Is democratic Armenia an ally of Putin's Russia?

by Edgar Vardanyan, political analyst and independent researcher
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan shakes hands during their meeting in the resort city of Sochi, Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan shakes hands during their meeting in the resort city of Sochi, Russia

© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Ramil Sitdikov

Since its independence from the Soviet Union, Armenia is part of Russia’s regional economic and security structures. Even after the 2018 "Velvet" democratic revolution, the status of Armenia as an official ally of Russia was not revised. But is Armenia really still an ally of Russia? There are a number of facts that suggest that this relationship has changed. Armenia states that it shares liberal democratic values and is increasingly moving closer to the West, while Russia is not fulfilling its elementary alliance obligations to Armenia.

In March 2023, Armenia was invited by President Biden to participate in the Summit for Democracy for the second time. In his speech, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan thanked ”the United States and other partners” who helped prevent Azerbaijan from further invasion in September 2022. [1]

Armenia is officially a strategic partner and an ally of Russia. However, its participation in the summit confirmed that it does not share Russia’s attitude toward the U.S. and its partners. We also see that Pashinyan takes the position that it was the West and not Russia that stopped Azerbaijan from further aggression against Armenia. The situation is unique, because Russia is by its international agreements obliged to provide security guarantees for Armenia.

In May 2023, Nikol Pashinyan said in an interview to CNN Prima News, "You said that we are Russia's allies. Of course, this was never said out loud, but I think it is visible. We are not Russia's ally in the war with Ukraine[2]."

Russian-Armenian strong relations in the first stage of independence

Armenia declared its independence in 1990 and embarked on the path of democratic development. After the collapse of the USSR, Armenia pursued a multi-vector foreign policy and did not take the path of distancing itself from Russia. [3] Allied relations were established with Yeltsin's Russia, which also took the path of democratic development. Armenia became a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), in which Russia was and is the leader. The Russian 102nd military base has been operating in Armenia since the early 90s. [4] On August 29, 1997, a treaty on friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance was signed between Armenia and Russia. [5]

It should also be noted that in 1994 a ceasefire agreement was signed between Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan through the mediation of Russia and Russia is signatory party in the 2020 ceasefire agreement.

After Putin came to power, Armenia took the path of even closer rapprochement with Russia under the second President Kocharyan, who was President of Armenia from 1998 to 2008. Both Russia under Putin and Armenia under Kocharyan pursued the path of gradually establishing a rigid authoritarian regime. The "property for debt" project was implemented, and a number of important Armenian companies were bought up by Russian firms. [6] Armenian oligarchic circles established close ties with Russian ones, and in foreign policy Kocharyan’s Armenia fully supported Putin's worldview. Despite the proclaimed so-called complementary policy, all this made Armenia even more dependent on Russia.

The situation seemed to change to a certain extent when Kocharyan's successor, Serzh Sargsyan, came to power in 2008. The new President began negotiating an Association Agreement with the European Union. In September 2013, however, the Armenian authorities unexpectedly announced their accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which made the signing of an Association Agreement with the EU impossible. [7] Many experts and European politicians stated that Yerevan made this decision under strong pressure from Moscow.

The need for strategic, allied relations with Russia was presented by the Armenian political elite as something that would guarantee Armenia's security. Armenia’s borders with Turkey were and are still closed, and a deep, protracted conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is on-going. [8] However, joining the EAEU increased Armenia's dependence on Russia, and the 2016 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (Four-Day War) [9] raised serious doubts in society about Russia's will or ability to ensure Armenia's security. A certain crisis has developed in Armenian-Russian relations.

The failure of the authoritarian model in Armenia

In parallel with the refusal to sign the agreement between the EU and Armenia, the Armenian authorities had embarked on the path of strengthening authoritarianism in the country. Serzh Sargsyan annulled the term of his presidency (by adopting a new constitution, Armenia moved from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system) and extended his stay in power by becoming the prime minister in 2017. All this served as an impetus, a pretext for popular discontent, which eventually led to the Velvet Revolution in April-May 2018. As a result, the current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan came to power.

As an opposition politician, Nikol Pashinyan has strongly criticised Armenia’s accession to the EAEU. [10] However, in the days of the great protests in 2018, shortly after coming to power, Pashinyan declared that the Armenian revolution had no geopolitical component and that there would be no sharp turnarounds in its foreign policy. [11] The question here is: why does democratic Armenia not intend to change its foreign policy course? In fact, there is no program document or an official announcement or interview from the Armenian officials explaining this. However, certain assumptions can be made: The Armenian authorities fear that Armenia's economic and military dependence on Russia and Russian military presence could be used against Armenia in the event of a sharp turn in the country’s foreign policy. For instance, Russia, which considers Armenia its southern outpost, could attack Armenia directly or indirectly if there is a geopolitical change.

