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Why Armenia’s Military Alliance With Russia Is Not At Risk

  • Emil Danielyan

Special forces from Russia, Armenia, and other CIS countries take part in joint military exercises at the Marshal Baghramian training center near Yerevan. (file photo)

Special forces from Russia, Armenia, and other CIS countries take part in joint military exercises at the Marshal Baghramian training center near Yerevan. (file photo)

For many decades, the dominant discourse of Armenian political and intellectual leaders was summed up by an emblematic quote from Khachatur Abovian, a 19th-century Armenian writer. "Blessed be the hour when the blessed Russian foot stepped upon our holy Armenian land," Abovian wrote in his most famous novel, set during the Russian-Persian war in the South Caucasus.

For the Christian Armenians remaining in what at that time was just the central and eastern parts of an ancient Armenian kingdom, the Russian victory in the 1826-1828 war ended centuries of oppressive Muslim rule and their status as second-class subjects of the Persian Empire. It also laid the groundwork for the eventual establishment of the modern-day Republic of Armenia, a successor to one of the 15 Soviet republics.

The Armenian nationalist groups which emerged in tsarist Russia in the late 19th century generally professed loyalty to the Russian state. The 1915 mass killing of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, which many historians and about two dozen countries have recognized as genocide, only reinforced this geopolitical orientation. Both the communist rulers of Soviet Armenia and anti-Soviet nationalist leaders in the worldwide Armenian diaspora portrayed Russia as the sole guarantor of Armenia's survival in a hostile Muslim neighborhood.

Things started changing with the onset in 1988 of a popular movement for Armenia's unification with Nagorno-Karabakh. The anticommunist leaders of that movement, who eventually formed independent Armenia's first government, took a more critical view of the Russian-Armenian relationship, saying that it also had negative consequences for the Armenian people.

Yet even they chose to keep Armenia anchored to Russia politically and military after the breakup of the Soviet Union. This strategic choice facilitated the result of the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan, which left Armenians in control of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas. It was rarely questioned by major Armenian opposition groups, pundits and independent media until the early 2000s.

Pro-Western Sentiment

The past decade has seen a rapid spread of pro-Western sentiment among local journalists, civil society members, and youth activists who rely heavily on social media. This process only accelerated after Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian unexpectedly decided in 2013 to forego a far-reaching Association Agreement with the European Union and make Armenia part of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) instead.

For this expanding circle of politically active people, Russia is a threat to Armenia's sovereignty, security, and democratization which must be neutralized by a reorientation of Armenian foreign policy towards the West. Some of them demand not only Armenia's exit from the EEU, but also an end to the Russian military presence in the country.

Although Russian policies are indeed a cause for legitimate concerns, such rhetoric glosses over the grave security challenges facing Armenia. Like virtually all other Armenians, the vocal pro-Western elements want Nagorno-Karabakh to remain under Armenian control -- something which hinges, in large measure, on the military alliance with Russia. But they do not present the country's political elite with alternatives security options, resorting instead to emotional oversimplifications of foreign policy issues.

The 'Electric Yerevan" protests were sparked by a hike in electricity prices engineered by a Russian-owned power distribution network

The 'Electric Yerevan" protests were sparked by a hike in electricity prices engineered by a Russian-owned power distribution network

Even so, these changing attitudes have fueled suggestions by some Armenia watchers in the West that Russia may be on the brink of losing one of its staunchest ex-Soviet allies. Such speculation was stoked by last February's furious street protests outside the Russian consulate in Armenia's second largest city of Gyumri over the gruesome killing of a local family, which a Russian soldier is accused of having carried out. It intensified further during this summer's demonstrations in Yerevan against an electricity price hike engineered by the country's Russian-owned power distribution network. The so-called "Electric Yerevan" campaign was so dramatic that it raised Russian fears of another "color revolution" against a Moscow-friendly government in the ex-USSR, leading the Kremlin to hastily make a number of major concessions to the Armenian government.

All the same, a closer look at Russian-Armenian ties should be enough to demonstrate why Armenia will continue to heavily rely on Russia for defense and security in the foreseeable future. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is the most important driving force of that alliance, and it is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Military Aid

Thanks to its massive oil revenues, Azerbaijan has increased its annual military spending by almost 30 times during President Ilham Aliyev's more than decade-long rule. It is projected to total $3.6 billion this year, more than Armenia's entire state budget.

Consequently, the Azerbaijani army has been beefed up with large quantities of offensive weapons, including $4 billion worth of tanks, combat helicopters, air-defense systems, and other military hardware purchased from Russia since 2010. This military buildup has emboldened Aliyev to repeatedly pledge not only to win back Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Armenian-controlled territories, but to take what he has called "historical Azerbaijani lands" in Armenia itself, including Yerevan.

