Armenia's dilemma: neither with nor without Russia | International

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The mayor of Tegh, David Ghulunts, is torn in his office between disbelief and anger. His town is the last town in Armenia on the road that, through Azerbaijan, reaches the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, blocked since December 12. Some 200 inhabitants of Tegh - carriers carrying goods across the border, construction workers... - have been trapped by the blockade and, for weeks, have not been able to return home. “Let's see, the Azerbaijanis say that they have not blocked the Lachin corridor, that they are simple protesters, and the Russians say that they cannot do anything. So who has to do something? There is an agreement between Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia that stipulates that the corridor must remain open. I'm sure if the Russians wanted to, they'd be done with this problem in a day. But they do nothing. I do not know why".

Ghulunts is not the only one disappointed with Russia's passivity in this conflict. There is a widespread feeling among many Armenians that their country's strategic alliance with Moscow is of little use. The Armenian Prime Minister himself, Nikol Pashinian, criticized on January 10 the Russian peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh, made up of some 2,000 military personnel, for having become a "silent witness" to the blockade of the enclave, and, As a result, it decreed the suspension of joint military exercises with Russia and other ex-Soviet countries scheduled for this year.

Armenia is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSO), the main supranational entities led by Moscow. Russia also maintains a base with 3,000 troops and a military airfield on Armenian territory, in addition to the soldiers deployed in Karabakh. But neither this Russian military presence nor the CSTO card, which seeks to be a kind of Russian NATO, have given Armenia much joy.

In January 2022, when the organization sent troops to Kazakhstan to help the government quell the protests, Armenia religiously complied with sending 100 soldiers, despite the fact that an Executive like Pashinian's, born of a street revolt against authoritarianism and corruption. Instead, in 2020, when Azerbaijan launched an offensive to retake Karabakh from Armenian hands, the CSTO argued that it was a conflict on Azerbaijani soil and not an attack on Armenian sovereignty: a legally impeccable argument. It was less understandable that, in 2021 and 2022, when the Azerbaijani offensives already took place in Armenian territory and Armenia asked its military partners for protection, the CSTO limited itself to announcing the sending of a civilian reconnaissance mission.

All this has caused changes in Armenian public opinion. If in 2014, 63% of Armenians supported their country maintaining a special relationship with Russia, now they are only 17%, while 45% want a balance of relations and 25% prefer the balance to tip in favor of the EU and the US. There is also a growing generational gap: while the young are more pro-West — especially those employed in the booming tech sector, who communicate in English and work with clients in Europe or North America — the generations who grew up in the Soviet era They have a greater fondness for Russia.

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The end of Russian hegemony

Paradoxically, since the fall of the USSR, the streets of Yerevan have never heard so much Russian as now. There are tens of thousands of Russian citizens - mostly young middle-class people - who have settled in the Armenian capital escaping from Vladimir Putin's suffocating Russia, trying to evade the so-called ranks or simply as a way to avoid Western sanctions imposed since the invasion of Ukraine. Precisely the poor Russian military performance in Ukraine has undermined Russia's image in the ex-Soviet space and several sources consulted by this newspaper in Armenia and Karabakh - government officials, diplomats and analysts - agree in defining Azerbaijan's latest actions as a way of “test the limits” of Moscow's power in the region. The Russian bear is no longer scary. Or, at least, not as much as before.

“One of the objectives of the blockade of Azerbaijan is to discredit the Russian peace mission. They understand that with this situation the rejection of Russia by the Armenians of Artsakh will increase,” says Sergei Ghazarian, foreign minister of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, as the Armenians call Nagorno-Karabakh. The authorities of the Armenian enclave are more pro-Russian than those of Yerevan, and they continue to see Moscow as their main protector, for which they criticize that Azerbaijan has refused to put in writing the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers in the area: “Thus, it keeps them in a limbo of uncertainty and with little room for maneuver, it is not clear what their powers are or what type of weapons they can use. That leaves Azerbaijan a free hand."

Others, like security expert Hrachya Arzumanian, see Russian inaction as a conscious plan to force the Armenian government to make concessions that are also in Moscow's interest. Specifically, to accept the establishment of a corridor through southern Armenia that would link Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhchivan and this with Turkey. This would allow Russia to have a land route for the entry and exit of goods, since, according to the agreement reached by the three countries in 2020, the corridor would be under the surveillance of Russian customs guards.

Armenia is a small territory —it barely has three million inhabitants— in the middle of large tectonic plates, a country at the crossroads of the Turkish-Azerbaijani and Russian-Iranian axes. At a time when Russia is increasingly dependent on Turkey and Azerbaijan due to Western sanctions (in 2022 Turkey became Russia's second largest trading partner, behind only China), resulting in sometimes Let Ankara and Baku dictate their terms to Moscow, and not the other way around.

It is not easy for Armenia to break away from Russia. “If Armenia were to leave the CSTO and call for the withdrawal of Russian troops, it would immediately become a hostile nation in the eyes of Russia,” writes political analyst Benyamin Poghosian. "Armenia's security architecture has been built in the last centuries on the basis of the strategic alliance with Russia, and that cannot be changed overnight," Arzumanian argues: "But we are facing a decisive moment in which we have to go, little by little, building new alliances”.

A first step in that direction is the deployment of European observers on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which should serve as a deterrent and prevent further clashes. The first teams were deployed between October and December and a new mission made up of 100 people has now been approved and will continue for two years. Diplomatic sources explain that the Government of Armenia has been very grateful for this European decision, although Azerbaijan and Russia do not see it favorably. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has described it as "counterproductive" and has stated that "it will only bring greater geopolitical competition and exacerbate conflicts."

On the other hand, there are those who do not trust an EU that, in recent years, has strengthened its cooperation with Azerbaijan as an alternative energy source to Russia. "When [la presidenta de la Comisión Europea, Ursula] von der Leyen receives [el presidente de Azerbaiyán, Ilham] Aliyev and stresses the importance of Azerbaijan for Europe, is giving him the green light in his policy against the Armenians”, denounces Ghazarian. Armenia, unlike Azerbaijan, lacks hydrocarbons.

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