In processing the aftermath of the 2020 Artsakh War and the effectiveness of the “Multi-Vector Foreign Policy”, many Armenian policy makers have begun to reassess how exactly a small state should navigate the increasingly contested space of the South Caucasus. From the United States and United Kingdom to Iran and China, Armenia’s bilateral relationships have come under new scrutiny given the new balance of power in the region and the sobering lessons from the 2020 Artsakh War. Even cooperation with organizations like the European Union have been increasingly viewed through a strategic lens: What value do these relationships bring to Armenian security and what can Armenia provide them? In exploring Armenia’s bilateral relations in the post-war era, one state remains considerably under-examined: Ukraine. Despite being separated by geography and not being in direct conflict with one another, Armenia and Ukraine seem to have found themselves on opposite ends on a variety of issues. While it’s unlikely that Kyiv and Yerevan will ever completely overlap in their interests, it remains to the benefit of both Armenia and Ukraine that both states hold a pragmatic relationship despite their seemingly disparate positions. This article aims to explore what exactly divides these two countries and reflect on what common elements may unite them.
Divisions Over Crimea
Perhaps the largest and most intractable divide between Armenia and Ukraine stems from Armenia’s response to the annexation of Crimea. Armenia was one of 11 states to vote against a 2014 UN General Assembly resolution that declared the annexation of Crimea to be unlawful. When combined with statements from then-President Serzh Sargsyan on Crimea being a matter of self-determination, it would seem that the Armenian government considered the annexation of Crimea to be a legitimate action by the Russian Federation, even if members of its diplomatic corps were cautious not to describe these sentiments as proper recognition. When we consider the delicate approach that Yerevan has taken toward the topic of Artsakh’s independence, such as vocally supporting Artsakh’s claim without providing formal recognition to avoid further escalation of the conflict, this posturing by Sargsyan’s government toward the events in Crimea seems particularly brazen. The calculus behind this decision was simple: Armenia and Russia were close allies and Crimea and Nagorno-Karabakh could both be broadly categorized as questions of self-determination with minimal incongruity from the Armenian government. Additionally, Armenia’s 2014 General Assembly vote could be processed as a tit-for-tat given that Ukraine voted in favor of a 2008 resolution that declared the territory of the Republic of Artsakh to be occupied Azerbaijani land and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces.
But when we further examine both territories as being questions of self-determination, we can see that Nagorno-Karabakh is not Crimea. As noted by Stepan Grigoryan, it would be inappropriate to compare the armed annexation of Crimea to the process of self-determination which unfolded over several years in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Republic of Artsakh’s declaration of independence came after years of activism through the Karabakh Movement and was prompted by the inability of the Azerbaijani government to guarantee the safety of the oblast’s Armenian residents amidst rising nationalist violence. As highlighted by Vladimir Kupriy in the immediate aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s claim to Crimea was largely rooted in imperialist and irredentist posturing, whereas the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is grounded in the conflict between the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity. If anything, the principle of self-determination expressed by the Armenians of Artsakh is not comparable to the Russians of Crimea, but rather the Crimean Tatars who agitated for return to the peninsula after their Soviet-era deportations. This is particularly relevant when we consider that the “Crimean Tatar Precedent” established during the waning years of the USSR was a major influence in the early Karabakh Movement.
Additionally, Crimea’s independence referendum was organized largely as a means of legitimizing the annexation of the peninsula after its invasion by the Russian military. Voters were presented with two options: join the Russian Federation as a federal subject or restore the territory to its legal status outlined in the previous 1992 Crimean Constitution. The second option would have allowed the Crimean government to maintain its own foreign relations and established a de facto independence. Residents were not provided with the option to maintain Crimea’s legal status in Ukraine prior to the invasion—meaning that the territory’s fate was already sealed regardless of the outcome of the vote. This is a major contrast to the 1991 Nagorno-Karabakh Independence Referendum, which directly asked whether residents were in favor of an independent status for the territory in a “yes-no” vote.
Unfortunately, the nuance between Crimea and Nagorno-Karabakh is not reflected by the governments of Armenia and Ukraine, nor the international community as a whole. Nonetheless, Kyiv and Yerevan have shown a willingness to sidestep the topic and avoid direct conflict, despite this differing stance. While Ukraine officially supports the principle of territorial integrity in the context of “frozen conflicts” in the former USSR, Kyiv’s response to the 2020 Artsakh War was not a full and unwavering support of Azerbaijan, but rather a statement insisting on a peaceful resolution to the conflict—in line with the positions taken by the three co-chair members of the OSCE Minsk Group. While this did not alleviate the aggression that Armenia faced during the 2020 war, it is a hint that Ukraine’s support for Azerbaijan is not entirely uncritical and has a degree of flexibility. Additionally, when a group of Armenian citizens (including former MP Hayk Babukhanian) traveled to Crimea in 2019, Civil Contract MP Mikayel Zolyan was quick to comment, reiterating that the activities and statements of a group of private citizens “should not be interpreted by our friendly state, Ukraine, as official Yerevan’s view.”
