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No-obligations diplomacy: Western nations step up dialogue with Armenia without offering security assurances

On March 12, for the first time, the Armenian leadership explicitly expressed the possibility of the country’s withdrawal from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The crisis in relations with Moscow is forcing Yerevan to look for other guarantors of security in the event of new military aggression by Baku. The strengthening of cooperation with its Western partners, including in the military sphere, gives observers reason to speak of a turnaround in Yerevan’s foreign policy. However, the likelihood of the EU or the U.S. coming to Armenia's aid in a critical situation is extremely low, writes journalist Alexander Atasuntsev.

  • The reasons for Armenia's discontent

  • Armenia's Western allies — talks without guarantees

  • A zero-sum game


The reasons for Armenia's discontent

On March 12, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan took the conflict with Moscow to a new level by declaring that Armenia would leave the CSTO if the organization did not fulfill its obligations. Previously, Yerevan had never spoken directly about the possibility of leaving the military bloc — only about freezing its membership. Both Pashinyan himself and other members of the Armenian government responded ambiguously to questions about a possible withdrawal from the CSTO late last year, leaving themselves room for maneuver. Now Armenia has issued an ultimatum.

The threat to leave the Russian-led alliance is not the only high-profile statement by the Armenian prime minister. He has also questioned the country's participation in the EAEU. The question of whether Armenia should remain in the Eurasian Union or seek to join the European Union should be decided in a referendum, Pashinyan said. “In this situation we are considering various scenarios. And when we have a ready proposal for [our] society, we will present it,” he added.

Above all, Yerevan is dissatisfied with the way Moscow has fulfilled its obligations as an ally over the past four years. And this is not only about Nagorno-Karabakh and the failure of the peacekeeping mission. The main irritant is the inaction of Russia and the CSTO in response to Azerbaijan's aggression on Armenia's internationally recognized territory.

The main irritant for Yerevan is Russia and the CSTO’s inaction in response to Azerbaijan's aggression on Armenia's internationally recognized territory

Several clashes took place on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in 2021 and 2022. Yerevan claims that Azerbaijan has invaded the territory of the country and has occupied around 140 square kilometers of the border areas. Armenia has repeatedly appealed to the CSTO to act: according to Article 4 of the organization's charter, an attack on one of its members amounts to an attack on all. However, neither the bloc nor Moscow has agreed to recognize Azerbaijan's aggression. “The question remains — where, according to our colleagues from the CSTO, is Armenia's sovereign territory and where is its zone of responsibility in Armenia,” Nikol Pashinyan formulated the main demand.

Armenia's Western allies — talks without guarantees

Russia's unwillingness to support an ally is forcing Armenia to look for other guarantors of security. In recent months, Yerevan has negotiated military cooperation with Greece, France, and India. On March 4, Greek Defense Minister Nikos Dendias visited the Armenian capital and also mentioned the possibility of an alliance:

“We have established a successful trilateral scheme of defence cooperation between our countries and Cyprus, but also other trilaterals can exist, or quadrilaterals, with France and with India.”

The head of Armenia's Defense Ministry, Suren Papikian, also confirmed that the sides discussed “the possibility of cooperation in a multilateral format with other friendly countries.”

The nature of these statements shows how far the parties are from creating a full-fledged alliance. And it will certainly not be able to replace the guarantees Moscow gives Yerevan, despite all the accumulated problems.

Progress is more tangible in the negotiations on arms transfers. Over the past three years, France and India have played a greater role in military imports to Armenia. Last fall, Paris agreed to supply Yerevan with 50 Bastion armored personnel carriers (APCs) and air defense equipment. From India, the country has already received dozens of Pinaka MBRL (multi-barrel rocket launchers) and howitzers, and is expecting the delivery of self-propelled artillery units. However, the volume of these deliveries is still too small to help the Armenian army repel possible Azerbaijani aggression.

Bastion armored personnel carrier (APC)
Bastion armored personnel carrier (APC)

It's hard to imagine that Yerevan can get any guarantees from Western countries, Alissa de Carbonnel, Deputy Program Director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, noted in a conversation with The Insider:

“There’s a large gap between Yerevan's rhetoric and its ability to limit ties with Russia, which, at least in the area of trade, have only strengthened since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”

Extending security guarantees to Armenia isn’t part of the EU's plans at the moment, the expert says: it is enough to look at the current crisis with European aid to Ukraine to understand the EU's limits. Strengthening defense ties between Armenia and France is important and “irritates Baku, which has a complicated history of relations with Paris,” but it cannot be called a substitute for Russian guarantees.

