It is time for Armenia to take India seriously

Թաջ Մահալ, Հնդկաստան

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies,

Rananjay Anand, Co-Founder & President, Indo-Armenian Friendship NGO

Since Armenia achieved independence in 1991, relations with India have been among popular topics for the Armenian political establishment and expert community. Hundreds if not thousands of OP-EDs, academic papers, and political speeches have been written and delivered by a plethora of Armenians both in Armenia and Diaspora devoted to the India – Armenia relations. They emphasized the millennia-long shared history, civilizational similarities, and the significant Armenian community in India as the primary vehicles for developing bilateral relations. Even the Armenians’ love for Yoga and Bollywood were brought as additional sources contributing to mutual friendship and cooperation.

However, there was a vital missing point in all these discussions about the bright future of Armenia – India relations. Few in Armenia sought to analyze Indian foreign policy in the post-cold war period and the role and place of the South Caucasus in Indian strategic calculus. Sometimes, it seemed that India was still a country of tea, love movies, and spicy food for Armenians. Meanwhile, India made a strategic leap forward in the recent 30 years by entering the nuclear club, the elite space club, and by joining the most strategic geopolitical alliances. India is now one of the world’s biggest tech and innovation hubs.

The 2008 world financial crisis marked the beginning of the end of the unipolar moment – the era of the US absolute hegemony, which started in 1991, began to fade. The transformation of the global order from a unipolar system to multipolarity may last for decades. It is too early to assess the potential outcomes of this tectonic shift. However, one thing is clear – India is and will be one of the strongest pillars of this new world order. India not only supports and endorses multipolarity but also acts decisively to place it into the practice. India understands that its influence in Eurasia will only grow in the future. It is not a coincidence that the US cultivates a robust strategic partnership with India and makes efforts to revitalize the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). At the same time, Russia and China welcomed India’s full membership into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, thus bringing India closer to the evolving idea of the Greater Eurasian Partnership.

Along with the transformation of the global security architecture, the regional orders are changing, too. US’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region means less American involvement in other regions. It, in its turn, strengthens the role of regional players and stokes the rivalry for regional hegemony. The Middle East is not an exception, and here we have a new aspirer for hegemony – Turkey. Under the leadership of President Erdogan, Turkey has successfully abandoned the role of the US junior ally and has positioned itself as an independent and assertive player in the Middle East, South Caucasus, Eastern Mediterranean, Northern and even Sub Saharan Africa, Black Sea, Central Asia, and Western Balkans. In the South Caucasus, Turkey projects power using its strategic alliance with Azerbaijan while successfully managing its competition with Russia. Armenia faced this new harsh reality in the 2020 Karabakh war, as Azerbaijan and Turkey crushed Armenians and forced them to suffer a humiliating defeat.

Until recently, the South Caucasus was not an area of vital interest for India. It was not a destination of significant Indian exports or a source of vital imports, and none of the South Caucasian republics was involved in any anti-India activities.

However, the situation changed radically during recent years, and the driver of that change was Turkey’s decision to bring Pakistan into the region. Turkey played a crucial role in establishing the Azerbaijan – Pakistan – Turkey strategic partnership and the organization of the first trilateral military drills in Azerbaijan in September 2021. The growing involvement of Pakistan in the South Caucasus brought the region to the Indian foreign and security policy radar. On a strategic level, India does not perceive Pakistan as a vital threat and views it as a mere pawn for China to create problems for India. However, the emerging Turkey – Azerbaijan – Pakistan strategic partnership, anti-Indian statements of President Erdogan on various occasions, including in his speeches at the UN General Assembly, and Pakistani growing military presence in Azerbaijan make India quite concerned. India would like to stop Pakistan from getting involved in the South Caucasus, but it understands that the viable path to reach that goal is not to pressure Azerbaijan but to prevent Turkey’s growing influence in the region. India has a clear vision that Turkey brought Pakistan to the region, and if it wants to stop the process, it needs to counter Turkey and not Azerbaijan.

Thus, maybe for the first time since 1991, the South Caucasus is on the radar of the Indian foreign and security policy, and this creates new opportunities for Armenia. First, Armenia should drop its naïve perception of India as a country mainly known for its tea and elephants. This change is necessary but not sufficient to cultivate genuine cooperation with India and go beyond the nice cliché of shared history, Armenian Diaspora, yoga, and Bollywood. India wants less of Pakistan in the region, and it may reach its goal by decreasing Turkey’s influence in the South Caucasus. One of the tangible ways to push back Turkey’s appetite in the region is to prevent Armenia – Turkey normalization process implemented under the Turkish terms. Turkey articulated explicit preconditions to normalize its relations with Armenia, which include Yerevan’s recognition of Nagorno Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan, and the opening of the so-called Zangezur corridor to provide an unrestricted and uncontrolled connection between Azerbaijan and Turkey via Armenia’s Syunik province. If Turkey reaches these goals, it will multiply its influence in the South Caucasus which means more Pakistani presence there. India wants less Pakistani involvement in the region, and one of the ways to reach this goal is to prevent Turkey from forcing Armenia to accept its preconditions. Now the ball is on the Armenian side.

In a few days Armenia will host the Indian minister for external affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar. This will be the first-ever visit of India’s Foreign Minister to Armenia. Armenia has a real chance to move beyond the routinely clichéd discussions about thousand years long India – Armenia friendship and ask for Indian support to counter Turkish pressure. In that case, India may provide Armenia with different kinds of assistance – political, military, and economic, including the construction of the new highway connecting Armenia with Iran,. A lot depends on how Armenia integrates itself under the visionary International North-South Transport Corridor project while offering an expedited infrastructure construction involving Rail & Road network connecting Persian Gulf to the Black Sea. However, it is also possible that the Armenian government will signal to Dr. Jaishankar its desire to normalize relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey by any means, open borders, and accept Turkish investments to boost the Armenian economy. In that case, India – Armenia relations will be put into question.