Saturday, June 25, 2016


Caucasus Report

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

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)
By Emil Danielyan

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
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by: parvenu from: US
November 07, 2015 17:53
The author seems to be discussing "massive" oil revenues of a bygone era. With $43 a barrel price all oil exporting countries are facing major cuts in revenue. Look at Venezuela for example, one of top ten oil producers

by: Mamuka
November 07, 2015 17:54
I know this risks opening up quite a mess... but how is Yerevan "historically Azerbaijani?" Next I suppose we shall hear calls for restoration of Albania in the Caucasus. Vaime!
In Response

by: greg from: virginia
November 09, 2015 19:38
Hi Mamuka. Bakus claim that Yerevan is historically Azerbaijani is a twist of the fact that prior to the 1800s - as mentioned in the above article, the district that includes Yerevan was a "khanate" ruled by local dukes called "meliks" under the authority of Persia. When Russia won its war with Persia in the 1800s, Russia drove out the mostly muslim meliks and their power structures, and placed Armenians into positions of authority in these territories. This was to insure that these districts remained under Russian influence. A substantial portion of the northwest Persian population back then, was of the same ethnic groups that now dominate the population of Azerbaijan. Baku now twists that history - through state education - by depicting northern Persia in the 18th century as an Azerbaijani province dominated by Persia. Therefore, the khanates which Russia took control of, and which later formed the Armenian republic, are portrayed as "historically Azerbaijani". That makes all of Armenia a violation of Azerbaijans territorial integrity (in the same sense Mexico might claim that US control of Texas is a violation of Mexico's territorial integrity). Therefore Azerbaijan believes it has the right under international law to take over all of Armenia - not just the NKR.

by: Earthling from: Earth
November 07, 2015 20:52
Armenia is caught between a rock and a hard place. It has been forgotten by the Obama administration, with candidate Obama promising to recognize the Armenian Genocide and President Obama forgetting his promise as soon as he was elected. If anything, the author understated the danger from Turkey which considers Azerbaijan to be its blood-brother. Turkey would like to eliminate Armenia just like it is eliminating Kurds within its borders and in Syria and Iraq. Armenia really has no choice but to embrace the Russian bear. The West has displayed amazing incompetence with respect to the region.
In Response

by: Zef from: SA
November 29, 2015 08:03
Only Americans think like you do. Since when did the US have any historical ties, traditions or interests in Armenia? Russia certainly has them. You seem to forget bonds of history cannot be replaced by a wave of a magic wand and snap of an American finger. Americans cannot find Armenia on a map. That is sheer arrogance.

by: Harutik from: Haroutiounnyc@msn.com
November 07, 2015 23:49
This article tells me one thing: Western funded agents in Armenian society are beginning to accept reality, the reality that Armenia's natural place is within the Russian orbit. God bless Mother Russia. God bless our Hayrenik. And may God help preserve the centuries old alliance between Russia and Armenia from all enemies both foreign and domestic.

by: Mesrop
November 08, 2015 00:40
Interesting analysis. I certainly learned a lot

by: Gabriel Armas
November 08, 2015 06:24
As a pro-Western spyurkahay, the author is completely right: Armenia cannot afford to turn its back on Russia. But, the author misses that Armenia has two existential risks. The first is external, coming from Azerbaijan. The second is internal, coming from emigration. Either of these have the ability to end Armenia's existence as an independent nation. The first risk needs a military (or an unlikely political) solution while the second one needs an economic one: people need jobs in Armenia to not leave. The alliance with Russia is able to provide the military solution, but only with greater ties to the West will Armenia be able to solve the second. Not only is Russia not able to economically stimulate Armenia like the EU, it prefers Armenia to be economically isolated and dependent: https://www.stratfor.com/sample/analysis/russia-tightens-its-hold-armenia.

by: David Davidian from: Armenia
November 08, 2015 07:51
“Misses the point”, how true. It's one thing listening to ill-informed taxi drivers in Yerevan, but it's another when EU negotiators suggest to Armenia “not to be afraid” about expanding agreements with the EU. Not that Armenia should not have expended economic ties with the EU, but over-simplifying expanded ties by neglecting security issues, the EU might as well negotiate with taxi drivers. There is a reason most of Armenia has remained relatively peaceful since December 26, 1991, even with Armenia's borders being subject to Azerbaijani shelling.

It is difficult to imagine why the EU/west would come to the defensive aid of Armenia. Under what set of interests would the west bother protecting Armenia, considering Armenia's largest existential threat is NATO member Turkey. One need only view EU-flag waving Georgia in 2008 to understand how interests trump rhetoric. What Saakashvilli should have realized, Armenia understands. When a Russian jet strayed into Turkish airspace last month to avoid being lit up by anti-aircraft radar it was headline news in the EU, yet on October 6th and 7th, Turkish military helicopters purposely violated Armenian airspace (see RFE/RL report: http://www.azatutyun.am/content/article/27299112.html) clearly in retaliation, yet it wasn't even reported in the EU press. What kind of message did that send, especially when NATO was asked for clarification and in response it claimed ignorance.

