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YEREVAN — Russia’s catastrophic invasion of Ukraine means Armenia can no longer rely on Moscow as a guarantor of its security, even as fears grow of a return to open conflict with Azerbaijan, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told POLITICO in an interview.
Pashinyan’s unusually pointed criticism of Russia’s inability to act as a policeman in the Caucasus only compounds a sense the Kremlin is losing its influence — and once much-vaunted superpower status — across former Soviet republics that Moscow once saw as its stamping ground.
Disillusion in Yerevan could represent a major turning point for the country of 2.8 million people as it has delegated much of the control of its railways, its energy sector and even its borders to Russia after the collapse of the USSR. When Armenia fought a 44-day war against the stronger, Turkish-backed forces of Azerbaijan in 2020 — a conflict that killed thousands on each side — it was Russian peacekeepers that were deployed to maintain a ceasefire.
Now Russia is fully committed to fighting in Ukraine, fears are growing in Yerevan over whether President Vladimir Putin’s soldiers are willing or able to keep the peace in the Caucasus. That’s a pressing concern because there is every danger that Armenia could resume fighting with Azerbaijan over the breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
“As a result of the events in Ukraine, the capabilities of Russia have changed,” Pashinyan said, acknowledging that Moscow was seeking to avoid alienating Azerbaijan and its close ally Turkey, both of which have risen in strategic importance for the Kremlin since the start of the Ukraine war last year.
“Our strategy should be to try in this situation to maximally decrease our dependency on others,” he added. “We want to have an independent country, a sovereign country, but we have to have ways to avoid ending up in the center of clashes between West and East, North and South … There cannot be a case when Armenia becomes a ‘proxy.’ This is not permissible.”
Calling on the big protector — Russia in Armenia’s case — each time conflict flared was simply unsustainable, he argued.
“The model by which we have problems with our neighbors and we have to invite others to protect us — it doesn’t matter who these others are — is a very vulnerable model.”
Inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders but controlled by its ethnic Armenian population, Nagorno-Karabakh has been the scene of two wars since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Russia stepping in on both occasions to guarantee its security.
Now, it seems Moscow’s ability to guarantee the status quo is evaporating.
“The security situation has changed acutely with violations along the line of contact and invasion into the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh,” Pashinyan said, accusing Azerbaijan of creating a “humanitarian crisis” by closing the Lachin Corridor — the only highway linking the region to Armenia, which Moscow’s troops were tasked with guarding under the terms of the 2020 ceasefire.
Aid organizations say deliveries of food and fuel have been blocked for months, with warnings of impending famine in the region. The Azerbaijani government has called on the Karabakh Armenians to lay down their weapons, receive supplies from inside Azerbaijan, and accept being governed as part of the country.
This offered a clear sign that Russia was no longer pulling its weight, Pashinyan complained.
“All of this … was supposed to be in the sphere of responsibility of Russian peacekeepers and as far as these issues exist, the Russian peacekeepers have failed in their mission,” he said.
Still, he added a caveat: “I can’t say though that if the Russian peacekeepers hadn’t been in Nagorno-Karabakh, the situation would now be better.”
The frustration with the failure of Russian forces to help forms part of a pattern of worsening ties between Moscow and Yerevan.
Last week, the Russian foreign ministry said it had summoned the Armenian ambassador for a “difficult” conversation over what it described as a string of unfriendly steps, citing a decision by Yerevan to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine for the first time, with Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobyan, making an official visit to Kyiv. Armenia has also withdrawn its representative to the Moscow-led CSTO military alliance of which it is a member, having previously accused the bloc of failing to act on its requests for support after Azerbaijan launched an offensive across the border last September.
Instead, it has invited U.S. soldiers to stage joint drills in the country as part of exercises codenamed Eagle Partner 2023. Russia has hit out at the decision.
Earlier on Tuesday, Anthony Brenton, former British ambassador to Russia, told Reuters that Moscow’s “abject performance in Ukraine” has forced states like Armenia that previously depended on it for support to start “looking for other more dependable protectors.”
In a speech the same day, Putin claimed that Russia could do little in Nagorno-Karabakh after Armenia recognized it as Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory earlier this year. Pashinyan confirmed that position in the interview with POLITICO, but said it was now up to the international community to ensure “ethnic cleansing” does not take place in the region.
Both Azerbaijani and Armenian troops have been put on high alert along their shared border amid clashes in recent days, with the EU’s own civilian monitoring mission reporting “increased tensions and crossfire” along the frontier. According to Pashinyan, “it is not possible to exclude the scenario of escalation” but said “the forces that have been mobilized should return to their bases” and insisted “Armenia is ready to do that.”
The prime minister reiterated his support for talks, brokered by the U.S., EU and Russia, in an effort to deliver a peace agreement after decades of conflict with Azerbaijan. An agreement in the wake of a war that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s has seen Moscow’s soldiers take responsibility for patrolling Armenia’s borders.
“If we want to have lasting, eternal statehood, first of all we have to take very serious steps and invest very serious efforts to settle our relations with our neighbors,” he said.
At the same time as acknowledging the need to break reliance on the old ally in Russia, Pashinyan admitted there was a long way to go before Western countries could be seen as offering the full support Armenia needs.
“Our partners, the EU and the United States are also supporting us when it comes to democratic reforms agenda,” he said, before adding: “I cannot say that the support and the help that we are receiving is sufficient to serve our objectives and our agendas.”