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Speech of Ambassador Babakhanian 13.04.2023

  • Geopolitics
  • 11 Months ago
  • 10 min read
Armenia in the Contemporary Eurasian Geopolitical Space

Armenia on map

Team NatStrat
Team NatStrat

Armenia in the Contemporary Eurasian Geopolitical Space*



Yori Babakhanian, Armenian Ambassador to India

The 2020 War for Artsakh or Karabakh has left Armenia in an expansive crisis. The parallel territorial encroachments by Azerbaijan into Armenian territory, the inability to rely on the CSTO to help defend its borders and the strengthening of the Turkish-Azerbaijani tandem make it necessary to understand the role and place of Armenia in the newly-formed geopolitical environment. Two major challenges have emerged for Armenia:
Installing defensive infrastructure across more than 500 km of new border lines with Azerbaijan is a top priority for Armenia to resolve in order to deter any further incursions by Baku.
Azerbaijan’s politicization of the unblocking of communications in the region, and its insertion of a “Zangezur corridor” narrative, has hampered the process and created a new layer of problems that increase, rather than mitigate, security concerns. The permanent cross-border violence on the borders marks a new escalation.
“The strategic significance of the South Caucasus is determined first of all by its location. Transcaucasia is oftentimes characterized as a buffer zone between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, while the European Union views it as a bridge between Asia and Europe.”
South Caucasus, or Transcaucasia, is a region noted for its instability, in both strategic and ethno-political as well as cultural aspects. Security issues in the region are cross-sectional, not only for the three primary states in the South Caucasus— Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia—but also involve the interests of adjacent countries: Russia on the north; Iran on the south; Turkey on the west, the Central Asian states Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan on the east. Added to this mix are the interests of the U.S. and the European Union, as well as, of course, China. As a result, the South Caucasus has been rather vulnerable to destabilizing effects from the outside.
The strategic significance of the South Caucasus is determined first of all by its location. Transcaucasia is oftentimes characterized as a buffer zone between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, while the European Union views it as a bridge between Asia and Europe. No less important, no doubt, are the region’s natural resources and communications networks. Those and other factors can frequently result in fierce competition in various spheres of influence, a competition that is further prompted in the present situation by new geopolitical redistributions. It is therefore the case that the political fate of the South Caucasus region is contingent upon the confluence or juxtaposition of international forces rather than upon the will of any individual state.
“The United States and the European Union will try their best to crowd Russia out of the South Caucasus. But the Kremlin is unlikely to easily give up its position in the region. Therefore, the Russo-Western diplomatic battle for Armenia and Azerbaijan will go on.”
The United States and Europe certainly remain important actors in the region, but their influence is declining. Despite being long-standing members of the Minsk Group, neither France nor the United States was able—or perhaps willing—to broker even a temporary ceasefire in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Azerbaijan saw both countries, due to their large and influential Armenian diaspora populations, as biased negotiators. Armenia felt abandoned by the West (and Russia) during the war, as the Trump administration’s half-hearted efforts to broker a ceasefire came late. The West now struggles to find a role for the Minsk Group. It is not yet clear how U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration plans to support post-conflict stabilization, reconciliation, and governance projects—all areas where Western support, financing, and expertise are needed.
Beyond two prominent U.S. investments in the energy and mining sectors and Armenian diaspora remittances and charitable donations, economic ties between the United States and Armenia are minimal. Yerevan hopes that Armenia’s Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the EU, as well as its efforts to promote political and economic reforms, could lead to greater European economic engagement. Despite recent efforts to diversify its economic partners, Armenia is unlikely to have much success in the near future given Russia’s economic clout in the country and Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union.
Thus, for the foreseeable future, the situation in the turbulent region will likely remain tense. Russia, as well as other global and regional actors, will continue pushing the two countries to implement at least parts of the Moscow-brokered 2020 ceasefire agreement. But that issue is a matter of political dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which means that both countries will have to continue holding summits, be it in Russia or in the West.
One thing is for sure: The United States and the European Union will try their best to crowd Russia out of the South Caucasus. But the Kremlin is unlikely to easily give up its position in the region. Therefore, the Russo-Western diplomatic battle for Armenia and Azerbaijan will go on.
