Let down by Moscow, Armenia looks to the West

Five years after Armenia’s pro-European colour revolution, disappointment with Russia as an economic and security partner is higher than ever. Nonetheless, European Union accession remains unlikely anytime soon. 

Armenia may officially remain in the Kremlin-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), despite prime minister Nikol Pashinyan’s threat this May to withdraw from the alliance, but its leaders and public are anything but quiet about their dissatisfaction with the allies that have repeatedly let them down. 

“Armenia’s security architecture was 99.999 per cent linked to Russia, including when it came to the procurement of arms and ammunition,” Pashinyan (pictured above with French President Emmanuel Macron) said in an interview published on September 3.

“But today we see that Russia itself is in need of weapons, arms and ammunition (for the war in Ukraine) and in this situation it’s understandable that even if it wishes so, the Russian Federation cannot meet Armenia’s security needs.” 

“This example should demonstrate to us that dependence on just one partner in security matters is a strategic mistake,” he added. 

Many Armenians feel betrayed that Moscow and the CSTO failed to provide more support during the 2020 Karabakh War with Azerbaijan and declined to come to Armenia’s defence after an Azerbaijani incursion into the territory of Armenia-proper in September 2022 left almost 300 dead. Between 2011 and 2020, Russia was the largest supplier of arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

A poll taken by the International Republican Institute (IRI) this spring found that more Armenians viewed France and Iran as important security partners than Russia. France, Iran and the United States—all home to large Armenian diasporas—were viewed as the top three “most important political partners for Armenia” by 75, 67 and 52 per cent of respondents respectively, while Russia was fourth on the list with 50 per cent.  

While the IRI’s 2019 survey found 93 per cent of Armenians considered relations with Russia to be “good”, with only six per cent of respondents viewing them as “bad,” only 50 per cent still considered relations “good” this spring and 49 per cent viewed them as “bad.” 

The EU Neighbours East project’s annual public opinion survey in 2022 found that more Armenians trust the European Union than any other international organisation—55 per cent compared to only 45 per cent for the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and 35 per cent for the CSTO. 

More than perceptions 

Armenia has been gradually deepening ties with the West since its pro-European 2018 colour revolution, and the last year has seen a rapid acceleration in the deterioration of its security ties with Russia—despite still hosting Russian troops and theoretically depending on Russian peacekeepers to enforce the ceasefire that ended the 2020 war. 

Since last September’s escalation with Azerbaijan, Armenia has taken a host of concrete actions to distance itself from the CSTO.  

At a November CSTO summit in Yerevan, Pashinyan refused to sign a declaration and a document on joint measures to provide assistance to Armenia. He justified his decision by citing the lack of a “clear political assessment” by the alliance of Azerbaijan’s offensive two months prior.  

In March, when Yerevan would normally have chosen the CSTO’s new deputy secretary general, it renounced its right to take part in the bloc’s leadership rotation.  

That same month, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian president Vladimir Putin for his alleged role in war crimes in Ukraine, and one week later, Armenia’s constitutional court cleared the ratification of the ICC treaty. If approved, it would compel Armenian authorities to arrest Putin, should he ever visit.  

Even though accepting ICC jurisdiction would be as much about gaining new legal tools to hold Azerbaijan accountable as thumbing it to Putin, Moscow has reacted with stern warnings of “extremely negative” consequences for Yerevan.  

Nonetheless, Pashinyan’s government formally requested the ratification of the ICC treaty by parliament on September 1. In a symbolic move, the Armenian envoy to the CSTO was recalled on September 5 and reassigned to the Netherlands, where the ICC is headquartered.  

Most shocking of all, despite refusing to host a CSTO military exercise on its territory this January, Armenia announced on September 6 that it will hold a joint exercise with American troops from September 10 to 11 called “Eagle Partner 2023”.  

The snub came a day after Armenia decided it would provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine for the first time since Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobian, will personally deliver the aid to Kyiv.  

An EU future?  

Armenia scores on democracy indices are comparable to several EU candidates. In Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2023 report, Armenia scored 35 out of 100, just below EU candidates Moldova at 37 and Ukraine at 39 and above prospective candidate Georgia at 34. Armenia was the only country assessed in the report with improvements on more than one democracy indicator.  

However, Armenia is yet to apply for EU membership and would face unique challenges in its accession process. Armenia— along with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—was set to sign an Association Agreement that included a free trade agreement with the EU at the 2013 Eastern Partnership summit, but then-prime minister Serzh Sargsyan abruptly backed out in favour of joining the EEU, likely under pressure from Russia. The EEU’s own terms are incompatible with a free-trade agreement with the EU. 

However, in 2017, Armenia and the EU agreed to a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement covering issues from human rights and rule of law to mining and tourism. In 2021, Armenia finalised an agreement to join the European Common Aviation Area. 

But before it would be able to pursue full EU membership, Armenia will almost certainly have to withdraw from both the CSTO and EEU. That could potentially expose Armenia to a decades-long period of economic and security limbo as it pursues the lengthy and arduous process of joining the EU with access to neither the EEU nor EU’s single markets and is on the receiving end of Moscow’s ire without other meaningful security guarantees.  

If, as Pashinyan says, it is a “strategic mistake” to choose “just one partner in security matters”, trying to simultaneously balance the support of France, the United States, Iran, India, and—to some extent—Russia also has its risks.

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