerbaijan plays by the Kremlin's rules and tries to hinder the rapprochement between Armenia and the West, it will be opposing the entry of the US and the EU into the South Caucasus.

Aliyev has repeatedly stated that Washington and Brussels have nothing to do with the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiation process, and that extra-regional forces have nothing to do in the region. Arresting independent Azerbaijani journalists, Aliyev's regime presents them as American spies. Aliyev's propaganda machine places the beheading of the free press in the context of not allowing extra-regional access to the region.

The US administration is extremely serious about ensuring Russia's withdrawal from the South Caucasus. Today, Azerbaijan faces a choice: whether to join Russia in hindering Armenia's integration with the West or to maintain good relations with the West.

If the president of Azerbaijan does not want to be subjected to heavy sanctions by the US and the EU, he should refuse to serve Russian interests and not oppose the strengthening of the West in the region.

Aliyev described the April 5 meeting as a step by the US and the EU to isolate Azerbaijan. By speaking about the danger of Azerbaijan's isolation, Aliyev thus admits that he has lost the game he started with Russia to push the West out of the South Caucasus. Aliyev's "big game" has brought the opposite result.

By refusing to conclude a treaty with Armenia through the mediation of the US and the EU, Azerbaijan aimed to remove extra-regional forces from the region. Azerbaijan did not want to see the US and the EU as mediators in the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiation process; now it will be forced to see them as the most important partners of Armenia.

Armenia, which is striving for rapprochement with the West in the military, economic, and political spheres, is becoming a reliable partner of the US and the EU in the region. This means that the plans of Russia and Azerbaijan to expel the West from the South Caucasus were defeated by Yerevan.

Moreover, if Armenia and Georgia become members of the European Union by 2030, the South Caucasus will become the eastern gateway of the EU. In other words, there is serious potential for establishing the institutional presence of the West and removing Russia from the region.

If Aliyev is compelled to hold a meeting with Armenia in Washington or Brussels to overcome isolation, the West will become central to that process. However, the aggressive, unpredictable, and unreliable policy of Azerbaijan has forced the US and the EU to attempt to establish de facto peace. This peace will not be based on a de jure peace treaty but on the military-political balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

By committing to support the increase of Armenia's resilience, the US, the EU, and France are creating a geopolitical balance in the region. This will allow Armenia to achieve structural rapprochement with the West in a situation where it is as safe as possible from Russian-Azerbaijani threats.

However, Western support for Armenia is also a practical matter. In addition to the resources to increase economic capabilities, the West has also provided Armenia with real tools to enhance its security capabilities. Armenia conducts deep military and security cooperation with important US allies such as France, India, Greece, the EU, and some European countries.

While from 2011 to 2020, 95% of Armenia's military arsenal was equipment purchased from Russia; today Moscow’s share is 9%. The US and France are also participating in the reforms of the Armenian armed forces, which would have seemed like a fantasy years ago.

This will allow Yerevan to more freely and safely freeze relations with Russia and move towards the West. Having acquired security and economic capabilities and restored relations with Turkey, Armenia will be able to raise the issue of withdrawing the Russian military base and border guards.

Armenia's turn to the West may, however, remain incomplete if Donald Trump is elected president of the US in the coming months. If Joe Biden wins re-election, there's a chance Yerevan and Washington will sign a document guaranteeing high-level military-political cooperation. 

In Brussels, the victory of political groups opposing the EU's expansion in the upcoming elections is also a risk.

As for Turkey, though it is a member of Nato and has the status of a candidate for EU membership, it has no real leverage to hinder Armenia becoming an EU member.

To the surprise of many, Iran is approaching Armenia's European aspirations quite cautiously, in a discreet and non-aggressive manner. Armenian and Iranian diplomats held consultations in Tehran days before the meeting in Brussels. Probably Yerevan managed to convince Tehran that deepening cooperation with the West and the possible scenario of joining the EU is not against Iran. And why should Iran not want to have a direct border with the European Union?

By supporting Armenia's capacity building, the West is identifying a partner it will rely on in the coming years. After many years, Armenia's accession to the EU is a realistic scenario. Georgia also has a chance to be an ally of the West.

Thanks to Armenia, the role of the US and the EU is increasing in the South Caucasus and Russia’s is decreasing. Armenia has called for the partial withdrawal of Russian troops from its territory. Even Azerbaijan has been pressing for Russian troops to leave its reconquered Nagorno-Karabakh territories, something that is now happening.

There’s a high probability that a new geopolitical balance can be established in this region – considered the traditional sphere of influence of Russian empires for 200 to 300 years – where Russia will finally be absent.