How Moscow might respond to Armenia’s alignment with the West – expert interview

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Paris. France, February 21, 2024
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Paris. France, February 21, 2024

As its long-standing alliance with Russia rapidly deteriorates, Armenia is considering applying to join the European Union.

Margarita Akhvlediani, Editor-in-Chief at JAMnews (Caucasus-focused news outlet), explained in an interview with NV Radio on March 11 how the Kremlin might respond to this geopolitical “slap in the face.”

NV: Are we really seeing an attempt by Armenia to pull back from Russia? How successful can it be?

Akhvlediani: Undoubtedly, of course, an attempt to move away from Russia, run away, break away, jump out, we can use a variety of synonyms here. This is not a new movement. I would say that everything started after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh [War] in the autumn of 2020.

Read also: Armenia optimistic about progress in peace talks with Azerbaijan

But a decisive end to any hopes and Yerevan’s attempts to keep sitting on the fence was put when the entire Armenian population left Karabakh (over 100,000 people), as well as the Russian peacekeepers who had been deployed there with the mandate to protect them and make their stay safe. The leadership said nothing special had happened and people had left of their own free will. This happened last autumn and was the last straw.

Therefore, this is not a new phenomenon. All of this has been going on for at least seven to eight months in a very acute form. Now, not a week goes by without us hearing some new statements from Yerevan officials about some new steps, which often looks like a challenge to Moscow.

For example, the statement that Armenia wants to apply for an EU candidate status cannot really be considered as anything but a challenge, because Armenia cannot submit any application now. It’s impossible. First of all, because Armenia is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union. These two blocs are incompatible. The withdrawal from it hasn’t been initiated. In general, it has never even been talked about, and it doesn’t happen that fast either.

Therefore, it’s a completely impossible step at the moment, but it’s a very serious challenge to Moscow. A very public slap in the face, if you will. And here, probably, this statement was more a desire to deliver the slap than a real plan of action. This [applying to join the EU] will most likely not be done by Armenia anytime soon.

NV: What answer may come from the Kremlin, given that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is ready to speak only from a position of strength?

Akhvlediani: The risks are huge for Armenia. First, the entire energy sector, up to 90%, is either owned or controlled by Armenian and Russian oligarchs.

Read also: Armenia’s PM Pashinyan asserts non-alignment with Russia amid Ukraine fallout

Secondly, Armenia hosts a huge [Russian] military base. It won’t be so easy to take it out. At one time, it took 15 years for Georgia to withdraw this base with all the OSCE’s support and fierce protests inside the country. Armenia hasn’t yet seen any protests on this matter. This is the second reason.

The third reason is, of course, the risks with an uncertain border with Azerbaijan, which are already being played as a Russian card. Russia’s Foreign Ministry, and not only [the ministry’s spokeswoman Maria] Zakharova, but also others, state directly they will punish Armenia if it continues to engage with the West.

NV: Who are Armenia’s allies? Can Armenia count on the United States and Europe?

Akhvlediani: Armenia is in a very difficult situation. That is, the risks with the undemarcated border, as I said, are huge. Armenia has even a slightly hysterical reaction, the situation. Now they’re afraid of some new [territorial] expansion from Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has already made statements about several villages to be returned. They [Armenia] are very afraid of it. And when it comes to the confrontation with Azerbaijan, in today’s geopolitical situation, we should always think about the fact that Russia is playing this card a lot. Not that it’s very friendly to Azerbaijan, but because it’s now very convenient for it to use it to deter or punish Armenia.

Again, the economy we talked about, and Russia’s military presence are critically dangerous. Such a small country (less than three million people)—and a huge [military] base. This is the largest military base in the South Caucasus. They’re in a very dangerous situation.

How can the West really help [if] some terrible, dangerous events suddenly happen?

NV: Express concern. We know how it goes.

Akhvlediani: Of course. They’ll express concern. But now they’re sending quite serious money and aid to Armenia, primarily because of the large Armenian community that left Karabakh.

But money doesn’t solve the situation like that as there are cases of some military confrontation or pressure. The fifth column inside Armenia is very large, quite significant and can be activated [in the future]. At least two former [Armenian] presidents, who are very actively pro-Russian and have ample resources, can organize it.

Read also: Armenia has ‘frozen’ its participation in the Russian-led CSTO military alliance

And what can the West provide? Even objectively. It’s very ironic, and bitterly ironic that there is very little to be gained apart from condemnation. What can they do in this situation in practice? Theirs are really very limited options.

Armenia should (which it’s now at least showing) turn a blind eye in this situation and hope that everything will go well. This is roughly what is happening in Armenia now. And it’s very scary, to be honest.

NV: Will Azerbaijan play along with Russia?

Akhvlediani: I think it’s very important that Russia cannot punish Armenia if Azerbaijan doesn’t want it. That is, it hasn’t got the power. It can, of course, but it won’t be able to severely punish [Armenia] without Azerbaijan’s participation.

To some extent, for example, it gives me personally a feeling of some kind of security, that Moscow is not omnipotent. That is, Azerbaijan would have to play ball.

Read also: Armenia may suspend its CSTO membership

But Azerbaijan has its own interests. I wouldn’t say that Azerbaijan is ready to play the Russian card or somehow follow Russia’s interests. I believe Azerbaijan doesn’t need another war. They need stability in the region. They insist on some projects that are important to them. This is primarily a transit road and the issue of these non-enclave villages. But, nevertheless, no one in the region needs a war now, including Azerbaijan. At least that’s my opinion.

Russia is squirming, trying to grab every little piece it can and somehow sting Armenia and do it hard. Azerbaijan is just one part. The general policy doesn’t meet Russian interests, but Russia is using those parts of Azerbaijan’s policy that can be used.

Read also: President Zelenskyy delays Armenia, Azerbaijan trip as Baku reportedly withholds green light

Russia is currently dealing with the South Caucasus, as it’s in a very ambiguous situation, regarding the attitude of society towards it, both in Armenia and Georgia. So here it’s trying to wriggle out and grab onto anything it can.

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