Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
On the face of it, one should not be overly concerned with the events in Armenia on the grounds that “immutable structural factors” prevent Armenia from breaking off its relations with Russia and embracing the EU and even NATO. For starters, Armenia lacks its own equivalent of Galician nationalism. There were no Armenian Waffen-SS divisions, there is no Armenian Stepan Bandera. The memory of the Armenian Genocide, whose existence Turkey still denies, is a major barrier to moving toward the West because in practical terms it would mean moving toward Turkey, and into its neo-Ottoman, pan-Turkic sphere of influence where there is plainly no room for it. The conflict with Azerbaijan is still unresolved, as is the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, with periodic exchanges of fire between Armenian and Azeri troops making this the hottest post-Soviet frontier. Since Azeri authorities seem unwilling to compromise, any pro-West Armenian movement which comes to power in an Armenia weakened by civil strife and riven by internal conflicts, would have to offer what amounts to a unilateral surrender to Azeri interests. These factors make Armenia quite unlike Ukraine which is a large economy bordering multiple EU and NATO members and, even sans Crimea, boasts a respectable coastline with a still-respectable seaport like Odessa. Armenia, by contrast, is small and landlocked. Armenia’s trade must by necessity cross the border of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, or Iran, so the loss of Russian protection would cost Armenia very dearly indeed.
The history of Armenia-Turkey and Armenia-Azerbaijan conflicts in which Russia invariably acted as the rescuer of Armenia and Armenians also means that analogies with Georgia are weaker than they appear. Georgia has a longer history of independent existence, has an ongoing territorial dispute with Russia and, crucially, has a sizable Black Sea coastline with sea-ports, which give it considerably more geopolitical flexibility than the land-locked Armenia can afford. Abandoning the process of Eurasian integration which already is far more advanced in Armenia than it was in the case of Ukraine would therefore result in Armenia’s encirclement by countries which are either beholden to the US, like Georgia and Azerbaijan, or seeking to re-establish their own imperial influence over the region, namely Turkey. In the absence of Russian protection, Armenia would find itself in a very disadvantageous position relative to its own neighbors.
“Cadres Decide Everything”
At the same time, the pre-Maidan Kremlin estimates as to the future course of Ukraine were largely predicated on similar structural factors. It did not matter whether Ukraine was ruled by Yushchenko, Yanukovych, or Poroshenko. “Objective factors” meant that, irrespective of what the ostensibly “pro-Western” candidate said on the campaign trail, in the end Ukraine continue the slow process of post-Soviet economic re-integration simply because it was “the only game in town.” Whatever the EU could offer, Russia could easily outbid. Even the transit of natural gas through Ukraine was seen by the Kremlin as a tie binding the two countries’ economies.
What the Kremlin clearly did not anticipate, and that lack of foresight was evident in that it had no “plan B” in the event of the post-Maidan strident turn toward Ukrainian nationalism and Western integration even at the cost of destroying Ukraine’s economy and setting the country back several decades, that a small well-organized clique can override the country’s objective interests. If that is one lesson that can be drawn from the “color revolutions”, it’s that a small, well-organized minority enjoying Western covert and overt support can easily defeat a poorly organized majority, in spite of the evident disparity of forces. The Kremlin likewise underestimated the extent to which the threat of sanctions, national and personal, could demoralize a corrupt ruling elite of a post-Soviet state like Ukraine whose top politicians have all squirreled away considerable fortunes in off-shore accounts in the West.
Armenia unfortunately so far has followed Ukraine’s Maidan scenario, as its ruling elites proved to be as complacent and vulnerable to pressure as those in Ukraine. The outgoing Prime Minister Serge Sargsyan moreover had failed to adequately react to the worsening of relations between Russia and the West, which are Armenia’s key trading partners. The outcome of that failure was a rapid growth of Armenia’s national debt and the rapid increase of economic migration. It meant that Armenia’s economy was hit by many of the same problems as Ukraine’s even without going through a Maidan-style revolution of its own. It did not help that Sargsyan’s reputation was undermined by the Armenian military’s weakness shown during the “four-day war” in April 2016, caused by widespread corruption in the armed forces. Sargsyan had moreover failed to deliver on some of his key election promises, like the construction of a nuclear power plant and of a railroad linking Armenia with Turkey which would greatly relieve its de-facto encirclement by its pro-Western neighbors. Had Sargsyan and his team proved sufficiently competent to implement own campaign promises, crack down on corruption, and find themselves in the newly polarized international system, they might have had the credibility to offer an alternative to Pashinyan’s most likely empty promises.
Sargsyan’s weakness meant he was unable to stand up to Western pressure which, yet again, included well-organized street demonstrations. As in the case of Ukraine, they benefited from extensive financing from pro-Western oligarchs like the billionaire Gagik Tsatsukyan, and/or Western “pro-democracy” state and non-state agencies. Brought into power by these protests in spite of failing to secure the necessary number of votes in the Parliament, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan promptly declared the need for a “new impulse” in US-Armenia relations, which in practical terms would likely mean the end of Russian military presence in Armenia and the beginning of a US one. The hitherto ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) has lost several of its ministers to defections and found itself in opposition, a state that will continue at least until the next round of elections which may be either delayed with Western blessing, or suitably rigged to ensure the pro-Western candidates “win”. While one might be tempted to think that Pashinyan would not deviate from Sargsyan’s pro-Eurasian integration, one cannot dismiss the example of Ukraine where a handful of oligarchs and corrupt politicians were able to destroy an entire country in their quest for personal power and wealth. It could happen to Armenia, too.
The Little Great Game
Just as the future of Ukraine will be determined by the relative power of the major actors on its borders, so will Armenia’s. In the case of Ukraine, these power centers are Moscow, Berlin, Brussels, and Washington. In the case of Armenia, it’s Moscow, Beijing, Brussels, Ankara, and Washington. Given the proximity and heightened interest of Moscow and Ankara, and the relative disinterest and distance of the rest, a lot depends on Turkey’s future national strategy. Here, it has three choices. It can resume its path toward Euro-Atlantic integration which would entail the loss of its sovereignty and regional power status, penetration by foreign capital and intelligence services, and adoption of Washington’s and Brussels’ foreign policy preferences. At the moment, there does not appear to be a major constituency in Turkey willing to re-embark on this process. The second strategy is Erdogan neo-Ottomanism/pan-Turkism, for which Turkey clearly lacks the hard- and soft-power critical mass that would be necessary to bind even a small neighbor like Azerbaijan to itself. The third strategy is for Turkey to integrate itself into the growing web of Eurasian political and economic institutions which, due to the absence of a single predatory hegemon like the United States, are safer for its member states to participate in.
Of the three strategies, only the third one promises to solve the problem of Armenia’s encirclement and Nagorno-Karabakh. These problems are very much the outcome of the multi-vector tug of war over the region between the US, EU, Russia, and Turkey, with neither of these actors able to force out the others. The uneasy balance of power has led to a stalemate which not even the occasional “color revolution” can change. The Russia-Turkey rapprochement therefore offers not only the only plausible option of ending the war in Syria, but also the great power rivalry that is tearing apart the Caucasus. Russian diplomatic efforts in the region indicate the Kremlin is aware the solution to Armenia’s crisis is not to be found in Yerevan.