Source: Getty

Long-Standing Ties Between Armenia and Russia Are Fraying Fast

Russia failed to stop Azerbaijan’s attack on Nagorno-Karabakh and the flight of Karabakh Armenians. Consequently, Armenia will be looking elsewhere for security guarantees.

Published on October 13, 2023

The conflict in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh has not just ended in the worst possible way for Armenia, but for Russia, too. Despite Moscow’s bombastic rhetoric and its criticism of Armenia’s leaders, it’s clear that the failure of Russia’s peacekeeping efforts has jeopardized its long-term presence in the South Caucasus.

The 24 hours of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh in September that resulted in the capitulation of Karabakh Armenian defense forces to Baku revealed that Azerbaijan was more wary of Western sanctions than Russian military might. Despite being formally allied within the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Yerevan will no longer be seeking security guarantees from Moscow.

Armenia is the only post-Soviet country where Russia’s influence has grown steadily since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1992, Russian border guards were stationed on Armenia’s borders with Iran and Turkey. In 1995, a large Russian military base was opened in Armenia’s second city of Gyumri. And in 2020, a Russian peacekeeping mission was deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh after the Second Karabakh War.

Russia’s peacekeeping mandate in Nagorno-Karabakh was unclear, however, with its viability resting only on Russia’s continuing political and military authority. In essence, it came down to both sides being unwilling to risk the death of a Russian soldier.

That all changed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which has devoured the Kremlin’s military capabilities and destroyed much of its authority. By the fall of 2022, when Azerbaijan attacked Armenian territory, it was clear Moscow was not willing to intervene. And during the one-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023, Moscow showed again that it was not prepared to risk a conflict with Baku (even following the death of Russian soldiers).

Moscow’s attempts to justify its blunders haven’t been convincing. Of course, Russian officials are partially correct when they blame Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for renouncing Armenia’s territorial claims to Nagorno-Karabakh. But, at least formally, Armenia had never advanced such claims. More importantly, it’s unclear why such a statement by Pashinyan would annul Moscow’s guarantee to Karabakh Armenians. After all, Russia’s past recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of Georgia, and Transnistria as part of Moldova, did not prevent it from deploying peacekeepers to those regions.

The failure of Russia’s peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh—which now looks likely to be wrapped up—puts into question its entire military presence in Armenia. Since the 1990s, that presence has been based on an alignment of interests between Moscow and Yerevan. Now these interests are rapidly diverging.

Up until 2020, it was customary to assume that Moscow’s goal in the South Caucasus was to preserve the status quo. That was why Yerevan looked for Russian help—which never materialized—during the Second Karabakh War. It’s still an open question whether Moscow could have done more to stop that conflict before it ended in a catastrophic defeat for the Armenians. If it could indeed have done more and chose not to, that was a big mistake, paving the way for Turkey to take on a bigger role in the region and leaving Armenia vulnerable.

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, all other regional issues—including those of the South Caucasus—have faded into the background for Moscow. Certainly, entering into a conflict with Azerbaijan and its main supporter, Turkey, would not bring Russia any closer to victory in Ukraine.

One option open to Russia could have been to increase arms exports to its ally Armenia, but Moscow needs all the weapons it can get for its war against Ukraine. Yerevan has even complained that Moscow is refusing to supply weapons for which it has already paid, forcing Armenia to turn to Indian suppliers instead. There have even been suggestions Armenia might buy Western arms.

Without security guarantees or arms supplies, there is little reason for Armenia to remain in the CSTO military alliance. Apart from joint military exercises, for many years the only reason for Yerevan to be a member of the CSTO was the option of buying Russian weapons at a discount.

It’s obvious that no country (not only Russia) can give Armenia a cast-iron security guarantee: any such guarantor would have to be ready to risk an armed conflict with Azerbaijan. But diplomatic tools can also serve as a restraining factor, and there are currently more of these available to the West than to Russia.

Unhappiness with Moscow has already pushed Yerevan to make several fateful decisions. In October, Armenia ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which means that if Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Armenia, he will be arrested.

The idea of joining the ICC first arose following the Azerbaijani attack on Armenia in September 2022, and videos showing Azerbaijani soldiers executing Armenian prisoners. Back then, Yerevan said that ICC membership would be another lever over Baku. But when the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March, it must have been clear to Armenian officials how the Kremlin would react—and yet Armenia went ahead with the ratification.

Nor has Yerevan attempted to hide the real reasons for its decision, with Pashinyan stating: “We took the decision to ratify the Rome Statute when it became clear to us that the CSTO and the instruments of the Russian-Armenian strategic partnership were not enough to ensure Armenia’s external security.”

Moscow’s reaction was predictable, with Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov calling the ratification an “extremely hostile” step. In the following days, suppliers of Armenian brandy to Russia began to experience problems at customs.

In the past, Russia has blocked imports of goods to punish countries like Moldova and Georgia that it sees as pursuing a pro-Western course. But the tactic has never met with much success. If anything, it has had the opposite effect: Moldova received European Union candidate status in 2022, and Georgia could receive it later this year. It can’t be ruled out that Armenia will follow in their footsteps.