BACKGROUND: At the Eurasian Economic Council meeting in Minsk on October 24, Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan signed a memorandum about further cooperation between Armenia and the EEC. The memorandum includes a clause obliging Armenia to abstain from any statement or action contrary to the interests of the Customs Union. At the same time, Customs Union members have not assumed any obligation to abstain from actions contrary to Armenia’s interests, and Russia and Belarus are the main arms suppliers to Armenia’s rival, Azerbaijan.
In addition, Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenka stated that Armenia must resolve its territorial dispute with Azerbaijan, and that CU members will take Azerbaijan’s position into account. Azerbaijan strongly opposes the possibility of self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh to benefit from a free trade agreement. After the summit in Minsk, Russian state television also mentioned that Armenia would not be able to become a CU member unless the dispute with Azerbaijan is solved.
A few days before the summit, Russian sources indicated the intention to modernize eighteen MIG-29 fighters deployed at the Russian military base in Armenia. The planes have so far been used as part of the CIS joint air defense but, according to air force base commander Col. Alexander Petrov, they will become capable not only to intercept airborne targets but to attack targets on the ground as well. It is also planned to deploy battle helicopters and airborne troops, enabling the base personnel to engage not only in defensive but also in offensive operations.
In turn, commander of the Gyumri base Col. Andrey Ruzinsky stated that if Azerbaijan’s leaders decide to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh by force, the Russian military may engage in accordance with Russia’s obligations stipulated by the Collective Security Treaty Organization agreements. Such a statement by a military commander is rather ambiguous, while Russia’s political leaders abstain from openly stating whether Russia would engage in case of a large-scale fight between Armenia and Azerbaijan and usually claim that the military base’s mission is to defend the “external borders of the CIS,” i.e. the borders with Turkey and Iran.
As the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group visited Baku on November 4, President Aliyev agreed to meet with Sargsyan for the first time since the extradition of Ramil Safarov from Hungary. Notably, Azerbaijani officials demanded an explanation concerning Col. Ruzinsky’s statement from Russian co-chair Igor Popov. Meanwhile, in recent weeks one of main highways connecting Armenia with Georgia was closed on several occasions because of gunfire from the Azerbaijani side.
Skepticism concerning Russian security guarantees is steadily growing in Armenia, as Russia continues to supply large quantities of heavy weapons to Azerbaijan. Belarus’s and potentially also Kazakhstan’s reservations concerning Customs Union membership, and the unilateral obligation towards the CU adopted by President Sargsyan, strengthen the perception that CU membership is just a pretext, and Russia is planning to annex Armenia de facto.
IMPLICATIONS: Since Russia considers the South Caucasus a zone of vital interest, another meeting between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan should not be expected to bring a breakthrough in the negotiation process, unless Azerbaijan indicates readiness to consider joining the CU. Some Azerbaijani experts have noticed that Lukashenka’s statements were an invitation to Baku. Col. Ruzinsky’s statement may also perhaps be viewed in that context. At the same time, the statement supported Russia’s apologists in Armenia whose main argument in favor of the patron-client relationship with Russia is security understood as keeping the status quo in the relationships with Azerbaijan and Turkey.
The growing potential of the Russian military base in Armenia can be considered a message to Azerbaijan as well. Previously, the Armenian government opposed the possibility of deploying peacekeeping troops in Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas although Russian policymakers repeatedly suggested the desirability of such a mission. Now, after abandoning relations with the EU under Russian pressure, Sargsyan’s administration may potentially yield to Russia’s further demands, and ultimately continuing tension on the line of contact may serve as a pretext for realizing one of Russia’s long-term ambitions.
On the other hand, it should be remembered that the Russian base in Armenia, together with bases in the North Caucasus, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, is subordinated to Russia’s Yug (South) military district whose main target is Georgia. The increasing military presence in the region together with Russia’s provocative behavior concerning the demarcation of South Ossetia’s border and expelling Georgians from their homes suggests that Georgia remains under constant threat.
Considering Russia’s strategic goal to reintegrate the former Soviet republics, as well as the vital significance of oil revenues for Russia’s economy – profits from hydrocarbons trade constitute more than half of Russia’s budget revenues and are expected to decline – different scenarios involving Azerbaijan or Georgia become more likely. These could include promises to weaken Armenia’s position on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue if Azerbaijan agrees to participate in Russia’s integration plans or, conversely, stronger pressure or even military provocations against Azerbaijan that would ultimately boost the oil price. Although such actions would be harmful to Russia’s international image, the experience of 2004-2008, when the oil price was high, and current features of Moscow’s behavior (strong anti-Western propaganda, “trade wars,” oppressive actions against the opposition, Internet censorship, limitations of the freedom of speech, mock trials, neglect of the verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights, etc.) suggest that a high oil price and internal stability are more important for Vladimir Putin than the international community’s opinion.
The next few months could be critical for the stability and security of the South Caucasus. If Ukraine signs the Association Agreement with the European Union in November as planned and therefore reduces the chances for success of the Customs Union and the projected Eurasian Union, the Russian leadership may decide to use its tools in the South Caucasus as soon as possible.
It is probable that Putin will visit Yerevan in early December; although neither Armenian nor Russian authorities have confirmed that such a visit will be organized, a group of Russian Federal Security Service operatives is already in Yerevan, checking the conditions and supervising the available security measures. A decision about further actions in the region could be made during Putin’s visit or soon afterwards. On the other hand, Ukraine might theoretically fail to sign the EU Association Agreement, making Russia’s planning less urgent. Still, possible actions aimed at subjugating the South Caucasus would only be postponed by a few months.
Besides, public discontent in Armenia is growing concerning not only the loss of opportunity for a closer relationship with the EU but also poor economic conditions, a growing tax burden, a projected 50 percent increase of public transportation cost, and other economic and social factors. The government may thus introduce more oppressive measures, such as bans on demonstrations, electronic surveillance, Internet censorship, etc.
CONCLUSIONS: It is becoming increasingly clear that Putin’s regime does not consider former Soviet republics full-fledged sovereign states deserving respect but rather applies a modernized version of the Brezhnev doctrine. And although Armenia can be seen as the weakest link, most of the other post-Soviet countries also cannot withstand Russian pressure alone. However, only a few policymakers from the region have been able to assess the situation in the way Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili did in his address at the 68th session of the UN General Assembly.
So far, the situation in the South Caucasus has not been one of the main priorities for the U.S. and the EU. However, neglecting the existing and newly emerging threats may result in conflict escalation and long-term dependence of the regional states on Russia, meaning instability, backwardness, social degradation, and increasing emigration. The deteriorating situation would also harm the U.S. and EU security and economic interests. The next few months may be critical and available policy options need to be considered carefully, requiring an accord between the U.S. and EU.
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.