[This commentary was first published on commonspace.eu on 18 February 2021]
Armenia's asymmetric dependence on Russia has cost it dearly, especially during the recent Karabakh war, argues Alexander Petrosyan in this commentary. Two projects – the Iran-Armenia railway, and the Iran-Armenia-Georgia gas pipeline – can help restore the balance, he contends.
‘The Republic of Armenia is the guarantor of the security of Artsakh’ is stated in the National Security Strategy of the Republic of Armenia updated last year. However, the current reality emerging from the recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh is that Armenia's security system has been destroyed. After more than two and half decades, this now creates absolute uncertainty, not only for the future of an Armenian Artsakh, but also for the statehood of the Republic of Armenia itself. The problematic border demarcation issues with the Republic of Azerbaijan, the reopening of the regional transport routes and the asymmetric dependence on Russia all create real threats for Armenia's sovereignty. The ongoing concerns around these problems pave the way for the spread of frustration in society, which is reflected in statements calling for deepening integration with Russia, and even worse, to become a part of Russia.
Unfortunately, it is now very difficult for the Armenian side to acknowledge that the status quo had only been kept for so long due to a fragile geopolitical equilibrium. In reality, the security situation preserving this equilibrium had dramatically changed in 2014-2015 when the USA started withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Middle East, shifting its attention towards East Asia. Moreover, the downing of the Russian fighter jet by Turkey in 2015 also resulted in new state of affairs in the region. This new period was signalled by the April war in 2016 and then reached its peak in the recent war of 2020. Several important signs of this new era were either misinterpreted or ignored by the Armenian side. The most important is the new nature of Russo-Turkish relations, which is a product of the above-mentioned events and is aimed at filling the power vacuum in the Middle East.
The present state of Russo-Turkish bilateral relations is excellently described by the Russian minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov, as 'sui generis co-operation and competition'. Ignoring this fact, assuming that any future war would be on the scale of April 2016, and overestimating Russian interest in maintaining the status quo albeit deviated, all demonstrate the Armenian side's underestimation of the current realities around Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the wider region in general. The existing consensus between Turkey and Russia over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is obviously shaped by their desire to realign their spheres of influence in the entire region, and thus, to keep all extraregional actors – and primarily, the West – out. Unfortunately, it led to devastating consequences for the Armenian side. Their geopolitical myopia resulted in unprecedented destruction – a performance by the same Russo-Turkish pair last seen a century ago, which then led to the partition and sovietisation of Armenia. The claims stemming from the Armenian side, including the ruling elite, that preparation for the war rests only with the Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance and that for the Russian side it was undesirable and unexpected, is doubtful.
First of all, the post-election demonstrations in Belarus – a CSTO/EAEU member state and a close neighbour of Russia – should have been worrying for Moscow if, as they claim, they were directed against the Kremlin and sponsored by the West. And in light of these events, the opening of a so-called ''second front'' against Russia in the South Caucasus should have induced it to keep the balance in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict at any cost, at least by supporting the weaker party – Armenia – by solving the problem of supplies in advance, and mitigating the possibility of it being blockaded. Another factor which deepens concern that the war wasn't a surprise for Russia, was the post-election revolutionary situation in Kyrgyzstan – a threat to another Russian sphere of influence. This happened at the beginning of October, when the war in Nagorno-Karabakh was at its height. Although the Kremlin-backed Russian media channels and prominent analysts were doing everything they could to show that there was a Western conspiracy working against Russia at the same time in Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan; in reality, this anti-Western paranoia doesn’t find reasonable ground as in all three situations, Russia’s position has been strengthened as a result.
Finally, the last fragment which attracts attention is the timing of the war. It took place during the presidential election campaign in the USA, when both the ruling administration and Biden's team were occupied with election preparations, and France alone couldn't simultaneously counterbalance Russia and restrain Turkey. The pre-election timing was ideally calculated as the polls just before showed that Trump didn't have a chance of re-election. The outcome would not be the most desirable for Russia and Turkey given the isolationist nature of Trump's foreign policy in comparison to Biden's tough stance against them.
Overall, these developments have shaped the current state of affairs in the South Caucasus with devastating effects for Armenia. It’s out of question that Russia, with a huge amount of resources and tools at its disposal, could not adequately protect its ally, Armenia, and Its interests, if they aligned with its own interests and agenda in the region.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenian-Russian relations have evolved in the wrong way, making Armenia’s position more vulnerable and resulting in an asymmetric dependence on Russia. This has been conditioned by the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and the Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide: Armenia is a landlocked country with two of its four land borders closed; it has stayed out of the regional economic projects; and tensions between Iran and the West make its remaining southern border unreliable. These facts have created favourable conditions for Russia to establish total control over Armenia, shaping the mindset of the Kremlin towards Armenia: Where will they go? (А куда они денутся?). Moreover, since the second Karabakh war, domestic fear and panic in Armenia have laid the ground for the expansion of ideas ranging from joining the Union State of Belarus and Russia, to joining the Russian Federation as a republic like Tatarstan or Chechnya. This delusive and apathetic discourse, which is being encouraged both by the Russian media and some pro-Kremlin politicians and parties in Yerevan, can only be neutralised by increasing Armenia's substantiveness as a fully functional subject of international law.
The state of Armenia’s economic, military and political security would have been totally different if Armenia's leadership, lacking legality and legitimacy, hadn’t handed over the country’s strategically important facilities to Russia in the early 2000s. The so-called ‘property for debt’ programme, amongst other deals, gave almost all major Armenian infrastructure to Russia.
Armenia's asymmetric dependence on Russia can be solved by diversifying its partners and increasing the involvement of other actors, thus expanding Yerevan's room for manoeuvre. However, this diversification cannot be as fragile as its attempt back in the 2000s, labelled, ‘asymmetric complementarity’, which again emphasised the important role of Russia. In that concept, Russia wasn’t regarded as ‘primus inter pares’ – ‘first among equals’ – but it can be described as ‘Russia and the rest’.
Given the complicated relations with Turkey, the primary actors in Armenia’s foreign-policy spectrum are Iran, China and the EU. At present, two strategically important ventures can change Armenia’s economic, political and security environment, by reducing its isolation and increasing its prospects of economic prosperity. These are the Iran-Armenia railway and the Iran-Armenia-Georgia gas pipeline:
- Iran-Armenia railway: The construction of the Iran-Armenia railway has huge potential to solve some real problems. Firstly, Armenia gains stable access to the Iranian market. Then, through the well-established Iranian railway network, Armenia gains access not only to Central Asia but also to China. In addition, Armenia reaches both the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. As a result, Armenia becomes an important link in the chain between the Georgian and Iranian ports, creating links between Eastern Europe and East Asia. This will help Iran and Armenia solve their isolation problems to some extent, while China gains access to Eastern Europe by sea, eliminating its dependence on Russia. As a result, this project and its geo-economical influence allows Armenia to increase the role of Iran and China in its regional affairs, thus creating leverage for her benefit.
The existing Armenian-Georgian railway is functional, but there is a need to build up the Tabriz-Yerevan section. However, there is no doubt that it would increase Armenia's economic appeal. Last year, China and Iran signed a strategic partnership agreement, which envisages 400 bln USD of Chinese investment in the development of Iran's infrastructure over the next 25 years. The railway and road networks compose an important part of this infrastructure complex, and this upgrade is aimed at solving Iran's isolation and opening new opportunities for China.
Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, announced during his last visit to Armenia that the territorial integrity of the Republic of Armenia is a red line for Iran, thus highlighting the vital importance of its border with Armenia. It is no secret that if Armenia loses its southern border with Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkey will then establish land contact, which would isolate Iran from the North and put an end to the existence of Armenian statehood in general. Therefore, taking into account the importance of the railway for Iran and Armenia’s security, as well as economic incentives for Eastern Europe and China, this project should be given major consideration.
- Iran-Armenia-Georgia gas pipeline: The next project of strategic importance is the Iran-Armenia-Georgia gas pipeline, which would affect the politics, economy and security of the region. In 2005, when the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline was being negotiated, Alexander Ryazanov, a vice-president of Gazprom, warned that if Gazprom wasn’t involved in that project, it’s uncertain where this gas would flow. This scared the Armenian administration of the time, which not only lacked domestic support due to corruption and authoritarian behaviour, but also feared that Russian intervention could change the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh in favour of Azerbaijan. As a result, the operation of the Iranian-Armenian pipeline, alongside other facilities, including Armenia’s rail network, were passed to Russia in an effort to accommodate it in all possible ways. In the following years, Russian Gazprom also obtained the right to operate the gas system of Armenia in its entirety. In December 2013, then-president Serzh Sargsyan signed an agreement with his Russian counterpart, according to which Armenia was obliged to buy gas from Gazprom until 2043. The nonsense nature of this agreement goes without saying; it's worth remembering that for her role in a similar gas deal with Russia landed Ukraine's former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, 7-years in prison.
The Iranian gas pipeline has huge potential not only to liberalise the Armenian domestic market, establishing fair competition, but also to provide Armenia with transit fees, improving its economic situation. The Iranian gas pipeline also has great potential to improve the energy market of Georgia by reducing its dependence on Azerbaijan. Moreover, given the EU’s dependence on Russian gas, it is logical to have an Iranian gas pipeline reach Europe via the Black Sea. The pipeline’s first destination could be Romania, which given its geographical proximity to Ukraine and Moldova, could also solve the problem of these countries’ dependence on Russian gas. On the other hand, its final destination could be France, helping it to regain balance vis-a-vis Germany. In addition, this project may attract Turkmenistan's attention, as it would provide an alternative channel for the Trans-Caspian pipeline.
Overall, this ambitious project would have a number of consequences. It would solve Armenia’s and Georgia’s energy, economic, and political security issues, reducing their vulnerable positions in the region. It would also weaken Russia’s position in the region, thus forcing it to change its perceptions of Armenia and Georgia and its foreign policy behaviour towards them. In addition, this project would give Iran a chance to break its isolation and connect with Europe, which is necessary for both parties. And finally, the European Union can gain the upper hand vis-a-vis Russia.
Both these projects require real consideration. Between them, Armenia can solve its devastating problem of asymmetric dependence on Russia – a country that, at best, stood by in its time of need – whilst breaking the isolation caused by Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Source: This commentary was prepared for commonspace.eu by Alexander Petrosyan, an independent analyst based in Brussels. It was first published on commonspace.eu on 18 February 2021
Photo: Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran on February 27 2019; (picture courtesy of the press office of the Prime Minister of Armenia)