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Opinion: Would Russia have found the participation of Armenia in another NATO exercise in Georgia too annoying?
05 September 2017

Armenia did not turn up for a NATO military exercise in Georgia as was expected. In this op-ed Dr Benyamin Poghosyan says that "given the lack of a clear official explanation to  the decision to pull back from Agile Spirit 2017 military exercise, the most probable reason may be another attempt not to jeopardize the strategic alliance with Russia , since participation in two consecutive NATO military drills might have been perceived by Russia as too annoying, and would not add much to Armenia - NATO relations", but that Armenia will find other ways of maintaining the momentum of its relations with NATO .

On Sunday, (3 September), NATO's Agile Spirit 2017 military drills were launched in Georgia with the participation of Georgian, US, Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Latvian and Azerbaijani troops. Armenia was among the countries due to participate, but cancelled its involvement although the Armenian Ministry of Defence issued a statement on 4 September, saying that Armenia  had never decided to take part in the drills, therefore there was no last-minute cancellation.

Since the start of the Ukraine crisis in 2014 Armenia has faced a tough task to continue its relations with NATO whilst simultaneously not harming its strategic alliance with Russia. Armenia-NATO relations trace back to the 1990s when the newly independent state was involved in NATO partnership for Peace program. The important milestone in the relations was in 2005 when the first Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) was signed with the Alliance, and Armenia launched its defense security reforms with the methodical assistance of NATO. Civilian democratic control over the Armed forces, the introduction of special civil service within Ministry of Defense, the launching of Command and Staff courses within the Military University, strengthening Armenian's peacekeeping capabilities, are only some   of the achievements delivered through close Armenia - NATO cooperation. Even at that time it was not an easy task to deepen relations with NATO, whilst simultaneously being a founding member of the Russia led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and with a Russian military base deployed in Armenia. However, the tiny Post Soviet republic managed to circumvent the obstacles and continue its strategic relations with Russia and its partnership with NATO, with the clear vision that the modernization of the Armed forces, and the state apparatus in general, was impossible without Western support.

The situation started to change since mid-2011 when than Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made a decision to run for President for a third time, and put forward the idea of creating the Eurasian Economic Union. The Administration of Barack Obama viewed this decision as a clear step toward strengthening the authoritarian pattern of government in Russia, and the Eurasian Economic Union was perceived as a step towards resurrection of the Soviet Union with another name. The December 2011 Duma elections in Russia, with massive antigovernment protests in Moscow afterwards, and the tough reaction of the US government with the introduction of the Magnitski Act only contributed to a further deterioration of bilateral relations. The Arab Spring and especially the Civil War in Syria further put US - Russia relations under pressure and although the Obama administration did not launch military strikes against Bashar al Assad in Autumn 2013, choosing instead to eliminate Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons in cooperation with Russia, the bilateral relations remained strained.

The Euromaidan Revolution of 2014 in Ukraine, and Russian actions to incorporate Crimea into Russia and support pro-Russian rebels in parts of Donetsk and Lugansk regions worsened the situation further, and US-Russia relations are currently at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

In 2014 President Putin approved Russia's new military doctrine that highlighted the growing NATO military capability, and identified the deployment of the Alliance's military infrastructures close to the Russian borders and NATO expansion as the primary external military threat to Russia. Approximately the same definitions were put into the new Russian National Security Strategy adopted in December 2015. and in the Foreign policy concept of Russia, approved by President Putin in November 2016, in which the US and its Allies were accused of implementing a policy of containment against Russia.  

Armenia, as a strategic ally of Russia and member of CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union, was supposed to fall in line with that policy. Given the myriad of leverages of influence which Russia possesses in its relations with Armenia: Russia is the main supplier of military equipment to Armenia which plays key role in keeping a balance of power with an increasingly militarizing Azerbaijan; the Russian state and state affiliated companies control large swaths of Armenian economy; 2.5 million Armenian diaspora in Russia and the important role they play in supporting Armenia's economy through more than USD 1 billion remittances annually; Armenia has little room for maneuvering.

Meanwhile it is obvious that overdependence on Russia does not solve Armenia's security problems. This fact was made clear during the April 2016 escalation in Karabakh, when the Russian position was vague enough to demonstrate to Armenia that it is not the "single love child of Russia" in the South Caucasus.

Being in this geopolitical conundrum, and facing no good options, Armenia is trying to avoid the worst-case scenario. In October 2016 Armenia voted in favor of the CSTO Collective security strategy till 2025, in which the so called "color revolutions", as well as unilateral efforts to establish global anti-missile defense system, were mentioned among the external threats to the CSTO.  Meanwhile, the Armenian President met with NATO Secretary General in February 2017 in Brussels and emphasized the importance to maintain the current level of political dialogue, and continue regular contacts, as well as discussed issues related to the further development and expansion of Armenia's partnership with NATO, including the launch of NATO trust fund in Armenia.

Despite the growing tensions in US - Russia relations, especially after the new Russia sanctions bill was adopted by Congress and signed into law by President Trump, Armenia participated in Noble Partner 2017 exercise in Georgia from late July till mid-August 2017, along with the US, Germany, the United Kingdom, Slovenia, Turkey and Ukraine. Given the lack of a clear official explanation to  the decision to pull back from Agile Spirit 2017 military exercise, the most probable reason may be another attempt not to jeopardize the strategic alliance with Russia , since participation in two consecutive NATO military drills might have been perceived by Russia as too annoying, and would not add much to Armenia - NATO relations. Simultaneously Armenia will likely seek new possibilities to show its commitment to develop relations with NATO, through steps in different levels which may include not only the executive branch but also parliamentary diplomacy.    

source: Dr Benyamin Poghosyan is the Executive Director of the Political Science Association of Armenia. he contributed this op-ed to commonspace.eu.

photo: The starte of a NATO military exercise Agile Spirit 2017 in Georgia on 3 September 2017. (Picture courtesy of the Ministry of Defence of Georgia)

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