When considering how both states can navigate this political impasse, perhaps it is best to look toward how Armenia and Georgia navigate their own incompatibilities with regard to frozen conflicts. Like Ukraine, Georgia has been a vocal proponent of the importance of territorial integrity, due to the ongoing disputes with the Russian Federation over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Despite Armenia’s close relationship with the Russian Federation and the numerous comparisons that are made between the legal status of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Artsakh, Tbilisi and Yerevan manage to maintain warm relations with one another. This is due to both countries’ willingness to present themselves as being as neutral as possible in navigating the other’s territorial disputes, Tbilisi’s posturing as a peace broker between Armenia and Azerbaijan in recent history, and in both countries engaging in a delicate balancing act with each other’s regional partners. Perhaps one of the largest signals by the Armenian government toward a willingness to side-step the question of territorial integrity vs. self determination was Armenia’s abstention on a UN vote on a resolution presented by Georgia which described South Ossetia as being illegally-occupied territory. This abstention was the first time that Yerevan did not directly vote against the Georgian government on matters related to frozen conflicts. While the long-term sustainability of this strategy is unclear, it does show that pragmatic relations are possible.
Divisions in Security
Another major dividing factor between Armenia and Ukraine is both states’ respective security partners. Russia is considered Armenia’s main partner in matters related to national security, due to its military presence in the country and the mutual defense clause included in the 1997 Armenia-Russia Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance. Additionally, mutual participation in the CSTO provides another theoretical guarantee of security between Armenia and Russia alongside other initiatives designed to create joint forces between both militaries. Armenia’s security partnership with Russia extends beyond treaty text and legal agreements and includes the physical materials required for security; Russia holds a near-monopoly on Armenia’s arms imports and regularly sells military equipment to Yerevan below market prices.
In recent years, Ukraine has enhanced and grown its security partnership with Turkey. Since the annexation of Crimea, Kyiv has increasingly turned to Ankara as a means of leverage against Russian influence in the Black Sea region. In addition to joint exercises and affirmations of support from the Turkish government toward Ukraine, this partnership has included the signing of several bilateral agreements between Turkey and Ukraine on matters related to trade and security. The most recent of these is a Free Trade Agreement signed by Erdogan during a working visit to Kyiv in the midst of heightened tensions along Ukraine’s border with Russia. Perhaps the most noteworthy section of this agreement was a section that allowed for the production of Turkish TB-2 Bayraktar drones in Ukraine.
When we consider the poor relations that Armenia and Ukraine hold toward each other’s respective security partners, it would only seem logical that Kyiv and Yerevan would consider themselves at odds with each other. This tension is almost directly reflected in the symbolism of Russian anti-air systems being sold to Armenia, while Turkish drones are sold to Ukraine (and even more so when we consider the numerous engagements between both systems in the 2020 Artsakh War). However, there are certain factors that should be kept in mind when assessing this potential security divide between both states. Armenia and Ukraine are both active members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and work closely with Brussels on a variety of matters related to regional security and civil development. Even without a pronounced interest in NATO membership, Armenia has shown itself to navigate any conflicts in NATO cooperation that would arise from its CSTO membership. NATO and its individual members—such as France, the United Kingdom and the United States—are explicitly referenced as potential partners in matters related to security in Armenia’s National Security Strategy. If nothing else, mutual participation in the Partnership for Peace and warm ties with individual members of the Transatlantic community can provide some avenues for dialogue between Kyiv and Yerevan.
Additionally, considering Kyiv and Yerevan to be at odds with one another due to their security partnerships serves to place an undue emphasis on Russia and Turkey’s commitments toward their “junior” partners. Despite undoubtable conflict between Ankara and Moscow over influence in the South Caucasus, Syria, the Black Sea and Central Asia, Russia and Turkey periodically sway away from conflict and toward periods of detente and diplomatic engagement. The height of these rapprochement periods would have been the planned sale of Russian-made S-400 missile systems to Turkey. Not only did this proposed sale shock NATO, it also represented a willingness by Russia and Turkey to overlook the interests of their junior partners and their supposed security commitments. Considering the willingness of Turkey and Russia to put their own bilateral ties above their commitments to their allies, it may be unnecessary to consider engagement between Armenia and Ukraine limited and problematic.
Divisions in Integration
The diverging paths of regional integration taken by Kyiv and Yerevan could be considered another dividing point between Armenia and Ukraine. Armenia is an active member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a regional integration project led by the Russian Federation which seeks to emulate much of the single-market structures of the European Union. In comparison, Ukraine has signed an Association Agreement with the European Union and is seeking deeper integration with the union’s single market through the implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) included in its Association Agreement. When we examine the events of the summer of 2013, we can see why Armenia and Ukraine’s participation in these regional integration processes may be considered such a dividing point between both states. After years of participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, Armenia and Ukraine were presented with proposed EU Association Agreements by the European Union, alongside Georgia and Moldova. This was met with months of protest and pressure by the Russian government toward both states, as Kyiv and Yerevan finalized negotiations on the treaties in the lead up to the Eastern Partnership’s 2013 Vilnius Summit.