The Russian Factor At first glance, Russia's stance seems at odds with the much-vaunted fraternal and strategic partnership relations with Armenia. But if you take a look at Russia's interests in the region, other connections become apparent that could determine its actions.
After giving up its military bases in Georgia in 2008 and Azerbaijan in 2012, Russia only kept its military presence in Armenia. In the years that followed, in the face of growing competition from Turkey for influence in Azerbaijan, the Russian president made efforts to tie this former Soviet republic back to him. The importance of Azerbaijan as an energy exporter and transit country between Europe and Asia with important oil and gas pipelines is high for Russia. In addition, the Kremlin was probably concerned that the loss of Azerbaijan as a close partner would help strengthen the Ankara-Tbilisi-Baku axis.
That's why Russia isn't prepared to go to great lengths as Armenia's ally in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In contrast to Azerbaijan, Armenia is involved in all integration projects initiated by Russia and is dependent on it in terms of security policy and economy. Russia, therefore, sees no reason to take particular account of Armenian concerns that conflict with Azerbaijani concerns.
“After three decades of assisting Azerbaijan to develop its military, Turkey positioned itself to become the second-most powerful regional player after Russia, making it Russia’s main geopolitical challenger for influence in the South Caucasus.”
The increasingly close relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan entail that Russia also takes Turkey and its possible reactions into account on all issues affecting Azerbaijan. Thus, Armenia has found itself in a situation where its relations with its closest partner are determined by the interests of other countries which are defined as the main threat in Armenia's security doctrine. This realization revived a historical trauma for Armenians: the loss of almost half of their former settlement area to Turkey and the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan in the course of the friendship treaty between Bolshevik Russia and Kemalist Turkey in 1921.
Russian-Turkish cooperation in our region causes sincere bewilderment in Armenian society in the sense that by punishing Ukraine for striving to become a member of NATO, Russia is actually cooperating with the same NATO member - Turkey in the South Caucasus, which contains serious security challenges for Russia itself, considering Erdogan's Pan-Turkic ambitions.
Russia’s inaction as a security ally of Armenia and the refusal of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which Armenia is a member, to invoke collective defence during the recent military clash on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border seems to mark a turning point for Armenian society. The public discourse is now dominated by the idea that Armenia should rethink its security policy, which still relies on Russia and the CSTO. Moscow is now accusing the West of wanting to limit Russia's efforts as a mediator by interfering in the peace process and possibly repeating in Armenia what has already been done in Ukraine.
“Baku’s top priority is the formation of a Turkey-Azerbaijan-Israel triangle which can potentially become a serious regional balance and threat to not only Iran’s national security and interests but will also try to challenge Russian regional hegemony.”
However, Russia faces new challenges: it is no longer the only major power in the region. After three decades of assisting Azerbaijan to develop its military, Turkey positioned itself to become the second-most powerful regional player after Russia, making it Russia’s main geopolitical challenger for influence in the South Caucasus.
As the Assistant Professor of International Relations at Istanbul Okan University Habibe Ozdal has argued, Russia and Turkey are not allies in the Caucasus or Middle East; they do not necessarily share the same goals. Yet, as they continually bump into each other, the two powers find ways on occasion to align their competing interests and to dampen tensions.
The Turkish Factor Aside from the fact that Turkey provided extensive support to Azerbaijan to win the war, it is important to understand its main short-term goal: the opening of an access route to Azerbaijan and Central Asia through Meghri, which will shorten the route for shipping goods and also allow for the expansion of Turkish economic influence over Armenia itself. Turkey continues to hold the prospect of bilateral diplomatic relations with Armenia as a playing card, invoking it as a pressure tactic against third countries, for example when U.S. President Joe Biden used the word “genocide” in his April 24 message in 2021.
The Iranian Factor Until recently, Iran was the only country that had a border with all three conflicting parties: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Artsakh. The shattering of the status quo that resulted after the war has brought a security dilemma for Iran. Ankara’s unconditional support for Baku has accelerated Turkish-Azerbaijani cooperation, which may lead to developments that run counter to Iran’s interests in the region. Iranian concerns are as follows: 1) Turkey and Azerbaijan may attempt to include Armenia in South Caucasus pipeline diplomacy, thus limiting the strengthening of Iranian-Armenian cooperation in the energy sphere; 2) The reinforcement of a Turkish military presence across its northern border implies a NATO security threat; 3) Having expanded its sphere of influence into the South Caucasus through its expansive control over Baku, Turkey’s role as a regional player may be leveraged as a counter-weight against Iranian influence in the South Caucasus; 4) Israeli arms shipments and access to advanced weaponry for Azerbaijan was also a game changer in the war, and continued military cooperation between the two is now perceived as a security threat. Specifically, Israel supplies more than 60% of the Azerbaijani military’s arms. Because of its geographic proximity to Iran, Azerbaijan is seen as an enticing ally for “Israeli intelligence-gathering and military operations, should the need arise.” To that end, Baku’s top priority is the formation of a Turkey-Azerbaijan-Israel triangle which can potentially become a serious regional balance and threat to not only Iran’s national security and interests but will also try to challenge Russian regional hegemony.