By comparison, Armenia's 2015 defense budget is equivalent to only about $500 million. Despite this huge spending disparity, the country has so far been able to largely maintain the military balance with its oil-rich foe. Through bilateral defense agreements with Russia and membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), it has long been receiving Russia weapons at knock-down prices or free of charge. This mostly unpublicized military aid appears to have intensified in recent years.

In particular, Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenian-backed army is known to have formed a new tank brigade (which typically consists of around 100 tanks) and received more heavy artillery in 2012. In late 2013, it announced the provision of another 33 Russian-made tanks to its forces. Russia also reportedly delivered 110 armored vehicles and 50 rocket systems to the Armenian military during that period.

Armenia will soon buy more advanced weaponry at domestic Russian prices with a $200 million low-interest loan that was disbursed by Moscow during the "Electric Yerevan" protests. Around the same time, the Russian government revealed that it is negotiating with the Armenian side on supplying the latter with state-of-the-art Iskander-M missiles that would significantly boost Armenia's ability to strike Azerbaijan's vital oil and gas installations.

The Armenian missile arsenal currently includes Soviet-era Scud-B and Tochka-U systems with firing ranges of 300 and 120 kilometers respectively. The Azerbaijani military has implied that it can neutralize them with S-300 surface-to-air missiles supplied by Russia in 2009-2010 as well as other missile-defense systems reportedly purchased from Israel in 2012. But these systems would most probably be unable to intercept Iskander-M missiles, one of the most potent weapons of their kind in the world.

Iskander-Ms would thus give Armenia an additional major deterrent against possible Azerbaijani attempts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by force. Armenian leaders have repeatedly hinted at their impending acquisition in recent years.

Russia has also been a key provider of free education and training for Armenian military personnel. As of last year, as many as 250 Armenians reportedly studied full-time or took shorter courses at Russian military academies. This figure is comparable to the total number of cadets graduating from Armenia's two military academies annually.

The Russian military base in Armenia's second largest city of Gyumri is another essential component of close military cooperation between the two states. Debate in Armenia on the wisdom of hosting it usually focuses on the question of whether or not the Russian troops would openly fight on the Armenian side should Azerbaijan act on its threats of military action. That misses the point.

The Turkey Factor

What Yerevan needs first and foremost is not Russian ground forces in Nagorno-Karabakh but a safeguard against Turkey's direct military intervention in the conflict, in light of its close ties with, and treaty obligations to, Azerbaijan. (Under the 2011 Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support, the two sides undertake to support each other using "all possible means" in the event of an attack or aggression against one of them.)

Bombing raids by Turkey's sizable Air Force alone could seriously affect the outcome of another Nagorno-Karabakh war by overwhelming Armenia's air defenses and destroying other Armenian military targets. The Russian base precludes such intervention, enabling the Armenians to concentrate the bulk of their military might on Azerbaijan.

For all its efforts to woo Baku, including with arms deals, Moscow is simply not interested in Armenia's defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute because that would eliminate the key rationale for the Armenian reliance on Russia. A military withdrawal from Armenia would in turn minimize Russian presence in a region which Moscow continues to regard as its backyard.

Pro-Western circles in Armenia rarely discuss these specific security issues in their critique of Russian-Armenian dealings. Nor do they question the underlying motive behind successive Armenian governments' pursuit of close ties with Moscow: continued Armenian control over Nagorno-Karabakh. So far the pro-Western camp has been unable or unwilling to disprove the notion that, as long as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved, Armenia's ability to resist Russian pressure and seek deep integration with the West will be seriously limited.

As much as Sarkisian's dramatic 2013 volte-face was a manifestation of poor foreign policy making, it reflected this reality. A more legitimate, democratic and, therefore, pro-Western regime in Yerevan might have succeeded in wriggling out of the EEU. But even such a government could have hardly afforded a far-reaching accord with the EU in the existing geopolitical environment aggravated by Russia and the West's standoff over Ukraine.

Little wonder, then, that only one of the six parties represented in the Armenian parliament has openly opposed membership in the EEU. Most ordinary Armenians, too, continue to support the alliance with Russia, even if their pro-Russian sentiment is now far less intense than in the past. With a Nagorno-Karabakh peace remaining elusive, they are still more likely to agree with Khachatur Abovian than with the cohort of pro-Western pundits and activists increasingly setting the tone of political debate in their country.

Guest blogger Emil Danileyan is a veteran member of RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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