It would indeed be interesting to see what kind of comprehensive package the EU/west could offer Armenia that would replace the role Russia provides. That being said, I bet Armenia would listen carefully.

Yerevan, Armenia

by: minas
November 08, 2015 14:18
Armenians have seen so much that now, they don't even really trust Russians. For Armenia, there is not much difference between Russia and West, both only pursue their own interests so Armenians should align themselves with the one whose interests in the region is different from that of Turkey. The real danger to Armenia is not Azerbaijan, even with its recent weapon purchases, Azerbaijanis are extremely incompetent when it comes to war and they will lose it again just like they lost 20 years ago. The real danger is Turkey, a nation which has committed one of the most horrific crimes humanity has ever seen against Armenians and to this date they are very proud of it, to the extent that they name schools and streets after the criminals! And the US is just a jock, the epitome of realpolitik and hypocrisy, you have RFE/RL which is funded by US itself and supposedly is to preach democracy and human rights in the region but it bans its authors from using the words "Armenians" and "genocide" in one sentence! Typical American style human rights! The one which demonizes Putin but licks the rear end of the Saudi king!

by: Norserunt from: Diaspora
November 08, 2015 17:02
At the end of the day the following is what Armenians need to realize: No Russia in the South Caucasus = no Armenia in the South Caucasus; Armenia's existence as a nation-state in the South Caucasus serves the strategic interests of ONLY one nation on earth - Russia; If Armenia disappeared from the map, it would have an adverse effect on ONLY one nation - Russia; Russian and Armenian alliance is therefore based on the convergence of fundamental geostrategic interests; As long as the South Caucasus region is threatened by Turkic peoples, Muslims and Western interests, Russia will continue seeing Armenia as a strategic asset; For the foreseeable future Moscow will place the protection of Armenia on par with the protection of Russia itself; Russia is therefore a historic opportunity to strengthen Armenia and get her up on her feet.

Armenians need to fully embrace the Russian Bear. Geographically, politically and culturally, Armenia is a Eurasian nation. Armenia's place is therefore within the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.

PS: EU is a political/financial system that is essentially run by an elite residing in the Anglo-American-Jewish world, France and Germany. In other words, the EU CANNOT be trusted. Moreover, the EU is a decadent, multi-ethnic theme park that is on the verge of collapse. Nations like Greece, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Spain, Italy, Romania, are ample evidence that EU membership is toxic for nation-states.

by: Alex
November 08, 2015 20:15
Armenia and Russia have the same interests when it comes to the Caucasus which is the preservation of Armenia. For us the reasons are obvious and for the Russians it is to counter Pan-Turkism and maintaining influence in the region. Russia will never let Armenia go and Armenia will cease to exist if it lets go of Russia. No Western country can guarantee Armenia's security.(Example: Cyprus...) So the day Russian troops leave Armenia, Erdogan Pasha will be swimming in Lake Sevan while his troops/terrorist proxies finish the job that was started in 1915. What Armenia has to do is strengthen the alliance with Russia in all spheres and cooperate with the West economically. The greatest period of development for our nation in the last thousand years was during the time in the Soviet Union(culturally, economically, scientifically, etc.) so we should hail the creation of the new Union. And Russia is the only nation that will correct the historical injustice committed against our nation because it is in their interest to break Turkey up into little pieces. We just need to be patient and wait UNTIL the day comes when NATO/America are weakened and Turkey is left unprotected, then the bear will set things straight.

God bless Armenia and Russia
In Response

by: peter from: ottawa
November 09, 2015 13:46
Sasa from nowhere, dreaming in colour wont help Armenia nor its outhouse benefactor Russia. Armenia is surrounded,even Georgia despises Armenians. Armenia has Russian border guards, uses Russian rubles, Russian passports, Russian language. The Armenian language is used only at the goat level with a few grunts between yawns. Three cities keep Armenia afloat LA, Paris and Moscow without them Armenia ceases to exist as for the bear it will soon turn itself from a wild bear into a circus bear at 25 dollar oil. Cheers
In Response

by: minas
November 10, 2015 00:49
Calm down Peteroghlu! A recent study of Altay goats has shown that too much hallucination combined with anger management issues can be really dangerous! stop dreaming about 25 dollar oil, if that happens the first country which will go bankrupt is a gas station called Azerbaijan. Oil is 60 percent of Russian export but more than 90 percent of Azeri export. Well, the rest of your rant doesn't even deserve a response.
In Response

by: peter from: ottawa
November 10, 2015 17:13
Midas muffler from nowhere, I am perfectly calm and not Turkish as you imply. I am not dreaming of 25 dollar oil the market, inventories, production, Chinese hoarding, gvt deficits and so many other factors that you know little about determine the price of oil and I am certain Azerbaidjan will survive a low price and all those flies that come from Armenia. Is that you living in a tent by the highway ?. Cheers
In Response

by: minas
November 11, 2015 12:38
Your comment perfectly shows how calm you are peteroghlu! Yea will survive, we all saw how the currency went down by 30% overnight! drink some herbal tea, its good for your nerves.
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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.