By Arshaluis Mgdesyan
(Eurasianet) — Armenia’s possible exit from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is being discussed more and more actively as differences grow between Yerevan and Moscow.
Many in Armenia are wondering what the point is of remaining in a military alliance that has demonstrated its unwillingness to protect the country.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has repeatedly denied claims, including by Russian officials, of an imminent change in Armenia’s foreign policy vector, but that has not stopped speculation as to how the country might leave the CSTO and what would come next. Representatives of the authorities are themselves musing about this prospect.
“There is of course the idea of Euro-integration in Armenia, but there is also the idea of becoming a country with non-bloc status, so there’s a wide range of options. We are listening to civil society and trying to figure out what the best tools are for ensuring Armenia’s security and development,” Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan said at a forum in Brussels on November 10 titled, The Strategic Future of Armenia: Armenia-Europe.
Fifteen Armenian public organizations recently released a statement criticizing Russia for, as they put it, interfering in Armenia’s internal affairs. The statement demands that the Armenian government expel Russia’s 102nd military base, ban Russian broadcast media, and begin the process of ending the country’s membership in the CSTO.
Growing dissatisfaction with Russia
The CSTO, which also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Belarus, is one of the main causes of the growing Armenian resentment toward Russia.
The bloc, which is, theoretically, bound to come to the aid of a member state when it is attacked, took practically no action in September last year when Azerbaijani troops invaded border areas and took up positions on strategic heights inside Armenia.
Since then, Armenia’s approach to the CSTO, and to Russia, has been increasingly confrontational. Yerevan has reduced its participation in the bloc to an absolute minimum. Over the past year, it has snubbed CSTO meetings at practically every level and has reassigned its representative in the organization to other work and left his post vacant.
At the same time, Armenia has welcomed more intensive cooperation with the EU, which at the start of this year deployed a civilian monitoring mission to the Azerbaijani border with the aim of supporting stability there.
This step elicited a sharply negative reaction from the Russian authorities, who claimed the mission’s purpose was to “confront Russia geopolitically” in the South Caucasus region.
Such rhetoric from Moscow has done nothing to stop the growing cooperation between Yerevan and Brussels, including in the military sphere.
At the summit of EU foreign ministers on December 11, it was announced that the EU would review the possibility of rendering military aid to Armenia through the European Peace Fund.
It was also announced that the EU mission in Armenia would increase the number of its monitors from 138 to 209.
Another sore spot for Armenia is Russia’s alleged failure to deliver weapons that Yerevan says it paid millions of dollars for.
The Armenian authorities have no plans to sue Russia and instead seek to solve the matter in an “atmosphere of partnership,” Deputy Defence Minister Hrachya Sargsyan told a briefingon December 4.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan recently proposed resolving the dispute through Russia canceling part of Yerevan’s overall debt to Moscow. That total debt amounts to about $280 million, according to the Armenian Finance Ministry’s latest calculations. (Armenia has not released precise figures on how much money Russia owes it for undelivered weapons.)
Scenarios for leaving the CSTO
Most of the analysts Eurasianet spoke to see Armenia exiting the CSTO as a logical possible outcome of the current strained relations between Armenia and Russia.
The head of the Research Center on Security Policy in Yerevan, Areg Kochinyan, says that Armenia could withdraw from the CSTO after approving a national security strategy that stipulates “non-bloc status” for the country. A new national security strategy is currently being drafted, and it’s unknown now whether it will contain such a provision.
If the national security strategy were amended so, “It would mean that Armenia has decided not to participate in any military bloc or alliance and therefore it would have to leave the CSTO. But at the same time it would mean that the country would not seek to become part of any other collective defense bloc,” Kochinyan told Eurasianet. “I think this position would be more acceptable for Russia and the other regional powers, Iran and Turkey.”
Yerevan-based political analyst David Arutyunov doesn’t find it difficult to imagine Armenia leaving the CSTO.
“In the context of the whole scope of Armenia’s close relations with Russia, including in the economic sphere and the presence of the Russian military base here, leaving the CSTO is a relatively easy matter,” Arutyunov told Eurasianet, adding that another crisis could provide the final impetus for quitting the bloc.
He said the Armenian authorities have deftly managed to achieve domestic political aims by directing public discontent over the country’s security problems towards Russia and the CSTO.
“If something like the crisis of September 2022 happens again and causes internal political ructions in Armenia, it’s possible that the Armenian government will resort to leaving the CSTO” in a bid to deflect criticism.
What might Armenia’s “non-bloc status” mean?
Areg Kochinyan, of the Research Center on Security Policy, believes that a “non-bloc status” could open up opportunities for expanding Armenia’s defense and military-industrial cooperation with various countries.
“We’re talking not just about the West, but also other countries like India, that produce weapons. Armenia can enhance its relations with them even to the level of strategic partnership,” he said.
David Arutyunov believes that it’s too early to speak about any real prospect of Armenia being outside of any military-political alliances.
“For now all this talk is theoretical. There are no real discussions on realizing this in practice. And even so, the talk pertains to the CSTO specifically, while bilateral relations with Russia will remain in any case – alongside contacts with the West,” Arutyunov said.
The head of the Armenian Institute for Resilience and Statecraft, Gevorg Melikyan, is doubtful that the Armenian authorities really intend to leave the CSTO and declare non-bloc status.
“I don’t see any such clear policy or strategy. For now, it’s a matter of the Armenian government’s desire to make an impression on Western partners to extract some kind of security guarantees. Since there are none [such guarantees], the Armenian government will try to convince Western partners to treat Armenia like they would treat any other anti-Russian country and not accuse it of maintaining contacts with Russia in the security sphere because it remains in the CSTO,” Melikyan told Eurasianet.
Arshaluis Mgdesyan is a journalist based in Yerevan.