By George Monastiriakos*
Armenia is far from perfect, but it’s a democracy. Two of Armenia’s closest partners are Russia and Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran is characterized by its repression of women and minority groups. The Russian Federation is defined by its imperialist ambitions to invade and annex former Soviet republics. Whether good or bad options, these are existential partnerships for Armenia due to the threat posed – and the strategic advantage held – by Azerbaijan. To be clear: Armenia’s geopolitical predicament is precarious, and it needs alternatives to Russia and Iran.
Armenia’s partnership with Iran is pragmatic. Armenia is cursed by geography. Blockaded by an antagonistic Turkey to the west and an even more hostile Azerbaijan to the east, Armenia’s connection to the world depends on Georgia to the north and one border crossing with Iran to the south. Although Iran’s direct military support to Armenia is limited, Armenia and Iran share a common cause in their respective disputes with Azerbaijan.
While Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan is common knowledge, tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran are not as well-known. Put simply, Baku and Tehran have quasi territorial disputes based on incompatible worldviews. On the one hand, the Azeri concept of Bütöv Azərbaycan – Greater Azerbaijan – is predicated on unifying the lands historically inhabited by Azerbaijanis into one state. This includes Armenian territory to the west of Azerbaijan and Iranian territory to the south of Azerbaijan. On the other hand, Iran has long viewed Azerbaijan as a lost territory that belongs within its sphere of influence. Like Iran’s connection to Iraq and Lebanon, this is mainly due to Azerbaijan’s Shia majority.
Historically, Azeri peoples resided at the intersection of the Russian Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Persia. Today, Azerbaijan’s population is roughly 10 million. While Iran counts over 85 million inhabitants, more than 15 percent of Iranians identify as Azerbaijanis. In fact, there are more Azerbaijanis living in Iran than in Azerbaijan itself. Clearly, the potential for Iranian Azerbaijani separatism threatens Iran’s territorial integrity. Likewise, Iran’s vision of incorporating the Azeri Shiites under the Iranian banner also imperils Azerbaijan’s sovereignty.
Given that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Iran’s disputes with Azerbaijan translate into a strategic partnership with Israel. For example, Israel accounted for more than 25% of all arms transfers to Azerbaijan between 2011 to 2020. In exchange, Azerbaijan provides Israel with access to airfields near the roughly 420-mile-long border with Iran. If war were to erupt between Tel Aviv and Tehran, this access would enable Israeli fighter jets to bypass Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi airspace and reach military targets in Iran more easily.
Azerbaijan is also allied with Turkey. A regional power at the intersection of Europe and Asia, Turkey is an important transit hub at the mouth of the Black Sea and East Mediterranean. Turkey also wields significant influence within NATO. Azerbaijan and Turkey are both Turkic speaking countries, and members of the Organization of Turkic States (OAS).
Azerbaijan’s strategic advantage over Armenia extends beyond its special relationship with Israel and “brotherly” alliance with Turkey. In contrast to Armenia, Azerbaijan also has natural gas and oil.
Eurasia’s appetite for energy made Azerbaijan one of the 21st century’s fastest growing economies. For example, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline can carry more than one million barrels of oil per day from Azerbaijan to Georgia through Turkey to the Turkish port of Ceyhan for export to international markets. Likewise, the Southern Gas Corridor(SGC) transports gas from Azerbaijan through Georgia and Turkey to Greece, Albania, and Italy. Rest assured, Azerbaijan will continue benefiting from Europe’s diversification away from Russian fossil fuels.
Armenia’s alliance with Russia has historic roots. Armenia was the first Christian state. Russia was viewed as the defender of Asia Minor’s Christian minorities. After the Armenian genocide, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the fall of the Russian Empire, and the failure of independence movements in the Caucasus, the Soviets took control of Armenia and incorporated it into the Soviet Union. Armenia only gained its independence and began its transition to democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, Armenia is a member of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), has a bilateral defense agreement with Russia, hosts several Russian military bases, and relies on Russian guards to secure its borders.
The CSTO is Russia’s equivalent of NATO. Its members are Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia. While NATO has its problems, CSTO cohesion is nonexistent. For example, conflict erupts between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan every few months. Likewise, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are also members of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS). In other words, both share close diplomatic ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey despite owing security guarantees to Armenia. Clearly, this arrangement does not work in Armenia’s favor.