Extending security guarantees to Armenia isn’t in the EU's plans

Azerbaijan is preparing to host the UN Climate Change Conference (COP29) this year, and this could be a stabilizing factor, de Carbonel adds. She cautions, however, that the potential for military escalation nevertheless remains. Baku continues to make territorial claims against Yerevan, demanding the handover of four border villages. In February, the U.S. intelligence community warned in its annual threat assessment report for 2024 that Azerbaijan could attack Armenia, but “the military confrontation probably would be limited in duration and intensity.”

The village of Lower Askipara is one of four that Baku is demanding to hand over
The village of Lower Askipara is one of four that Baku is demanding to hand over
Photo: Gasan Dzhalal via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Frustration with Russia is understandable, de Carbonel concludes. That feeling comes coupled with a sense that it was a mistake to trust Moscow, but many in both Yerevan and Western capitals are concerned that the Armenian government is still “going too far” in turning its back on Russia.

A zero-sum game

The complexity of the situation in which Armenia finds itself also lies in the fact that if it changes its political vector, it risks worsening its situation. Currently, Russia's military presence in the country does not prevent Baku from “small and medium escalations,” says Applied Policy Research Institute (APRI) researcher Sergei Melnonian. But it still prevents Azerbaijan from launching a full-scale invasion. “If there’s an offensive, who will be ready to stop Baku in two days? After all, we do not have the strategic depth that Ukraine had,” the expert says, referring to the fact that Armenia is a small country that can be quickly overrun if its defenses fail. “The probability of a 'march on Yerevan' is lower as long as there are Russian guarantees and as long as Russia is not hostile to Armenia.”

So far, Moscow's reaction to Yerevan's statements has been rather restrained. «We need contacts both within the CSTO and at the bilateral level with our Armenian partners. We will clarify and talk in line with the statements made by the [Armenian] prime minister,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying in response to Pashinyan's statement. Nevertheless, unconfirmed reports about possible problems with the export of Armenian agricultural products to Russia appeared in Armenian media in early March.

Russian military base in Guymri, Armenia
Russian military base in Guymri, Armenia

Sergei Melkonian is convinced that Yerevan cannot count on Western military aid in case of an attack by Azerbaijan. This is because neither Brussels nor Washington considers Azerbaijan as an adversary. And the EU highlights this in every possible way:

“The head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen calls Azerbaijan a ‘reliable energy partner.’ EU Council President Charles Michel, after a completely fictitious presidential election in 2024, congratulates Ilham Aliyev on his victory, despite the fact that journalists and public figures are jailed in the country.”

Both the EU and the U.S. are now more focused on ensuring that the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is resolved at the negotiating table, says Alissa de Carbonel. She explains the Western countries' policy in the region: “Now that the talks are being held directly, without EU or U.S. mediation, the West's strategy is to threaten to limit relations with Azerbaijan and expand them with Armenia in case of a new escalation. As long as the negotiations are moving towards a peace agreement, neither Brussels nor Washington will take sides.”

Armenia has a third option — Iran, which emphasizes that it will not tolerate geopolitical changes in the region or violations of Armenia's borders. The rapprochement of the two countries was facilitated by the change in the balance of power after Armenia's defeat in the Second Karabakh War.

Iran emphasizes that it will not tolerate geopolitical changes in the region

Tehran is particularly alarmed by Baku's threats to forcibly cut the Zangezur corridor in southern Armenia, which is supposed to connect the main part of Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhchivan. In such a scenario, Iran would be cut off from Armenia and would lose access to the Black Sea transit through Armenian territory.

However, Yerevan has so far avoided discussing security issues with Tehran, focusing primarily on economic cooperation, notes Sergei Melkonian. In this sense, the deepening of cooperation with the EU and NATO is fraught with additional risks. Iran considers the deployment of extra-regional forces, especially Western ones, near its borders to be the same red line as violating Armenia's borders.

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