5 November, 2019 12:13

Armenia – Russia։ Strange Bromance

By Benyamin Poghosyan 

Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin is in Yerevan to participate in the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly Session on November 4-5, while Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is due to visit on November 11. These visits was preceded by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip to Yerevan to participate in EAEU summit on October 1. Most recently, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu was in Armenia to strengthen bilateral military cooperation. While there is some uneasiness between the top leaders, relations of Armenia and Russia remain practical and pragmatic.

Immediately after the 2018 spring “Velvet Revolution” which brought opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan to power in Armenia, the key issue debated by foreign policy experts on the regional security dynamics was the fate of Armenia – Russia relations.

However, despite several irritating moments for Moscow (Criminal investigation against CSTO Secretary General Yuri Khachaturov, arrest of former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan - who is perceived as a key pro-Russian person and a friend of Russian President Vladmir Putin - and investigations against some Russian companies working in Armenia), the two sides have managed to keep strategic caliber of relations.

What was behind these concerns over the future of the Armenia-Russia relations? Given MP Pashinyan’s tough criticism of Armenian authorities for their actions to deepen relations with Russia, these discussions seemed to have a sound base. As recently as in September 2017  Pashinyan was supporting the statement of the then opposition “Exit” bloc on the cancellation of Armenia’s membership to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). During discussions at the Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee Pashinyan stated that key economic indicators of Armenia were worsened since Armenia joined EAEU, and moreover, the EAEU member states showed contempt toward Armenia’s sovereignty.

However, both during and immediately after the revolution Pashinyan asserted that Armenia is not going to make any radical changes in its foreign policy. Meanwhile, Armenia’s new leaders have declared the sovereignty as one of the key principles of their foreign policy. Given the overall perception regarding the Armenian overdependence on Russia, it would be reasonable to anticipate that this concept of sovereignty first of all may result in some changes in relations with Russia. However, since May 2018 we have not witnessed a sharp decline of Armenia – Russia relations. Both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs have frequently reiterated that Armenia is keen to improve its strategic relations with Russia, and that Yerevan has no intention to leave the Collective Security Treaty Organization or the EAEU and to remove the Russian military base from Armenia.

The changed attitudes of Armenian authorities towards Russia may be explained by the existence of Karabakh conflict and joint Azerbaijan – Turkey pressure on Armenia. Armenia is one of the few countries in the world under the constant threat of war and physical extermination. Given the very few chances of any breakthrough in Karabakh negotiations in the foreseeable future, one may argue that Armenia can not afford to ruin its relations with Russia without tangible compensation of security vacuum. Given the fact that neither the US nor the EU due to several reasons are able to provide Armenia with a minimum level of security guarantees, as well as growing unpredictability of Turkey’s foreign policy, it’s not difficult to understand why Armenia’s new authorities are seeking to keep strategic relations with Russia, despite their previous statements.

More interesting here are the motives of Russian policy towards Armenia. Obviously, the Kremlin has not forgotten the previous anti-Russian rhetoric of key representatives of  Armenia’s new leadership. It’s also indisputable that Russia does not trust politicians who come to power via any form of revolution. However, despite several signs of some complaints (the 10 percent increase of Russian gas price in January 2019 and hints regarding possible new hike in January 2020), no major actions to put pressure on Armenia were made by Russia.

Meanwhile, Kremlin exploits in a clever way the need of Armenian authorities to prove that their anti-Russia statements are in the past. Thus, Russia got affirmative response to its suggestion to send an Armenian humanitarian mission to Syria, which allegedly was declined by former authorities. Another concession could be Armenia’s decision to allow Russian inspections of the biological laboratories established in Armenia through US funding. There are hints that an MoU on this issue may be signed during Foreign Minister Lavrov’s visit, though there are no clarifications if this document provides third party access to these laboratories. During his visit to Armenia Russia’s Minister of Defense General Shoygu stated that the Russian military base in Gyumri will soon receive modern weaponry which will double its fire capabilities in the region

Thus, we may consider that despite the low level of trust, at least for the time being, Russia is satisfied by the actions of Armenia’s new authorities. Most probably, the Kremlin will use  economic leverages, such as the possible hike in gas price to keep pressure on Armenian government and compel it to make additional concessions to prove its loyalty towards Russia. Simultaneously, the Kremlin will most probably continue to work with other political forces in Armenia in search of more preferable allies. 

Benyamin Poghosyan is the Chairman of the Yerevan based Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies