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23 November 2016

Russia and Armenia: Strategic alliance crisis

Inconsistent policy of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan may lead to the discrediting of the CSTO

The last session of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), held in Yerevan, Armenia, was of special importance for Moscow, striving to strengthen its position in the post-Soviet space. Of significant note was that for the first time in the organization’s history, member states agreed to the introduction of the phrase "the CSTO zone of responsibility." According to Russian strategists, the formation of the zone is impossible without institutionalization and unity of participating countries' military capabilities. Prior to the Yerevan session, the Kremlin had achieved some success in this regard: in April, the formation of a unified system of Russia and Belarus air defense was completed. The defense ministers of the two countries approved the list of organizations and the instructions of combat duty. This means that the efforts of the air defense forces of these countries are now focused on combat duty and conducting exercises. As part of this unified system, Russia transferred four divisions of S-300 after a major overhaul to Belarus.

Similar negotiations were also conducted with both Armenia and Kazakhstan. Last year Yerevan signed an agreement on joint air defense system, and this summer the Armenian Parliament ratified it by a majority vote. According to that agreement, the consolidated Air Defense Command will be coordinated by the Military Space Forces of Russia, while the general management stays after the leadership of the Russian Southern Military District. Meanwhile, the Armenian side got an opportunity to manage a military unit. This agreement also suggests that in times of peace, the parties may make decisions without informing each other. However, there is no clear understanding of the way the countries will act in emergencies. From a political point of view, it would be unprofitable for Russia to create this system if Moscow did not control it. Based on this simple logic, the arguments of the Armenian parliamentarians about maintaining full independence for Yerevan seem to be completely unfounded. Moreover, leading Russian military experts say that the agreement does not provide clear content. Besides that, each party can interpret most of its points in its favor.

Undoubtedly, the Armenian side signed the agreement based on the strategic partnership with Russia on a bilateral level and within the framework of the CSTO. Yerevan believes that the actual transfer of Armenia's airspace in the hands of Moscow means nothing terrible, because the Russian army is guarding the Armenian-Iranian, and most importantly the Armenian-Turkish borders. Armenian politicians have a deep conviction that the joint air defense system will help ensure the security of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. In general, the Armenian side's explanations seem quite adequate, given that for twenty-five years of independence it has not been able to create or find other alternatives. Unfortunately, the reality is that the basis of the Russian-Armenian strategic alliance is not the logic and desire of Yerevan, but pragmatic interests of the Kremlin. Recent events in the Karabakh-Azerbaijani border demonstrated Russia's position - that is actually balancing between Yerevan and Baku. Officials in Moscow and the CSTO functionaries clearly stated that Nagorno-Karabakh problem is not theirs and they are not going to interfere in that conflict.

Again, the position of the Kremlin and other organization members is quite logical, as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is not recognized by Armenia itself. Do they understand it in Yerevan? Certainly. That is why the Armenian side comes from unofficial arrangements and informal patronage of Russia. Many Armenian and Russian experts say that it is not diplomatic rhetoric that is important, but certain actions of Russia. Indeed, in some periods Moscow was sympathetic to special relationships between Yerevan and Stepanakert. It is important to emphasize that this understanding did not result in sacrificing Russia's own interests. It was a only temporary coincidence of interests. Nothing more. In Russia, they remember that Azerbaijan was once a member of the anti-Russian GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development, participated in the implementation of energy projects bypassing Russia, and set the conditions that caused Moscow to remove its radar in Gabala.

That period of sharp crisis in Russian-Azerbaijani relations was a good chance for Armenians to extract the maximum benefit for themselves. Nevertheless, it could not be done for many subjective reasons. As time goes by, insults are forgotten and interests change. Ultimately, the Azerbaijani side has managed to restore a relationship of trust with Russia, squeezing the maximum out of each opportunity. Certain political figures close to President Putin marked the need for better cooperation with Baku. Among them is Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, the biggest lobbyist of the Russian defense industry, and Chairman of the CIS committee in the Duma, Leonid Slutsky. President Ilham Aliyev also used his close relationship with leaders of Kazakhstan and Belarus: Nursultan Nazarbayev and Alexander Lukashenko, respectively. They actively lobbied for the need to involve Azerbaijan in political processes within the Eurasian Union. Even the political crisis between Turkey and Russia, as admitted by Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu - the Turkish Foreign Minister, was resolved largely through the mediation efforts of influential Azerbaijani and Kazakh politicians and businessmen.

Thus, there is a situation in which Armenia, as a member of the Eurasian Union and the CSTO, has much less influence on Russia than Azerbaijan, which has no wish to join any of the pro-Russian integration blocks. With the current crisis conditions, Moscow is gradually increasing its political dialogue with Baku, trying to take it out of the American-European influence. Now there are all possibilities to carry out these plans, taking into account the negative perception of Aliyev's clan from the Americans and Europeans. The Kremlin is counting on the fact that Ilham Aliyev has no choice, is deprived of any political maneuvers and, therefore, will soon become a member of the Eurasian Union. In turn, Baku uses Russian illusions to negotiate as much as possible within the framework of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Not surprisingly, after the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Azerbaijan, Moscow's leading experts who are close to the Kremlin, wrote, that for the settlement of the Karabakh conflict, Armenia should agree to transfer five territories surrounding Karabakh to Baku.

Certainly, the President Serge Sargsyan cannot do that because of all the negative consequences for himself, his clan, the country and Russian-Armenian relations. Yerevan was trying to convey to the Kremlin that even the rumors about a possible surrender of territories to Azerbaijan led to a sharp increase of anti-Russian sentiments among Armenians worldwide. Armenian people believe that Russia, supplying offensive weapons to Azerbaijan, is responsible for the deaths of Armenian soldiers on the Karabakh-Azerbaijan border. Indifference of Russia and other allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Union caused additional negative attitudes. Karabakh, Moscow, Astana, and Minsk can still explain the reason of non-interference, but Armenia is a full-fledged and recognized subject of international relations, and a member of the military-political bloc. Armenia can have its rights and obligations prescribed in the charter of the organization. Recognizing these realities, most of the citizens of Armenia and the diaspora do not understand Yerevan's further stay in the unions mentioned above. Some Armenian experts explain that Armenia entered in the CSTO not to have support from Kazakhstan and Belarus, but to institutionalize the military-political dialogue with Russia. In other words, Russia would be able to assist Armenia under the CSTO flag fulfilling its obligations.

Such arguments have their place, but they poorly reflect reality. Firstly, we must understand that the CSTO is a supranational structure which not only expands, but also limits the abilities of individual states, including Russia and Armenia. If Russia choses to get involved in a conflict on the Armenian side, its decision should get at least informal support from other members. Otherwise, there is not only the risk of discrediting the organization itself, but also of creating critical relations between Russia and other members of the CSTO. It is difficult to say whether Moscow is ready to sacrifice its prestige and its relations with Kazakhstan in order to help Armenia. The Kremlin has preferred to remain neutral so far, even when there was a diversionary attack on the Armenian border. Secondly, any help to CSTO member state will be provided if an attack is committed towards its territory. In the case of Armenia, the situation is different and the potential aggression is to be carried out towards the unrecognized NKR. The paradox is that Armenia itself as the CSTO member cannot formally intervene in direct conflict, as it has not recognized the independence of Karabakh. For the Armenian side this situation is a dead-end, and there is no clear way to get out of it.

The latest session has once again confirmed that the CSTO is amplified only when it is advantageous to Russia. Thus, it was announced that NATO's expansion is a threat to the entire unit. Moreover, the decision was made, according to which unilateral deployment of missile defense and the color revolutions are included in the list of threats along with terrorism and extremism. However, are the United States and NATO a threat for Armenia? Of course, not. Yerevan has long been actively engaged with NATO in different programs in order to prevent strengthening of NATO-Azerbaijani bilateral relations, where Turkey and partially the United Kingdom lobby Azerbaijan’s interests. Unlike Azerbaijan, Yerevan has a lot more friends in the Alliance including France, Greece, Canada and Poland. Moreover, Ankara and Baku are well aware that Washington's political sympathies are also on the side of Armenia, which since 1992 has become one of the largest recipients of the US aid. For a long time Armenia's balanced policy helped it to collaborate with all the centers of power, covering the rear of the East and the West.

The situation changed when Armenia made its civilizational, economic and political choice in favor of the Eurasian Union, though it has not received any economic, political and other benefits. The Armenian side was faced with the fact that Kazakhstan that does not want to irritate Turkey and Azerbaijan, ignoring  summits and sessions of the Eurasian Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Yerevan, just sending telegrams. At the latest meeting, the appointment of the representative of Armenia - a CSTO Secretary General - was also delayed. In fact, the only consolation for Armenia was that in certain CSTO statements featured the non-existent peaceful way to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, as practice shows, official Baku does not take such statements seriously. Especially when they come from an organization that is not engaged in the settlement of this conflict.

Thus, Yerevan should not accept with enthusiasm the opportunity to appoint an Armenian representative a CSTO Secretary General as well as transmitting Iskander complex, uniting air defense systems and the visit of President Vladimir Putin to Armenia. When it comes to crisis, Armenia is always left alone with its hopes, rights, and political miscalculations. At this historic period, Russia, which has serious problems in its relations with the United States and the European Union, has to strengthen its strategic alliance with Kazakhstan as with the most influential factor in the Eurasian Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Besides that, Russia is to involve Azerbaijan in its sphere of influence to strengthen its southern borders. Thus, if for the sake of achieving these goals Russia needs to sacrifice certain interests of Armenia, it will certainly do so. 

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