Armenia's ruling elite angers the Kremlin

After Pashinyan came to power, Armenia declared that one of the "foreign policy priorities of Armenia is the integration with the European family, on the basis of the commitments, undertaken within the framework of cooperation with the European structures and organisations     , and the common values" [12]. This already shows that the union with Russia is not any more Armenia's civilizational choice.

Since the Velvet Revolution in 2018, Armenia has done several things that have angered Russia: taking neutral position on the Russian war against Ukraine, inviting the EU monitoring group to Armenia [13], criticizing the quality of the Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh, participating in the U.S.- organised      Summit For Democracy. One reason is that Russia itself did not fulfil its international commitment according to the above-mentioned 1997 agreement between the two countries and  the 2020 ceasefire agreement.

Considering all these circumstances, we can say that there are no real allied strategic relations between Armenia and Russia, but Armenia maintains a formal alliance with Russia mainly for security and certain economic reasons. Russia, on the other hand, tries to use Armenia's dependence on Russia for its geopolitical games with the West, Turkey, Iran, etc.

Despite many misalignments and hiccups in the Armenian-Russian political relationship, it is unlikely that Armenia will now officially end the formal alliance with Russia. There are still many reasons to maintain the current status, for example, the Russian military presence in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia's dependence on Russian energy resources, and the perception among the public that there are no real alternatives to guarantee Armenia's security. However, it is possible that the geopolitical processes in the rapidly changing world as well as the strengthening of the anti-Kremlin sentiment among the elites and the Armenian population, will one day neutralize all the factors that prevent the termination of the alliance.

Edgar Vardanyan, political analyst and independent researcher.

[1] Siranush Ghazanchyan (2023) Despite challenges Armenia continues to implement democratic reform agenda: PM Pashinyan addresses the summit for democracy, Public Radio of Armenia. Available at: https://en.armradio.am/2023/03/29/despite-challenges-armenia-continues-… (Accessed: April 7, 2023).

[2] Prime minister Nikol Pashinyan’s interview with CNN Prima News (02.06.2023) Հայաստանի Հանրապետության վարչապետ. Available at: https://www.primeminister.am/en/interviews-and-press-conferences/item/2… (Accessed: 02 June 2023).

[3] Anahit Shirinyan, Russia and Eurasia programme | March 2019. Available at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/2019-03-14-Armenia3.pdf (Accessed: April 7, 2023).

[4] The Russian federation's military bases abroad. Available at: https://ine.org.pl/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/The-Russian-Federations-m… (Accessed: April 7, 2023).

[5] Letter dated 97/09/09 from the representatives of Armenia and the Russian Federation to the United Nations addressed to the secretary-general. United Nations. Available at: https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/243780?ln=en (Accessed: April 7, 2023).

[6] Socor, V. (2016) Armenia selling more infrastructure, industry to Russia, Jamestown. Available at: https://jamestown.org/program/armenia-selling-more-infrastructure-indus… (Accessed: April 7, 2023).

[7] Hrant, K. (2019) The Rocky Road to an EU-Armenia Agreement: From U-turn to detour, CEPS. Available at: https://www.ceps.eu/publications/rocky-road-eu-armenia-agreement-u-turn…. (Accessed: April 7, 2023).

[8] «Առանց ՌԴ-ի հայաստանի անվտանգության ապահովումը չափազանց դժվար կլինի» (2013) «Ազատ Եվրոպա/Ազատություն» ռադիոկայան. Available at: https://www.azatutyun.am/a/25108908.html (Accessed: April 7, 2023).

[9] The Nagorny Karabakh conflict: Defaulting to war | Chatham House. Available at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2016/07/nagorny-karabakh-conflict-defaulti… (Accessed: 12 May 2023).

[10] Նիկոլ Փաշինյան. «ո՞ւմ անունից է Սերժ Սարգսյանը որոշում կայացրել և հայտարարել». Available at: https://168.am/2013/09/12/274699.html (Accessed: April 7, 2023).

[11] Նիկոլ Փաշինյանը կոչ է անում ԱԺ խմբակցություններին մայիսի 1-ին դե յուրե ճանաչել ժողովրդի դե ֆակտո հաղթանակը, (2018) Hetq.am. Available at: https://hetq.am/hy/article/88140 (Accessed: April 7, 2023).

[12] Foreign policy. Հայաստանի Հանրապետության արտաքին գործերի նախարարություն. Available at: https://www.mfa.am/en/foreign-policy (Accessed: April 7, 2023).

[13] Armenia: EU establishes a civilian mission to contribute to ... - consilium. Available at: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2023/01/23/arme… (Accessed: 12 May 2023).