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Russia’s Remaining Leverage Over Armenia Is Dwindling Fast

The Kremlin’s options include attempting to organize a coup in Yerevan, or applying economic pressure. Neither is particularly likely.

Published on March 13, 2024

Under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia has regularly discussed scaling back its traditionally close ties with Russia. Each time, Moscow could have pointed out that trade volumes were stable, military cooperation continued, and the Kremlin remained an arbiter in Armenia’s dispute with Azerbaijan over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

These arguments became meaningless when Azerbaijan seized Nagorno-Karabakh following a one-day war in 2023. Now Armenians are no longer interested in whether Russia is a reliable partner or not: they know the answer to that question. Instead, they’re asking what the Kremlin could do if they began seriously looking westward.

Problems in the relationship between Moscow and Yerevan are nothing new. But statements by Armenian officials about Russia not fulfilling its obligations were traditionally framed as complaints—implying Yerevan was always ready to resume normal service. In spring 2023, for example, Pashinyan did not rule out allowing a mission from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance to monitor the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

In the first months of 2024, however, Armenia has taken some major concrete steps to distance itself from Russia. Pashinyan told a French TV channel in February that Armenia had “frozen” its membership in the CSTO; the head of Armenia’s Security Council said relying on Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union had been a “strategic mistake”; and, on March 6, Armenia officially informed Moscow that Russian border guards would no longer be allowed to operate at Yerevan airport.

This is not just huffing and puffing: these are tangible developments. It’s clear that the priorities in Armenian politics have changed, and the strategic partnership with Moscow is over. Of course, the large military base in the Armenian city of Gyumri is unlikely to be shut down anytime soon. But the decision to get rid of Russian border guards in Yerevan’s airport—where they have been based for three decades—is a major moment.

For months, Armenians have been pondering the consequences of a break in the relationship with Russia, and they seem to have come to the conclusion that the worst has already happened: the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh. This may look naïve given Armenia’s dependency on Russian imports, but Moscow actually has few ways of punishing Armenia, and those at its disposal are not likely to be very effective.

The most dramatic response by Moscow would be to attempt to bring about regime change in Yerevan using opposition groups and paramilitary organizations. There are many Armenian veterans of the Karabakh fighting who hate Pashinyan, and there have been plenty of predictions in recent years that those men could stage a revolution in Yerevan, but they have never come to anything. And while Russian propaganda has long had a foothold in Armenia in the form of channels on the Telegram messaging app spreading messages about the hypocrisy of the West, they have never enjoyed much success either.

In other words, there are many Armenians who dislike Pashinyan, but there are few who agree with Russian propagandists or align themselves with hawkish Russian officials. That includes the military establishment in Yerevan, meaning organizing a putsch would be all but impossible for Moscow. Notably, an attempt to stage some sort of revolution following the Second Karabakh War in 2020 ended in failure.

There is a conspiracy theory that Russia could use Azerbaijan to punish Armenia, but it does not hold up to scrutiny. Everything Baku has done in recent years suggests it does not take its marching orders from Moscow. While it remains an open question whether or not there will be another war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, that is Baku’s decision—not Moscow’s.

Finally, many people have suggested Russia could seek to strangle Armenia economically. After all, Armenia imports Russian natural gas; its power grid is controlled by an oligarch with Russian citizenship; its railways belong to Russian Railways; and its membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union means its shops are full of Russian goods.

It’s not a question of whether Russia could inflict harm, therefore: it obviously could. Instead, the question is whether Russia—whose economic ties with Europe are in tatters amid the war in Ukraine—can afford to ditch a remaining neighboring market, particularly when there are no guarantees that economic pressure would actually achieve its political goals.

For all the problems, it’s hard to imagine the Russian-Armenian relationship deteriorating to rock bottom. There are no territorial conflicts between the two nations; there are plenty of Armenians with pro-Russian views; the Russian language is widely used in Armenia; and Russian media outlets are freely available.

The most likely scenario is that trade volumes will remain at current levels, or perhaps even grow. Armenians will continue traveling to Russian cities for work: at least as long as the ruble remains strong enough for it to be worth their while. The Russian military base in Gyumri can sit there as a reminder of a bygone era—until its lease expires in 2044. But the priority global partner for Yerevan will be the West.

Unlike many other post-Soviet countries, where Russia is the biggest threat to their sovereignty, in Armenia that role is taken by Azerbaijan. More than anything, Yerevan needs allies to keep Baku in check. Russia has already proved itself useless in this respect, and now it is time for Armenia to check the reliability of its new security partners: above all, France and Greece (Turkey’s historic rivals).

While these new partners are ready to supply arms to Armenia, if there is another war with Azerbaijan, they will likely only agree to play the role of international advocates for Armenia, not full military allies. This is significantly less than Turkey does for Baku, or NATO for Ukraine. But it is more than Russia did for Armenia after the Karabakh war in 2020.