Opinion: Border incident forces Armenians to rethink their relationship with Russia

"The Azerbaijani military incursion into Armenian territory may have significant geopolitical implications. The muted reaction of the CSTO and Russia triggered another wave of anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia", argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed.

On 12 May 2021, news coming from the Syunik region shocked Armenian society. Several hundred Azerbaijani soldiers had crossed the Armenian border and penetrated up to 3.5 km into Armenian territory near the "Black Lake". The Armenian government did not confirm this immediately, however, late in the evening on the same day, Armenia’s Security Council convened in an extraordinary session, and the prime minister declared that Azerbaijani Armed forces had entered Armenian territory. The next day, Armenia officially applied to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, invoking article 2 of the organisation's charter to launch consultations. On May 13 the Armenian prime minister spoke with Russian President Putin and, on May 14, sent him a letter requesting military assistance based on the 1997 Russia–Armenia treaty on friendship, co-operation, and mutual assistance. Meanwhile, news came that Azerbaijani forces had also crossed into the Armenian border region of Gegharquniq. These events coincided with the process triggering early elections in Armenia, scheduled for 20 June. In this period the prime minister and all ministers continue to serve in a caretaker capacity.

The evolving situation along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border brought about a significant international reaction. On May 13, French President Macron spoke with the Armenian prime minister, Pashinyan, and called for the immediate withdrawal of Azerbaijani forces from Armenian territories. On May 17, the US National Security Advisor, Jack Sullivan, spoke separately with the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. He emphasised that military movements near un-demarcated borders are irresponsible and provocative, and underscored the need for the two countries to conduct formal discussions to demarcate their international border. On the same day, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, had phone talks with Armenia's foreign minister, Ara Ayvazyan, and the Azerbaijani foreign minister, Jeyhun Bayramov. He called on the parties to continue their discussions to achieve the immediate withdrawal of Azerbaijani forces from Armenian territory. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs on May 19 stated that border incursions through military movements could destabilise the situation and lead to renewed hostilities, and called transgressing side to pull back forces immediately. The Armenian foreign minister presented the case during the CSTO Foreign Affairs Ministers' meeting in the Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe, on May 19. He stated that the penetration of Azerbaijani armed forces into the Armenian territory is a challenge to the collective security system of the organisation. Meanwhile, the Russian side sought to ease the tensions. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, stated on May 17 that there was no need to create additional tensions, and that Russia was ready to support Armenia and Azerbaijan to launch the process of border delimitation and demarcation.

Amidst these fast-moving events, the former Armenian Ambassador to the Vatican, and son-in-law of the third Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, Mikayel Minasyan, on May 19 published a part of the draft new statement between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia on establishing a bilateral commission to start the process of demarcation and delimitation of their border. Minasyan famously published the details of the 10 November 2020 trilateral statement several hours before it was actually signed, and he is perceived as a person with reliable access to the classified information.

Minasyan argued that the Armenian authorities have de facto agreed to give Azerbaijan several villages in Armenia's Tavush and Syunik regions. Interestingly, Minasyan made his statement immediately after the phone conversations between President Putin and his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts. The prospect of another secretly negotiated agreement significantly raised the political tensions in Armenia, given that Pashinyan had negotiated and signed the 10 November 2020 trilateral statement in absolute secrecy. 

On May 20 the Armenian prime minister confirmed that the disclosed draft of the statement was under discussions and stated that he would sign the new document because it was 100 percent in line with Armenian national interests. The parliamentary opposition convened an extraordinary session of the Armenian Parliament and called the prime minister not to sign any documents whilst serving in a caretaker capacity prior to the 20 June parliamentary elections. During his speech in the Parliament, Pashinyan stated that several Soviet Azerbaijani enclaves in Soviet Armenia are now controlled by the Armenian forces and are located in Tavush and Syunik regions. In contrast, one Armenian enclave in Soviet Azerbaijan is now controlled by Azerbaijani forces. He did not exclude that during the process of the delimitation and demarcation, these enclaves may be exchanged. Meanwhile, several scuffles occurred between Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers in Gegharquniq and Syunik regions, but no shots were fired.

