One should not use Latin expressions excessively in modern communications, but it seems highly appropriate when it comes to a story about Armenia. After all, it is inhabited by the oldest Christian nation in the world. Its capital, Yerevan, predates Rome, the eternal city. And Armenia boasted an empire well before Julius Ceasar. Even today, all those historical facts are proudly advertised to foreign visitors (I could observe this fascination with history at first-hand when I visited Yerevan in November for a one-day conference inspired by the Polish Embassy in Armenia and hosted by the Armenian Research Center on Security Policy and the Polish Mieroszewski Centre).
But it is not only the long history and rich culture of Armenia that deserves a close look by the outside world – it is its current geopolitical plight that simply demands attention. To put it in dramatic terms, this small but proud country in the Caucasus faces a serious threat to its territorial integrity and independence.
Baku’s victory and Russian betrayal
For decades, Armenia has been engaged in an international dispute with Azerbaijan over a Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Diplomatic and legal battles have been interspersed with periods of military confrontation, with both sides displaying a propensity to go for broke. One must observe that such an attitude was on display in Yerevan for many years, including in the first decade of the 21st century. For organisations such as the OSCE, two key Helsinki process principles were contested in this case: territorial integrity vs self-determination. The international community tried to avoid taking sides and kept hoping for a peaceful resolution (vide efforts of the so-called Minsk Group), and its hopes were not completely naïve. But once Azerbaijan used the money generated by profitable oil exports to invest in its military hardware, the writing was on the wall as the odds in any direct tussle turned fully in favour of Baku. And Azerbaijan, supported by its ally Turkey, decided that the time for debates was over and force was a preferred option. First came the intervention of 2020, and this year saw a decisive military action taken by Azerbaijan. As a result, Nagorno-Karabakh has been de facto incorporated into Azerbaijan, and almost all its indigenous Armenian inhabitants (more than 100,000 of them) were driven from the enclave in a process reminiscent of dramatic events in the Balkans in the 1990s (even if a number of direct fatalities is relatively small).
Such a resounding victory of Baku was also made possible by Russia’s unwillingness and inability (due to its total focus on the barbaric war against Ukraine) to honour its pledges as Armenia’s ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russian troops – both in their capacity as peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh since 2021 and in their role as bilateral defence mission implementors – have failed to act to defend Armenia. The feeling of betrayal in Yerevan is very strong and palpable. After all, Armenia has put all its security eggs into one basket: that of Russia. Not only has Moscow been allowed to keep (and even increase recently) a number of its military bases in Armenia, but it continues to control most of its borders (this includes – astonishingly – the presence of Russian officials at the international airport in Yerevan) and to manage large parts of its defence system.
As many Armenian experts and officials have stressed – it is not Armenia that has turned its back on Russia but the other way around. Judging by the amount of vitriol used by Russian propagandists against Prime Minister Pashinyan, who came to power as a result of the 2018 revolution, it seems clear that political dislike of the current government in Yerevan has coloured Moscow’s actions (or inaction) to a large extent as well. Yes, Putin’s regime abhors vox populi. It was also aghast when its erstwhile ally decided to ratify the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court (the same one that has formally turned Putin into an international pariah). But Yerevan took this action after Moscow had shown its indifference to Armenia’s security. For many years after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Armenia was still one of the few countries voting in the UN together with Russia on the issue of its aggression in Ukraine (only recently, Yerevan has started to abstain). Even today, Armenia plays a significant role in helping Moscow escape the effects of international sanctions.
International community’s efforts lacking effectiveness (until now)
In general, the fact that Baku has decided to choose force in its dispute with Yerevan owes a lot to an overall change in climate in European security architecture. Once rules, laws, principles, and agreements have begun to be challenged and violated with impunity, diplomacy has lost its effectiveness. At the time when such predators as Russia act without any concern for the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes, force has become a more tempting tool of policy. OSCE is paralysed by a veto mechanism, and so is the UN’s Security Council. All the efforts of so-called special representatives (be it of the EU or NATO) for the region in question remain rather futile without goodwill from one or the other interested party. As a matter of policy, NATO has traditionally stayed outside disputes in the Caucasus (not least due to the partial position of Turkey as a member state). EU has tried to step in, primarily through mediating efforts of the President of the President of the European Council. But he has so far proven unable to even bring all the parties to a table (vide a no-show at the Granada meeting). On the good side, one concrete achievement has been the establishment at the end of 2022/beginning of 2023 of the EU civilian mission in Armenia to patrol the border with Azerbaijan (with a mandate to observe, report and support mediation if and when possible).
Coercive diplomacy in full flow
Even a quick victory in Nagorno-Karabakh has not quelched the desire of Azerbaijan for further claims on Armenia. The main element of coercive strategy practised by Baku centres on a demand for exterritorial status of the so-called Zangezur corridor that would link mainland Azerbaijan with the small Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhchivan, in the region of Armenia bordering Turkey and Iran. The issue is of great local and international significance.
If met, Baku’s demands would obviously restrict Yerevan’s sovereignty. For Poles, the very concept of “exterritorial corridor” brings back tragic memories of the 1930s preceding the Second World War – after all, Warsaw’s categorical rejection of Hitler’s demand was used as a pretext for the September 1939 invasion by Nazi Germany. Moreover, according to the majority of observers, a Zangezur corridor outside Armenia’s control would provide a potential link between Iran and Turkey to Russia via Azerbaijan. One does not have to be a politico-economic expert to surmise that such a project would be a dream scenario for countries searching for optimum ways to avoid Western sanctions. The interests of Iran and Russia (even if they are also competitors in the region) obviously coincide here. In this context, one should not ignore a potential link to Putin’s statement of intent on an illegal Zaporizhzhia corridor project in Ukraine.
