The Accent’s interview with Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan.
-Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on a decree on establishment of the combined task force of Russia and Armenia. As you told me “this was a big mistake for Armenia.” Could you tell us more in this regard?
After years of steadily mortgaging Armenia’s independence, the government’s latest move to agree to the Russian proposal to form a new “joint” Armenian-Russian military command unit represents a new challenge to sovereignty and statehood. Although the move in itself is fairly benign and appears to be a logical component of both the Armenian-Russian security relationship and Armenia’s membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), this step poses a deeper danger and more serious risk, for two reasons.
First, according to the details of the plan, Russian control over Armenian external borders would potentially be expanded from its current supervision of the Armenian borders with Turkey and Iran to include both Georgia and Azerbaijan.
A second, less likely but more disastrous outcome, however, would be an attempt by Moscow to use this new “joint” command structure to not only interfere or intervene in Armenian defense reform and force posture, but to also utilize the unit as a vehicle for the later deployment of peacekeepers in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, with devastating effect on the security of both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
-There is a Russian base in Armenia, but in your opinion, will today’s decision be acceptable for the Armenian population? In your opinion, are there protest signs towards this decision in Armenian society?
-Amid a deep and widening crisis in Armenian-Russian relations, Moscow will have to steer carefully and tread delicately. For Yerevan, the crisis in relations with Moscow represents deepening dissatisfaction not with the relationship itself, but over the unequal terms of the “strategic partnership.” Faced with a dangerous degree of mounting over-dependence on Russia, the nature of the Armenian security relationship with Russia now threatens to degrade Armenia from Russia’s partner to Putin’s pawn. And as the strategic relationship between Armenia and Russia has deepened in recent years, there is new concern over the asymmetry and lack of parity inherent in the relationship. Despite the necessity of maintaining a close relationship with Russia, there is a growing sense of the one-sided nature of the “partnership.” And over the past two years, this has fostered a new challenge, not to the relationship itself, but to the terms of the relationship. Moreover, the challenge has also been driven by two key developments: the emergence of Russia as the leading arms provider to rival Azerbaijan, and not only Armenia, and the tragic murder of an entire Armenian family by a rogue Russian soldier who deserted the base in Armenia.
And this crisis was exacerbated by the events of April 2016, when an Azerbaijani offensive, relying on a large arsenal of Russian-supplied weapons, marked the most destructive fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh since a 1994 ceasefire was first reached.
For many Armenians, this crisis was marked by a culmination in frustration with the asymmetry and disrespect afforded to its alliance, and was exacerbated by the sense of betrayal by Russia, which sold the weapons used by Azerbaijan against Karabakh. For his part, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev only enflamed tension when, during a visit to Armenia only days after the April 2016 fighting, he reaffirmed Russian plans to continue to sell arms to Azerbaijan.
This was only exacerbated when Medvedev stressed that this was no longer a Russian “business transaction,” but now represented a new Russian policy of Cold War-style “deterrence” by seeking to “balance” both sides with Russian weapons. Nevertheless, the outlook for the Karabakh conflict remains bleak, as the absence of any real deterrence means that there is nothing and no one preventing Azerbaijan from launching another offensive. This also suggests that as the Karabakh and Armenian forces are the only effective disincentive to discouraging renewed hostilities, any future Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan will surely do demonstrable damage to the already strained Armenian-Russian relationship.