The Azerbaijani military incursion into Armenian territory may have significant geopolitical implications. The muted reaction of the CSTO and Russia triggered another wave of anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia. Russia’s image had already been significantly tainted as a result of the 2020 Karabakh war. Many Armenians believe that either the war resulted from a direct Russia-Turkey deal, or at least Russia knew about Azerbaijani and Turkish plans to launch the war but did nothing to prevent it as it was only interested in having its de facto military base in Karabakh. Russia sought to explain the lack of its actions during the 2020 war on the basis that Russian security guarantees covered only the internationally recognised borders of Armenia.

Now many Armenians are wondering – given that the Azerbaijani armed forces had entered Armenian territory – why Russia only offered mediation. Several political forces with clear anti-Russia and pro-Western sentiments are participating in the campaign, and are actively promoting anti-Russian ideas. The stark contrast between Russian and Western – especially French – reaction has made many people believe that Armenia should significantly change its foreign policy course, should leave the Eurasian Economic Union and CSTO, and as a first step, should apply to the United States to receive Major Non-NATO ally status.

On its part, Russia may have its own reservations regarding the current situation. After the end of the war and the signing of the 10 November 2020 statement, the Armenian army was holding higher positions along the border of the Syunik region with Azerbaijan. In mid-December 2020, Pashinyan ordered Armenian forces to withdraw back to the Soviet Armenia border, effectively ceding up to 200 square km of territories to Azerbaijan. Pashinyan later stated that this was done based on an oral agreement with President Aliyev. Furthermore, Armenia decided to protect the new 520 km of de facto borders with Azerbaijan not with army units, but by the border troops of the National Security Service, which lacked the capacity to control the entire border effectively.

Thus, many parts of the border with Azerbaijan were de facto defenceless, and Azerbaijan used this situation to enter the Armenian territory without any resistance or any shot being fired. Even after the recent incursions, there is an order for Armenian units not to fire against Azerbaijani troops deployed into the Armenian territories. All this may create a perception in Russia that Armenia deliberately created conditions to trigger an unhindered Azerbaijani incursion, afterwards calling for Russian military support and provoking Russia-Azerbaijan (in fact  Russia-Turkey) clashes. Given the rather complicated nature of Russia-Turkey relations, often balanced on a tightrope of contention/co-operation, Russia does not desire to create additional tensions in its bilateral relations with Ankara and ruin the achievements of pulling Turkey away from the US and NATO which it has painstakingly pursued since 2016.

In this situation, Russia would probably try to keep the balance between not tainting further its image in Armenian society, and not triggering a conflict with Azerbaijan and Turkey. The Armenian expert community keeps sending messages to its Russian counterparts about the rising influence of Turkey in the South Caucasus after the 2020 Karabakh war, and its negative implications for the Kremlin. But Moscow may believe that its positions were quite strong in the region before the war, and became even more potent as a result of the war, and the subsequent arrangements put in place. Russia gained a military presence in Karabakh, and increased its military positions in Armenia. Russia in these circumstances may not be particularly worried about Turkey's growing influence in the South Caucasus, and may rather seek to stabilise the situation to prevent the South Caucasus from becoming another headache in its relations with Turkey.

On a strategic level, the delimitation of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the fate of several Armenian villages, and the potential Azerbaijani control over the parts of the highways connecting Yerevan with the Syunik region and Iran, and with the Tavush region and Georgia, may not be the primary Russian concern.    

Source: This op-ed was prepared for KarabakhSpace.eu by Benyamin Poghosyan, Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan. 
Photo:  Armenians and Azerbaijanis eye each at close proximity in the new border situation that has emerged after the 44-day Karabakh war.
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