Peace offers from Armenia
Bearing in mind those threats (augmented by inflammatory rhetoric which sometimes describes Armenia as Western Azerbaijan) and the current weaknesses of the Armenian state, Yerevan is determined to sue for peace and a stable settlement that would confirm its territorial integrity and resolve frozen problems in relations with neighbours (e.g., still closed borders with Turkey). Hence, the Crossroads for Peace Initiative proposes an opening of transport routes in the whole region on the basis of national sovereignty, as well as a push for a broader peace agreement with Azerbaijan. In an urgent search for support Yerevan is not only cultivating good relations not only with other neighbours, first of all Georgia, but also with Iran.
Strategic reorientation in the making – the role of the international community
There is little doubt that Armenia must address the issue of its strategic orientation, including the cost-benefit analysis of its current security policy stand. There are clear signs that Yerevan has begun such a reorientation. It now refuses to participate in CSTO exercises (something that some other CSTO members are inclined towards as well) and has shown reluctance to participate even in political meetings of that Russia-dominated organisation.
Betrayed by Moscow, Armenia has recently commenced searching for new partnerships in the defence domain. Most dramatically, it has turned to India and France for key defence equipment supplies. External propaganda notwithstanding, it has every right to do it under Art.51 of the UN Charter (‘the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence’), bearing in mind actual and imminent threats to its fundamental security and territorial integrity. In this context, visits of high-ranking US military to Yerevan should not be raising any eyebrows. In the same vein, nobody should be surprised that it is dramatically increasing its own defence spending expenditure. Making itself less vulnerable in military terms is a current priority.
So is a need to highlight the plight of forced refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, who urgently require humanitarian assistance from abroad. It is coming (I was happy to note that Poland was one of the first EU countries stepping in here), especially as large donors such as Germany are now doing their bit.
But the most significant contribution from outside must contain two other elements. First, it is imperative to nurture an increased attention span. The world must show a more focused and direct interest in the situation in and around Armenia. It should not ignore it with a naïve view that ‘things will work out by themselves’. They won’t.
It is notable that one of the key spoilers in the region (Russia) is afraid of precisely an enhanced role of other actors. Moscow likes to talk about unwanted ‘extra-regional factors’ as if all internal actors were a positive force for security and stability in the region. The European Union Mission in Armenia (EUMA), in particular, must follow up on a recently concluded agreement regulating its status with increased staffing and more transparent public reporting. EUMA now has six operating bases, has carried out more than 1000 patrols since February 2023 on the border with Azerbaijan, and the fact that its staff contains nationals from 23 EU nations all gives it a valuable standing and a foundation on which to build its much-needed work.
Politically, other countries should follow the French political lead and start acting more determinedly, acknowledging that the policy of equidistance (while perhaps justified in the past) is no longer a sensible option. It is evident that the energy supplier’s role gives Baku a strong hand in all dealings with the EU and other players. But such a dependency will not be a factor forever, and even now, buyers are not helpless in any power-driven ‘tug of war’. The economic potential of the region and that of Armenia as an independent state (particularly as a strategic transport route) should be strongly taken into account.
Second, a more long-term vision for the region must be agreed upon and offered to those who share an interest in peace, security, and stability and show an attachment to fundamental democratic and international legal norms. In this context,, one must commend the European Commission’s recent recommendationsion to offer a candidate status to Georgia. Yes, its government has justifiably earned itself a negative reputation, with its cavalier attitude to democratic freedoms and cynically friendly policy towards Russia (incomprehensible because of Russia’s continued occupation of part of Georgian territory). But the Commission’s move has shown a rare understanding of strategic wisdom by offering long-term integration prospects to the country and the nation, as opposed to the logic driven only by relations with the government of the day.
This decision (while it remains to be seen whether it receives the backing of EU governments in December) was, very tellingly, warmly welcomed in Armenia. These are early days, of course, but nothing decisive should preclude Armenia from perhaps following in Georgia’s footsteps in the future. Such a perspective in itself matters a lot. For small countries surrounded by difficult neighbours, the psychological comfort and reassurance that big and democratic players care about your problems and have something to offer for the future is immeasurable.
The good news is that, like the EU, Washington has started being vocal on the facilitation of a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. At the same time, the recent passing of the Armenia Protection Act of 2023 by the US Senate and a growing set of pronouncements by many American politicians suggest a waking up of key capitals on both sides of the Atlantic. Such engagement is a welcome push to secure a lasting settlement in the Caucasus. It also represents a much overdue recognition of the imperative of helping Yerevan to diversify its international policies.
Armenia’s sovereign choices
At the end of the day, there is much that the international community should and can do to help. Strong political, geopolitical, economic, and moral reasons exist for offering it. But it is equally true that Armenia must first help itself. Strategic decisions are for Armenians, and Armenians alone, to take. They should be taking a cue from a passionate speech of Prime Minister Pashinyan in the European Parliament on 17 October this year, when he said: ‘The Republic of Armenia is ready to be closer to the European Union, as much as the European Union considers it possible’. That is precisely the approach that should guide Armenia’s policies towards the broader democratic community of nations. A litmus test will certainly involve its stance on the war against Ukraine and relations with rogue states. In today’s world, a proverbial ‘sitting on the fence’ is not likely to be a winning ticket for international success. And this realisation ought to be reciprocated by Armenia’s partners.
Author: Robert Pszczel, Resident Fellow Casimir Pulaski Foundation