Article 4 of the CSTO states that an attack on one member state is considered an attack on all member states. When President Tokayev requested assistance to quell protests in January 2022, the CSTO – including Armenia – sent peacekeepers to Kazakhstan. When Prime Minister Pashinyan invoked Article 4 following Azerbaijan’s violation of the ceasefire agreement in September 2022, the CSTO did not respond to Armenia’s request for help let alone condemn Azerbaijan’s aggression. As far as Armenia is concerned, the CSTO’s security guarantees are not worth the paper they are written on.
Moscow brokered the November 2020 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia’s obligations include deploying peacekeepers and protecting the Lachin Corridor that serves as a lifeline for more than 120,000 Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh. Unlike peacekeeping operations in Cyprus and Kosovo, Russia’s deployment in Nagorno Karabakh is not mandated by the UN and is devoid of international engagement. Evidently, Russia’s unilateralism lacks the civilian oversight and accountability mechanisms that make other peacekeeping arrangements work. Given that the Lachin Corridor has been blockaded by Azerbaijanis since December 12, 2022, the Russian peacekeeping mission is clearly not working.
To make matters worse for Armenia, Moscow’s unilateralism is complemented by Russian both-siderism. To Armenia, Russia is an ally. To Russia, Armenia is a client. In terms of Russian grand strategy, Moscow wants to maintain its influence in Baku while limiting that of Ankara – at the expense of Armenia. Thus, Russia is still the largest arms exporter to both Armenia and Azerbaijan despite its security guarantees to Yerevan. For example, Russia accounted for 60% of arms transfers to Azerbaijan and a whopping 94% of arms transfers to Armenia in the leadup to the Second Nagorno Karabakh War.
From a geopolitical perspective, it seems Russia and the CSTO have helped Azerbaijan checkmate Armenia. Admittedly, Baku maintains a strategic advantage over Yerevan. Nevertheless, Armenia still has options at its disposal to salvage the situation. The key lies in Armenia’s democratic orientation, and the influence wielded by the Armenian diaspora in fellow democracies like the U.S. and France.
The West has repeatedly signaled its intention to increase engagement with Armenia. In September 2022, Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Armenia since it gained independence. In October 2022, President Macron and President Michel negotiated an EU Fact-Finding Mission to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border with Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Aliyev. In December 2022, Canada opened its Consulate to Armenia in Yerevan. The list goes on and on, but fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will either push Armenia closer to the West for the better or deepen Armenia’s dependence on Russia for the worse.
There are two policies Armenia could pursue to improve its strategic position. First, Armenia should push for increased international engagement in Nagorno Karabakh. Calling for an international fact-finding mission to the Lachin Corridor is a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, Yerevan must go further. Armenia’s hardline should be demanding that an international peacekeeping force be deployed to replace or accompany the Russian peacekeepers in the Lachin Corridor. Armenia’s red line should be a permanent, multilateral civilian monitoring mission in Stepanakert to complement the Russian-Turkish Joint Monitoring Centre in Aghdam. Increasing the number of international stakeholders and deepening their engagement is crucial for improving Armenia’s strategic position and reducing the likelihood of Azerbaijani aggression.
Second, Armenia should withdraw from the CSTO. Unfortunately, CSTO security guarantees are compromised by divergent allegiances and interests within the alliance. Armenia cannot rely on Russia and the CSTO to prevent – nor protect it from – Azerbaijani aggression because Yerevan’s national security concerns diverge from Moscow’s strategic designs. Even worse, CSTO membership makes it difficult – if not impossible – for Armenia to diversify its supply of military equipment, modernize its armed forces, and seek alternate bilateral or multilateral security arrangements from the West or elsewhere. Evidently, withdrawing from the CSTO would enable Armenia to pursue a policy of strategic ambiguity. Put simply, this would provide Yerevan with the flexibility to cooperate with whoever it deems appropriate on an issue-by-issue basis rather than limiting its options to Russia.
One thing is certain: Azerbaijan maintains a strategic advantage over Armenia. If the balance of power remains unchanged, Baku is unlikely to wait 26 years before launching the next war; this time, aimed at building a land bridge from Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan.
*George Monastiriakos is a lawyer licensing candidate and political science and history graduate who writes about global affairs and politics.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com.