Why Is Armenia So Close to Russia and Iran?

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ahead of their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on April 19. VYACHESLAV PROKOFYEV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ahead of their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on April 19. VYACHESLAV PROKOFYEV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s war in Ukraine has forced many countries to triage their national interests. U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East last month prompted hue and cry from some quarters in Washington for its hypocrisy. Despite his campaign promise to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” state, Biden fist-bumped de facto Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman in an effort to get more oil flowing into global markets. For many disillusioned with U.S. foreign policy, this seemed to illustrate that the United States had sacrificed its proclaimed values to pursue realpolitik.

The United States is hardly the only democracy to engage in these kinds of recalibrations. Consider Armenia. As the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, I recently traveled there to meet with leaders from Armenia’s universities and foreign ministry about possible partnerships. Armenia is a democratizing country with little choice but to ally with powerful autocracies in order to preserve its autonomy from neighboring Turkey—a NATO ally. Now the war in Ukraine has only complicated Armenia’s already precarious position in the South Caucasus.

The result is a country that in terms of democratic and societal values identifies solidly with the West but that, because of its geography, has befriended the two most heavily sanctioned countries in the world: Russia and Iran. Armenia offers an object lesson for those who believe that the world is splitting into democratic and autocratic camps. International politics is rarely, if ever, that simple of a binary.

With a population of less than 3 million people, Armenia is easily the smallest country in the Caucasus; Azerbaijan, its long-standing rival, is around three times as large in terms of both geographic size and population. To understand just how small Armenia is, consider that the country’s biggest tourist attraction is not located within its own borders: Mount Ararat—which according to the Old Testament is where Noah’s Ark made landfall—is just over the border in Turkey.

Though Armenia offers a peach of a view of Ararat from the Khor Virap monastery, Armenians are still not allowed to cross the Armenian-Turkish border to trek on the mountain themselves. This reality highlights Yerevan’s biggest geopolitical challenge: Armenian-Turkish relations, which have been poor ever since the former emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Beyond lingering resentments over the 1915 Armenian genocide, Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan greatly exacerbates Armenia’s security situation. Since independence, the two former Soviet republics have fought two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory within Azerbaijan populated primarily by ethnic Armenians. Armenia won the first war in the early 1990s, but the 2020 conflict went badly for Yerevan. Baku’s drone-centric battle plan, using tech procured from Turkey, led to a significant loss of territorial control for Armenians within the enclave.

Russia was the mediating signatory for the cease-fires that ended both Nagorno-Karabakh wars. Per the 2020 agreement, Russian peacekeepers will guard the Lachin corridor—a road that connects Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh—through most of 2025. It is unsurprising that Russia—the most powerful country in the region, with linkages to both Armenia and Azerbaijan that stretch back to tsarist days—has played the role of broker between the two countries. But Armenia has allied closely with Russia during the post-Soviet era, balancing out Azerbaijan’s ties with Turkey. Armenia is a member of both the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led security alliance, as well as the Eurasian Economic Union, a single market of five post-Soviet states, while Azerbaijan is a member of neither. Russia also has a large military base in Armenia.

In return for its fealty to Moscow, Armenia has not gotten a whole heck of a lot back. Russia supported Armenia during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, but as tensions with the West heated up, Moscow was more concerned with locking down Armenia’s loyalty than resolving the country’s simmering conflict with Azerbaijan.

In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin pressured Armenia not to join the European Union’s Eastern Partnership, an outreach arrangement with former Soviet republics that offers them enhanced access to EU markets and resources. Relations became more strained in 2018 after Nikol Pashinyan was elected prime minister of Armenia following color revolution-style protests against his predecessor, long-standing leader Serzh Sargsyan. Russia was not thrilled to be dealing with a protest leader behind the ouster of Sargsyan, who had always put Russia first. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, Russian mediation helped stave off Armenia’s worst-case scenarios but not much else. While the CSTO has been used to quell uprisings in some member countries—most recently in Kazakhstan—it was not deployed during the 2020 conflict. Both former and current Armenian officials also remain extremely wary of the constructive ties that exist between Russia and Turkey (and their respective presidents), leaving Armenia on the outside looking in.

