BACKGROUND: By deciding to join the Customs Union, Armenia’s government has practically relinquished the country’s sovereignty to Russia. Soon after President Sargsyan announced the decision in favor of the Customs Union, dim predictions were made about a de facto annexation to follow. Events in recent weeks show that such a prediction was not excessively pessimistic. There is practically no doubt that the decision to join the Customs Union will be rubber-stamped by Armenia’s National Assembly: the Republican Party of Armenia has a majority of the votes while most of the opposition MPs are reluctant to vote against Russian plans.
Armenia’s total dependence on Russia was bluntly demonstrated by the government’s support for Russia’s actions against Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. President Sargsyan and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the “referendum” organized at gunpoint by Russian troops, and Armenia was one of the 11 states that voted against the UN General Assembly resolution declaring the Moscow-backed referendum invalid. It should be recalled that in 2008 Sargsyan not only refused to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but also welcomed Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili in Yerevan a few months later and decorated him with the Medal of Honor despite Moscow’s strong displeasure. Currently, Armenia’s leadership acts as ordered by the Kremlin.
Although Armenian officials have stated on several occasions that they might want to sign the political part of the Association Agreement with the EU while refraining from the DCFTA, the EU has shown little interest in such an arrangement. And after the demonstration of loyalty to Russia by supporting the annexation of Crimea, Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt simply ruled out the possibility of signing the political part of the Association Agreement, saying that Armenia is “in a different league” and that it does not qualify for such a degree of political affinity as a result of its support for Russia’s policies towards Ukraine.
In mid-April, a publication by one of Poland’s influential think tanks, the Center for Eastern Studies, stated that Russia has consistently taken over control of all aspects of Armenia’s statehood, and that Armenia is becoming an instrument of the Kremlin’s policy. Given such attitudes in Poland and Sweden, the two states that introduced the Eastern Partnership and have been its main supporters, the outline for the EU’s future common policy vis-à-vis Armenia seems to be drawn.
IMPLICATIONS: The Armenian government has not only isolated the country from the West, particularly by making further development of cooperation with the EU improbable. Armenia’s deepening dependence on Russia also compromises the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution process. Mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group may practically come to a halt. If Armenia is de facto not a sovereign actor and all crucial decisions are made in Moscow, Russian mediation cannot lead to an agreement. It is also quite obvious that Russia will not start behaving in a constructive way in the near future. At the same time, the U.S. and France do not seem to be ready to present a compelling resolution proposal that would trump the “security” argument of Russia’s loyalists in Armenia.
Soon after President Sargsyan’s decision to join the Customs Union, another expansive phase of Russia’s military presence in Armenia began. Local and international experts alike have indicated that Russia’s military presence in Armenia, together with the deadlock in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution process, may put additional pressure on Azerbaijan, thus threatening the diversification of the EU’s energy supply.
In addition, Russia could increase pressure on Georgia, particularly by demanding a military corridor across Georgia to the Russian bases in Armenia. The South Caucasus is an especially likely area for further Russian expansion because it is the only region where Russia has enough leverage for boosting the oil price. Taking over Georgia would allow Russia to control the pipelines supplying Azerbaijani oil and gas to Europe. An even more dangerous scenario would involve provocations leading to serious clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, with possible targeting of the pipelines and other infrastructure, followed by a Russian “peacekeeping” operation. Either scenario or variations of them would allow Russia to increase its oil revenues and at the same time to restore domination over the entire Caucasus region. In addition, Russia would be able to gain control over the transit route from Afghanistan, and then to deny NATO access to Central Asia.
The probability of an overt Russian invasion in the South Caucasus may even grow if more decisive sanctions are implemented against Russia as it continues its subversive operations on Ukrainian territory. With an economy on the brink of collapse, Moscow would be desperate to boost the oil price. However, a lack of decisiveness on the West’s behalf and further appeasement attempts would also most likely send a wrong signal to Vladimir Putin and induce him to believe that after taking over Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and now Crimea he may safely continue expanding his neo-empire in the area of “legitimate” Russian influence.
CONCLUSIONS: While the U.S., supported by NATO allies, could start increasing engagement with the South Caucasus in order to provide additional security guarantees to Azerbaijan and Georgia and to protect the transit routes, there is no guarantee of success. The U.S. president needs to convince the Congress, and then NATO’s decision-making must be consensus-based while some NATO and EU members are reluctant to endanger relations with Russia. At the same time, Russia with its one-man rule is not restricted by democratic procedures and can take decisions and act fast; besides, Russian troops are already there – in the North and South Caucasus.
Given the level of Russia’s presence in the region, Azerbaijan and Georgia are bound to face a deteriorating security situation unless Armenia’s isolation and dependence on Russia are reduced. This is a critical and difficult task, as Armenia has been isolated from the outside – by Azerbaijan and Turkey, and from the inside – by its own government that prefers to give in to Russian demands rather than opting for cooperation with the EU. Moreover, the majority of Armenia’s parliamentary opposition is also pro-Russian and hardly considers the possibility of becoming a real alternative to the incumbent administration without seeking Moscow’s support.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Armen Grigoryan is an Armenian political scientist. His research interests include post-communist transition, EU relations with Eastern Partnership countries, transatlantic relations, energy security, and conflict transformation. He is the author of several book chapters, conference reports and analytical articles.
(Image Attribution: Kremlin.ru)