Commentary: Armenia-Russia Relations — More Complex Than They Appear


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Throughout its turbulent history, Armenia almost always has found itself in between a rock and a hard place and has naturally opted for the lesser evil.

Thus was the choice in the early 19th century, when Armenia,along with certain other peoples in the Caucasus, switched its rulers.

Indeed, by the Turkmanchay Treaty of 1828, the Khanate of Yerevan was ceded by the defeated Persians to the victorious Russians. This historic event was even celebrated during the Soviet era, because the Soviets, although they hated the czars, cherished the latters’ conquests.

Armenians had vied for the Russian rule even before that period and they had actively lobbied and worked, especially in the 17th century, through leaders like Nerses Ashtaraketsy and Israel Ori.

When the Caucasus was annexed to the Russian Empire, it was a political dream that came true, although some Russian statesmen preferred to have Armenia under their rule “without Armenians.”

Therefore, this annexation was a moment of jubilation. Even our celebrated novelist, Khachatur Abovian, wrote in his epic novel, The Wounds of Armenia, “Blessed be the moment when Russian feet tread on our soil.”

Armenians unequivocally adhered to a pro-Russian policy, most of the time willingly and sometimes against their consent. However, often the loyalty looked like one-way traffic.

Today, historic forces have thrust upon Armenia a pro-Russian policy, which in the complex setup of the Caucasus, needs to be evaluated more objectively rather than traditional view through naiveté,which had dominated our rationale in assessing the tangible values of that relationship.

This entire historic background comes into focus with the visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Armenia August 19 to 22, accompanied by a large entourage comprising Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Defense Anatoli Sertyukov, Minister of Transport Ilya Klebanov and a number of dignitaries and statesmen.

Upon arriving at Yerevan’s Zvartnotz Airport, the Russian president’s first visit was to the Armenian Martyrs’ monument at Tzitzernakabart, demonstratively laying a wreath at the monument, unlike Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who chose to keep her visit to the site very private.

It was a very clear evening and in the crystalline sky rose the majestic twin peaks of Mt. Ararat, captivating the admiration of the Russian president. Indeed, one of his predecessors Czar Nicholai I, was less fortunate when he visited Yerevan in October 1837. The Russian Czar waited for three days to see the “proud mountain,” which was shrouded in fog and clouds, all the time. After the third day, the czar left Yerevan disappointed stating: “If the czar could not see the proud mountain, Mt. Ararat in its turn was denied to view Russia’s Czar.”

The main purpose of Medvedev’s visit was to renew the treaty of the second Russian military base in Gumri through the year 2044. During his visit, he attended the unofficial gathering of the Collective Security Pact of the seven former Soviet republics, as well as dedicating the “Hill of Honor” in memory of soldiers slain in the 19th century fighting against Ottoman Turks.

This visit marked also the signing of an agreement to build a new nuclear power plant in Armenia by Russia.

The visit has a broader impact on Armenia’s future economic relations with its neighbors. In the margins of this visit, the projects of Armenia-Iran railroad and pipeline, as well as an oil refining facility in Armenia were also being discussed.

Following the August 2008 war with Georgia, Moscow is consolidating its strategic posture in the region, and the base in Armenia is only one component of Russia’s assertive policy in the region. The other components are the new Russian military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow signed a new treaty with Ukraine about its naval forces stationed in Sevastapol on the Black Sea and it upgraded its naval forces in the Caspian Sea.

All these developments will come to dampen Turkey’s Pan-Touranian designs, which eventually may boost Iran’s strategic standing in the region, opposed by Russia, the EU and the US.

Russia intends to build a peacekeeping force, similar to NATO or the UN, to preserve stability within the territories of the seven signatories of the CIS Collective Security Pact.

Russia’s return to the “near abroad” will assign to history the Bush-Cheney policy of perpetual war and provocation, especially on Russia’s southern flanks. In light of these new developments, the Washington Post foresees the waning of US influence in the region, which does not bode well for Georgia.

Commenting on the agreement to extend Russian bases in Armenia, Alexander Khramichkin, the Moscow analyst for the Political and Strategic Institute has stated: “With this new agreement, Moscow will be able to maintain a powerful presence in the region, at no cost, while Armenia will be guaranteed against its neighbors, intending to resolve the Karabagh issue by force.”

The presidential visit and the agreements signed have triggered a hot debate among political parties, statesmen and analysts within Armenia.

The proponents of the agreements contend that Armenia has three strategic partners — Russia, the US and the European Union — yet only one can meet Armenia’s needs: Russia. The EU has no military force to extend to the region, thus relegating the task to NATO forces; and the US is unwilling, as evidenced during the Russian-Georgian conflict.

The other advantage for Armenia is cheap or free access to Russian modern military hardware, through the entire life of the treaty.

There is also debate about the command of the forces based on Armenian soil. In the event of aggression or threat of war, Armenia’s
president will assume the command by the authority vested on him in the constitution.

Of course, a 4,000-strong force may not deter any enemy from its aggressive design, but the defenders of the treaty believe the modern military technology in place will.

There are also opponents of the treaty, one of them being the political analyst Aharon Adibekian, who gives a sarcastic analogy to Armenia’s reliance on Russia. He cites the sixth paragraph of the US Army code for women, which allegedly states: “When being cornered by the enemy, do not resist, don’t get tense, just enjoy for maximum pleasure.”

He says thus Armenia cannot refuse whatever Russia asks for “it can only relax to derive maximum pleasure.”

Another opponent is Karina Danielyan, member of Public Council, who states that “Russia has always backed Armenia, but it has abandoned us at critical moments. It has betrayed us. There is validity in these opposing views.”

Some of the critics believe that the extension of the treaty will mark the demise of Armenia’s complementarism in its foreign policy. Azerbaijan and Georgia are worried that by these new initiatives the military balance is tilting towards Armenia. The Azeri press is especially very vocal in criticizing these deals and calls for Moscow to give up the role of being an even-handed mediator in Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.

To appease the Baku administration, Moscow is extending a carrot, which can counterbalance or neutralize the strategic advantage offered to Armenia by Russia.Moscow is proposing to sell C-300 missile systems to Azerbaijan. When interviewed on Armenian Public TV, Foreign Minister Serguey Lavrov not only has not denied the rumors, but has even confirmed the deal, justifying it as a “defensive missile system.”

Therefore, if Baku attacks Karabagh or Armenia, it is secured by the Russian arms against a possible Armenian retaliation. It is an ironic approach, which can only be understood and explained with the overall strategic Russian design in the region, marginalizing the security of the individual nations in the Caucasus.

There is some euphoria in Armenia after Mevedev’s departure, mostly derived from Armenia’s traditional confidence in Russia.
But the handwriting is on the wall. Armenia should exact maximum benefit from the modern weaponry available through this treaty to neutralize Azerbaijan’s arms build up through its petro dollars and rely on its only forces, should Russia relent in its commitment to defend Armenia.

Russia has already a fig leaf to justify an inaction, arguing that Karabagh being a non-recognized political entity, cannot be covered by the mutual treaty.

Surprises may happen any time. Armenia cannot be lulled into inaction in case of an aggression.

Let us count on Russia, but let us count even more on our own resources.