But although Putin might not be the greatest ally, Armenians rightly point out that Russia—and Iran—have been allies through their opposition to Turkish support of Azerbaijan. Neither country is keen to see Turkey expand its influence in their backyard.

While Russia is its more important security partner, Armenia’s long-standing ties with Iran are useful as well. Tourism and energy linkages between the two countries are strong. During the 2020 war, Iran reportedly allowed Russia to use its airspace to send military supplies to Armenia. While Iranian ties with Azerbaijan have improved, Tehran is suspicious of Turkey’s meddling, especially if it roils Iran’s large Azeri minority. For Armenia, the energy trade with Iran allows it to rely on Russia less. Little wonder that, this past spring, Pashinyan told the press, “Now we have very close ties with Iran”.

Because Russia and Iran have considerable stakes in the Caucasus, the salience of their ties with Armenia will always be high. In contrast, Armenians view the United States and Europe as having paid only fitful attention to the South Caucasus. The Armenian officials I spoke to welcomed the idea of greater European and U.S. involvement in the region. They simply do not believe that it will happen.

In the absence of more active Western involvement in the South Caucasus, Armenians are left feeling deeply ambivalent about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s subsequent sanctions on Moscow. On the one hand, they have noticed the marked uptick in Russia’s imperialist rhetoric, and that makes them—residents of a different former Soviet republic—deeply uneasy. On the other, Armenians worry that the U.S.-led sanctions against Russia will work too well, hindering Russia’s ability to act as a guarantor of Armenian stability against Turkey and Azerbaijan. The fact that Turkey has exploited its diplomatic skill as a broker and bolstered its ties in Central Asia during the war—such as by negotiating the grain deal between Ukraine and Russia—just further feeds uneasiness in Armenia. So does the prospect of European countries relying more on Azerbaijan to meet their energy needs.

The news is not all bad. Contrary to expectations, Armenia’s economy has not been hurt by the war in Ukraine. In the run-up to the invasion, there was understandable concern about the possible loss of remittances from Armenians working in Russia. According to U.S. officials, however, that deficit has been counteracted by the massive influx of IT specialists who decamped from Russia over the past six months. Between 20,000 and 60,000 Russians have moved to Armenia since the war began, according to conversations I had with officials at the Armenian foreign ministry and Central Bank of Armenia, and some of these newcomers are putting down roots—a significant human capital windfall and a boon to Armenia’s fledgling IT sector.

Armenians’ strategic response has been to keep as many great powers happy as possible. Russia seems pleased with the support it has received from Yerevan. Armenia was alone in opposing Russia’s suspension from the Council of Europe at the start of the war, and Pashinyan met with Putin in Moscow less than two months after the start of the invasion. At the same time, U.S. officials in the region have praised Armenia for being in full compliance with the economic sanctions against Russia. Indeed, their decades-long experience of living with multilateral sanctions against Iran while still maintaining warm ties with Tehran prepared Armenian officials for the current moment.

What does Armenia get for this strategy? Hopefully, autonomy and time. Armenia has much more autonomy than, say, Belarus; in 2017, it was finally able to join the EU’s Eastern Partnership without ruffling Moscow’s feathers. At the same time as it placates Moscow, Armenia’s economy can recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, its military can recover from the 2020 war, and its society can try to shake off Soviet-era structures for good—fully embracing its claims to be a liberal democracy.

There is a decent chance that Armenia can pull off this gambit. The IMF has praised Armenian policymakers for their structural reforms in recent years, and Human Rights Watch approves of the current government’s “ambitious reform agenda” of anti-corruption and promotion of the rule of law. Armenia civil society is thriving: Both of the country’s major universities are modernizing themselves and expanding partnerships with Western institutions of higher learning. The large Armenian diaspora in Australia, France, Russia, and the United States means there are many powerful countries with a stake in maintaining good ties with Yerevan. So long as Russian peacekeepers do their job and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict does not flare up again—which it might—then Armenia will be in a better position in 2025 than it is now.

Americans may be puzzled why the most democratic country in the South Caucasus refuses to condemn Russia right now. This is the lot of small countries: They will take friends wherever and whenever they can find them.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program.

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