Commentary: Armenia's Russian hug
14 July 2017

Russia effectively uses the complicated geopolitical situation of Armenia to strengthen its grip on Yerevan, and uses its alliance with Armenia as an efficient tool to further its position in the South Caucasus, writes Benyamin Poghosyan in this commentary.

Alliance with Russia is the cornerstone of Armenian foreign and security policy. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led military block comprising six former Soviet republics.  A Russian military base is deployed in Armenia. and will be there at least until 2044, Armenia has a joint air defense system with Russia, and in 2016 the two countries formed a joint military force;.Russian border troops, along with Armenian counterparts, are responsible for the control of the Armenia's border with Turkey and Iran.

Russia holds control package of almost all of Armenia's strategic economic assets.  . The railway system is under Russian concession till 2038, with possible extension of the term for another 10 years; the Russian energy giant Gazprom holds   100 percent shares of Armenia's sole gas distribution company, "Gazprom - Armenia",  and controls the Armenian part of the Iran - Armenia gas pipeline; and the Electric Networks of Armenia were bought by the Russian state company "Inter Rao" in 2006, which in turn sold its shares to  a private company owned by  an Armenian-Russian Billionaire in 2015 after large scale protests erupted in Yerevan against an electricity price hike. Key parts of Armenia's hydro-power system are controlled by the Russian state company "Rus Hydro. Two of three Armenian mobile operators, as well as the biggest land line provider are also owned by Russian companies. In 2013 Armenia was forced to abandon the negotiated and agreed Association Agreement with the EU and enter the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

What stands behind the Armenia's loyalty towards Russia? Two main factors play a key role here -history and geopolitics. Since the beginning of 18th century Russia was perceived in Armenian political and religious circles as the only state capable and willing to liberate Armenia from Persian and Ottoman domination. In early 19th century, after Russia's victory over the Persians and the incorporation of Eastern Armenia into the Russian Empire, the perception of Russia as a savior became very popular among Armenians. Even the 1920 Russia - Turkey alliance, and their joint efforts leading to the defeat of the first Republic of Armenia, was not able to substantially damage the image of Russia among Armenian society. Soviet period propaganda cemented the views of Russia as   Armenia's savior and "big brother" without whose support Armenians were under   real threat of total annihilation.

Since 1991 the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus has only fostered these deeply rooted pro-Russian sentiments among Armenians. The war in Nagorno Karabakh, as well as the blockade imposed on Armenia by NATO member Turkey, has left Armenia no choice but to align itself with Russia to balance the Azerbaijan-Turkey tandem. The West was busy with the problem of securing Soviet nuclear warheads and the creation of mechanisms to foster liberal reform in Central and Eastern Europe and incorporate these states into Euro Atlantic community. Not surprisingly Armenia signed the Collective Security Treaty (predecessor of CSTO) in May 1992 and in 1995 the bilateral agreement was ratified on the deployment of Russian military base in Armenia. The August 1997 Armenia-Russia agreement of friendship and mutual assistance fostered   cooperation in defense and security spheres. The oil boom in Azerbaijan, and as a result the rapid modernization of the Azerbaijani army, further compelled Armenia to deepen its political-military cooperation with Russia, enabling it to buy Russian weapons at Russian domestic prices, allowing it to maintain a military balance with Azerbaijan. 

In the first decade of 21th century Russian hard power was cemented by the growing Russian economic penetration into Armenia, and the purchase of strategic assets mainly by Russian state companies.

Another key factor supporting the Russia's positive image in Armenia is the large Armenian Diaspora in Russia. According to different estimates approximately 2.5 million Armenians currently live in Russia, and  private remittances from Russia, although they declined in recent years due to the economic crisis, still count for 60 percent of all remittances transferred in 2016.

The first major blow to Russia's image as a loyal and staunch Armenian ally within Armenian society was the Russian behavior during the April 2016 escalation along the Nagorno Karabakh line of contact. Not only did Russia not come up with clear support towards Armenia, but high level Russian officials including Deputy Prime Minister Ragozin made statements that Russia would continue to provide Azerbaijan with modern assault weaponry, part of which was actively used against Armenian forces during the four-day military escalation. Russia did not object to the idea of postponing the Eurasian Economic Union member states' Prime Ministers meeting in Yerevan, scheduled for April 8, 2016 long before the April 2-5 events.   

Nevertheless,large parts of Armenian society still view Russia as a friendly nation and key Armenian ally, capable of defending Armenia form the potential threats deriving from neighbors, in particular, from Turkey. The failure of the 2008-2009 Armenia-Turkey normalisation process, and the growing military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkey, including with large scale joint military exercises, only deepens the sense of danger in Armenian society, and foster the image of Russia as Armenia's "defender". Given the very low chances of any breakthrough in Karabakh negotiation process, as well as in Armenia-Turkey relations -  at least in the short-term - ussia most probably will continue to be perceived in Armenia as its key ally, and the sole provider of at least some degree of hard security.   

As for Russia, the post-Soviet space, including Armenia, is perceived as its backyard and   zone of its legitimate interests. The Russian leadership, even in psychological level, has never accepted the former Soviet Republics as fully independent states, seeing itself in a legitimate position to influence their foreign policy and restrain their choices.  NATO enlargement and especially the so called "color revolutions" in post-soviet countries which Russia viewed as a events happening as a result of direct Western involvement aimed at thwarting Russian efforts to regain its influence in post-Soviet space, only strengthened Russian strategy to view newly independent states as a necessary buffer zone to rebuke any Western interference into Russian affairs. In this context Armenia, as well as other post-Soviet Russian "friends" are not fully perceived as "allies" but more as "satellites" that should respect Russian influence in strategic decision-making concerning their foreign, defense and security policies, in return for Russian political and in some cases economic support. The Russian pressure on Armenia to abandon the Association Agreement with the EU is a symptomatic example of such Russian behavior.

Russia effectively uses the complicated geopolitical situation of Armenia to strengthen its grip in Yerevan, and uses its alliance with Armenia as an efficient tool to further its position in the South Caucasus. 

source: Benyamin Poghosyan is Executive Director of the Political Science Association of Armenia. He contributed this commentary to

photo: President Putin of Russia, with President Sargsyan of Armenia at the Russian military base in Gyumri