Shifting Perceptions in Armenia

Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, recent strategic, military, political and diplomatic developments demonstrate that things are shifting in Armenia. 

The war in Ukraine has taken a bad turn for Russia, which is retreating to the East from Ukraine’s counter-offensive near the Donbas, and to the south, towards Kherson. The events, which have awakened the hitherto dormant conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan makes one wonder whether Russia is no longer capable of guaranteeing peace along its frontier or impose its status as a regional power. While remaining careful, this dastardly move on Russia’s part has resulted in a new shake up in the global order, specifically around the Caucasus, where Armenia is at a crossroads.

Armenia is stuck within a strategic paradox. For Russia, Armenia has been governed by a pro-Western regime since the 2018 Velvet Revolution. For the West, Armenia is Russia’s traditional ally in the South Caucasus. Aside from these contradictory representations of Armenia’s position in the international order, Armenia evolves amid the upheaval between the old world order influenced by democracies and a post-Western world in the hands of authoritarian regimes.  

Armenia continues to navigate this environment, filled with Cold War era rhetoric, as if the window of the post-bipolar world closes behind it. This window opened with the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, won militarily but not politically. It closed in 2020-2022 with Armenia’s military defeat, even as it was not clear whether that would turn into a political defeat as well. By closing this post-bipolar window against the background of the Ukraine War, the review of the structural changes that are beginning in Armenia shows that even as the current moment is crucial, it is not definitively tragic.

We’re watching a geopolitical paradigm shift in which the United States has clearly announced that Armenia is now a part of the democracies camp, as U.S. House Speaker Pelosi’s visit reinforced. Between recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the United States, the appointment of Ambassador Philipp Reeker (the outgoing U.S. Ambassador from Ukraine, and the new US Senior Adviser for Caucasus Negotiations and U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk group), more proactive American diplomacy in the Minsk Group, the sharp increase in American aid to Armenia and Nancy Pelosi’s remarks on the link between democracy and security, the United States wishes to remind the world that the South Caucasus is not reserved for Russia, Turkey and Iran alone.

For the first time since the two Karabakh wars, the United States, through the voice of its legislative body, broke with international neutrality in its insistence on finding parity between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as if there were no aggressor. This neutrality plays into Baku’s hands and acts as an endorsement of President Aliyev’s countless provocations, whose diplomacy has been based on balancing the West and Russia while neutralizing Armenian diplomacy. After Azerbaijan’s attack on Armenia on September 13 and 14, the time has come to condemn this violation of international law in the same way as the international community rightly denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Armenia’s diplomatic efforts, its insistence on putting an end to Azerbaijan’s impunity and ceasing to play Baku’s game of making believe that the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is undetermined, it is possible to define its course unilaterally. This is to pretend that the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan were not recognized in 1991-1992, well before the loss of Azerbaijani territories in 1993.

Following in the footsteps of the United States, it is up to the Europeans, and in particular the French, to bring their position closer to that of their ally across the Atlantic. The more global powers move away from this stupid and disconcerting “neutrality”, the more Azerbaijan will think twice before attacking its neighbor. Ending this false equivalence is the first step in pointing the finger at the aggressor, whom everyone is well aware of, but which Azerbaijani diplomacy has made the world forget. Thus Paris, but also London and Berlin, have the capacity to change their approach and press Baku and Ankara on the urgency of respecting the territorial integrity of Armenia in the same way as that of other states.

Entangled in Ukraine, Russia is neglecting its responsibilities in the rest of the former USSR and is forced to sit by as other actors attempt mediation in the Caucasus. By choosing not to respond favorably to Armenia’s invocation of Article 4 of the Charter of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia has displayed its uselessness. If in Yerevan, calls to leave this organization multiply in the name of a sovereignty that should be reinforced with the right to seek other forms of security, Armenia is not obliged to remain in this organization. It can just state its weariness, initiate an exit process while raising its strategic value with Russia. Is Moscow ready to sacrifice more leverage in the South Caucasus? The ball is in Putin’s court.

In the same way, Armenia can also make the West understand that while it may be impossible to deliver arms to the Armenians for reasons of contradictory alliances, Washington and Paris can at least intensify their efforts with Baku to dissuade it from attacking Yerevan. If ongoing American mediation aims to impose a calendar of meetings to the various parties, then the ensuing sequence could deter Baku from any new provocations, at the cost of exposing itself to more disadvantageous American reactions against it.

If there is one parameter that has changed in Armenia among both the political class as well as among civil society, it’s the disillusionment with Russia. Russia has demonstrated its adaptability, arrogance and inability to assume its responsibilities as an ally of Armenia through the manifest incompetence of the CSTO. From now on, Russia will have to reckon with Armenians upset by the double talk of the Kremlin and pro-Russian sentiment at half mast. This is a fact that will structure Armenian disposition for a long time.

In the wake of this change in terms of perceptions, the silence of pro-Russian forces in Armenia is noteworthy. It is time for unity. It would appear that pan-national solidarity is gaining the upper hand over indifference, complicity and fatalism. It is up to political forces, as a whole, to think of the general interest instead of counting the deaths of young Armenians, sacrificed in the name of the crass incompetence of the “political elites”. Be a little serious, gentlemen; the Armenian families oblige you, the dead soldiers on the front are watching you, the people in arms question you, History will judge you.

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Magazine Issue N22

Cease, Fire