Armenia has a unique position in the Ukraine-Russia war - opinion

Armenia is Russia’s only ally in the South Caucasus. It is home to two Russian military bases and more than 3,000 Russian troops opposing NATO’s eastern flank. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during a meeting in Russia last month. Lukashenko has said Armenia can’t avoid Russia bringing it into an axis with Belarus.  (photo credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during a meeting in Russia last month. Lukashenko has said Armenia can’t avoid Russia bringing it into an axis with Belarus.
(photo credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a military invasion campaign to destroy Ukraine. The invasion, however, did not go as planned. Russia has not been able to capture any strategically important Ukrainian cities, and the Russian army suffered heavy material losses.

The Russian occupation forces retreated from Kyiv and the neighboring Chernihiv region in early April, as a result of a united front and extraordinary resistance. 

On the other hand, experts on Russia warn against describing this pullback as a decisive victory for Ukraine. Although the pull-out indicates that Putin’s plans have been turned upside down, it also provides an opportunity for Putin’s aggressive war machine to regroup its forces and strike new blows to Ukraine.

Kyiv is aware of this as well, and President Volodymyr Zelensky said “Support us in whatever way you can” in one of his appeals implying that an intense battle is on the horizon. However, Kyiv is not the only country looking for allies as it prepares for the war’s worst phase. So is Moscow. Armenia, a traditional and long-standing military-political ally of Russia, is at the top of the list.

Armenia is Russia’s only ally in the South Caucasus. It is home to two Russian military bases and more than 3,000 Russian troops opposing NATO’s eastern flank. 

 RUSSIAN PEACEKEEPING troops patrol near the border with Armenia, following a deal to end the military conflict between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, in 2020. (credit: REUTERS/FRANCESCO BREMBATI) RUSSIAN PEACEKEEPING troops patrol near the border with Armenia, following a deal to end the military conflict between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, in 2020. (credit: REUTERS/FRANCESCO BREMBATI)

Armenia is also involved in a number of Kremlin-led neo-imperial projects: The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), formalized in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, is Moscow’s trade orbit to keep its Eurasian neighbours under its dominance, while the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) attempts to balance NATO in this part of the world.

Russia also officially protects Armenia’s airspace and state borders. It’s unsurprising that a country with such close military-political ties with Moscow is among Putin’s closest allies.

Yet, Yerevan has very little room to maneuver because it remains so heavily reliant on Moscow. Russia is Armenia’s main trading partner and investor with the two countries sharing a single market by virtue of their membership in the Eurasian trade block. 

The countries’ defense systems are largely integrated, with Russia serving as Armenia’s security guarantor. Its security architecture was designed by Russia and Armenian military officers are trained in Russian academies, a long-standing post-Soviet policy.

ARMENIA IS essentially Russia’s geopolitical hostage. In February, Armenia abstained from voting on a UN security resolution calling for Russia’s immediate withdrawal from Ukraine. Days later, when the UN Human Rights Council called for an urgent debate on the war, Armenia again abstained.

Armenia’s political support for Russia on the international stage is nothing new. When Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, Armenia made its geopolitical alignment clear and refused to cooperate with the EU. Then-Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan was reportedly the first leader to congratulate the Kremlin on its annexation of Crimea in March 2014. 

Much like North Korea, Syria and Iran, Armenia has reliably voted against UN resolutions condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine. Yerevan even established trade ties with annexed Crimea, violating Ukrainian laws.

With Russia likely to be weakened as a result of its Ukraine invasion, Armenia may face greater pressure to move closer to the West. Politically, Yerevan has already faced pressure from Moscow with both countries’ foreign ministers holding talks at the beginning of March, where the coordination of approaches in the international area was discussed. 

Benyamin Poghosyan, head of the Yerevan-based Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies, is confident that the Ukraine war will accelerate the emergence of a post-unipolar world. What’s less clear is what that world will look like. 

“If there is no regime change in Russia, the long-term Cold War will start between Russia and the West, with clear dividing lines,” maintains Poghosyan. “In this scenario, Armenia, as a part of the Russian zone of influence, will be on the other side of the barricade, which definitely will negatively impact Armenia’s relations with Euro-Atlantic institutions and separate states.”

Armenia has no free trade agreement with the EU, but remains firmly entrenched in the Russian ecosystem as a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Armenia could thus help link high-value Russian sectors unable to operate in Moscow to the global economy. Already, dozens of Russian companies, mostly IT firms, have relocated to Yerevan.

Armenia’s economic ministry has even published a guide for Russian businesses seeking to relocate, explaining everything from how to register a business to renting an apartment to bringing pets across the border. There is a precedent for this, as Yerevan’s relationship with Russia could parallel its cooperation with Iran. 

Despite extensive US sanctions from 2014, Yerevan did not curtail trade with Tehran. In 2018, the neighbors signed an interim free trade agreement with the EAEU, enabling duty-free trade and closer cooperation.

However, Armenia’s activities appear to have caught the notice of Western countries. “The secretary urged the US commitment, alongside other partners, to continue to hold Moscow and its supporters accountable for the Kremlin’s unprovoked and unjustified war against Ukraine” Blinken said to Armenia’s Prime Minister Pashinyan in a phone call. 

Yet, this reminder does not appear to be sufficient and the US has recently said that it is in contact with Armenian officials to ensure that Armenia does not assist Russia in evading sanctions.

Looking ahead, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looks set to alter the regional balance of power. A dogged Ukrainian resistance plus a litany of Russian blunders and mistakes has put Moscow in a hole. A weakened Russia will almost certainly increase the risks for Armenia’s security architecture, with 90% of the country’s arms coming from Russia and its security dictated by Russia, particularly in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia’s options are limited.

In the late 2020 war, Azerbaijan regained much of the territory it had lost to Armenia in the first war between the two in the early 1990s. But, it continues to seek control over the remaining portion. If Russia were to withdraw, Armenia would likely lose its last remaining foothold. If yet another war broke out, it’s not certain that Russia would even be able to supply arms to Armenia.

Under that scenario, Moscow might force Armenia to recognize the southeastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent or Russian-controlled territories. Russia could also seek to bring Armenia into an axis with Belarus. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has already said Armenia can’t escape such a move.

Ukraine has shown how unpredictable and irrational Putin can be, particularly to his supposed brethren. As an embittered Russia emerges from the ashes of Ukraine, Armenia may find itself caught in the crossfire.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in London.