Upon return from a brief visit by Serzh Sargsyan to Russia in the fall of 2013, Sargsyan’s government abruptly announced it would be pursuing full membership in the EAEU, which the EU asserted was incompatible with an Association Agreement. When a similar abrupt decision was made by Viktor Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine, a series of demonstrations broke out, which would ultimately culminate into a wider protest known as the “Euromaidan” and Yanukovych’s escape to Russia. Euromaidan is considered to not only be a rejection of the corruption and mismanagement that characterized Yanukovych’s regime, but also a pronounced effort by the people of Ukraine to assert their status as being part of “Europe”. The gravity behind Ukraine’s decision to pursue European integration becomes even more apparent when we consider the deaths of 103 protestors during Euromaidan, the subsequent annexation of Crimea, and the invasion of eastern Ukraine by the Russian military (portraying themselves as locals).
Armenia’s decision to forgo the opportunity of an Association Agreement has been interpreted by some outside observers as being a rejection of European ideals and a capitulation toward Russian interests in the region, with some going as far as to label it as Yerevan “turning its back against Europe”. However, when we examine both the lead up to Sargsyan’s decision and its aftermath, we can see that Armenia has long held a vested interest in European integration and continues to pursue this path as much as EAEU membership allows. To begin, Sargsyan’s decision came after years of Armenian lawmakers approximating the regulations and laws of the European Union. In addition to the work of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on European Integration, the Armenian government contracted a third party to assess the economic viability of the EU-Armenia Association Agreement and its affiliated Free Trade Agreement. Considering that there was no major signaling from Sargsyan’s administration prior to the decision to cancel the agreement and that years of preparation had gone into its planned signing, it is more likely that this decision was the result of acute pressure from the Russian government leading up to Sargsyan’s visit to Moscow and concerns over how signing the agreement would impact Armenia’s security partnership with Russia (in the context of an ongoing unstable conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh), rather than a full rejection of European integration by the entirety of Armenia’s political system.
Additionally, Sargsyan’s decision was not taken without its own backlash. Protests immediately broke out in Yerevan and continued well beyond the initial announcement. Members of the government voiced their objection and confusion in response to the decision while the then-ruling Republican Party of Armenia remained largely silent. According to the then-EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule, Brussels was not aware of Armenia’s plans to join the EAEU prior to this announcement and was only privately notified of the decision on August 31, 2013—four days before Sargsyan’s visit to Russia. Fule also reiterated that the economic and political elements of the Association Agreement could not be “decoupled” from one another, meaning that it would be impossible to implement the political elements of the agreement if there were incompatibilities between its free trade provisions and Armenia’s EAEU membership. Additionally, the idea that civil society’s response can only be measured in full revolutions not only ignores the political reality seen throughout Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus, it also discounts the actual revolution that occurred in Armenia five years later.
Even with the cancellation of the EU-Armenia Association Agreement, Armenia remains interested in the process of European integration and partakes in regional engagement formats like the Eastern Partnership alongside Ukraine. Through the drafting, signing and ongoing implementation of the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA), Armenia has salvaged essentially all parts of the scuttled Association Agreement that are not in direct conflict with its EAEU membership. While less than full associate status, this is a greater degree of integration with the European Union than Azerbaijan and Belarus—neither of which hold similar agreements despite their inclusion in the Eastern Partnership.
United in Vision
Looking beyond what separates Armenia and Ukraine, we should pause and reflect on what elements unite them. Both countries exist as fledgling democracies beset by aggression from their larger neighbors and trapped in precarious states of security. During times of conflict and war, outside observers ignore the questions at the roots of their conflicts and instead remain fixated on disastrous predictions of World War III and possible NATO-Russia confrontation. Both Armenia and Ukraine grapple with youth emigration and rely heavily on remittance economies built on the dated, aging legal structures of the CIS – with both Armenian and Ukrainian migrant laborers in Russia periodically facing harsh crackdowns from Russian authorities as a punitive measure against their home governments. Even if divided on matters related to foreign policy, we can see that the political realities of post-revolution Kyiv and Yerevan are more alike than not.
Looking forward, it is unlikely that the diplomatic impasse between both states will pass. With the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ukraine and the aftermath of the 2020 Artsakh War, it is likely that both governments will remain focused on the developments within their immediate region. Future rapprochement on a state level may not be likely for quite some time. However, it is entirely possible that engagement between both states’ civil societies on shared issues—often referred to as “track two diplomacy”—may lay the groundwork for future improvement of bilateral relations. This is not an appeal to idealism, but rather a recognition that, in the wake of both societies’ respective revolutions, Armenia and Ukraine share a political destiny that is much closer to one another than the autocratic systems seen in Russia and Turkey.
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