Iran’s three northern provinces of West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan and Ardabil have a large Azerbaijani-speaking population that could be incited against the central government in the future.
The EU Factor The EU is not considered a main stakeholder in the current geopolitical environment. Brussels has mostly been spreading its influence through soft power networks and financial aid. While the 2020 Artsakh War showed the EU’s disinterest as a security actor, post-war economic and humanitarian aid show renewed engagement in Armenian-EU cooperation. For example, the EU provided a total of €16.9 million in humanitarian aid to Artsakh during the post-war period. Further, under the special five flagship initiatives, the EU plans to mobilize €2.6 billion for Armenia. These resources will encompass transport connectivity, resilience and recovery of the southern provinces, energy efficiency and renewable energy, digital transformation, and support for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs). The EU also provided €100 million to Armenia to fight COVID-19. The EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which came into force on March 1, 2021, will provide Armenia with over €450 million in additional financial assistance, along with the “EU4Regions” program that will be applied for reforms in the social, economic and cultural spheres.
The US Factor The U.S., along with the EU, is also considered an actor that plays its hand mostly in the humanitarian and economic spheres when it comes to Armenia, although it has provided funding to both Armenia and Azerbaijan for military training, reforms and modernization. Specifically, the U.S. has been providing extensive military funding to Azerbaijan in the last three years to develop anti-drug trafficking programs by strengthening its naval presence in the Caspian Sea. U.S. posturing in the region is more defined by counterbalancing or limiting Russia’s influence than it is by specifically attending to the needs or interests of Armenia or Azerbaijan. That being said, Armenia’s democratic advances after the Velvet Revolution, and the formation of a regional democratic dyad with Georgia, have incentivized Washington to take a more active role in at least supporting multilateral structures (such as re-energizing the OSCE Minsk Group) in addressing the Artsakh issue.
“The South Caucasus is in the midst of a geopolitical transition. No longer an isolated backwater of the former Soviet Union, the South Caucasus today interacts with and is impacted by a much larger region around it. It is becoming more interconnected with its neighbours in the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and beyond.”
Armenia’s Role and Place in the Geopolitical Environment in the South Caucasus
The South Caucasus is in the midst of a geopolitical transition. No longer an isolated backwater of the former Soviet Union, the South Caucasus today interacts with and is impacted by a much larger region around it. It is becoming more interconnected with its neighbours in the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and beyond. Those new connections are likely here to stay. This trend should not unnerve Western policymakers; the South Caucasus is essentially rediscovering its historical geography as a region with multiple influential neighbours. That is a positive change.
The region is also being impacted by broader global trends. The period of U.S. retrenchment that began under Obama and accelerated under Trump has ushered in a period of disengagement. The resulting vacuum has encouraged leaders across the region to pursue overlapping relationships that are tying the Caucasus more closely to the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Asia. Regional integration generally is a positive development too.
Yet the United States still has interests in the South Caucasus and should pursue them. However, past patterns of U.S. policy implementation suggest that Washington does not, and likely never will, possess the same level of strategic interests in the South Caucasus as the region’s immediate neighbours. The sheer distance between the United States and the Caucasus dictates that Washington should not pretend otherwise. This does not mean, however, that the Biden administration should ignore the region, especially since it is a meeting place of some of the West’s biggest competitors (China, Iran, and Russia) and most challenging partners (Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia).
Considering the 2020 Artsakh War as a catalyst for geopolitical changes in the region, it should be noted that Iran has never been tolerant of the possible presence of trans-regional powers (for example, the United States, Israel, or NATO) in the region and made it clear that “the Karabakh crisis should be resolved with the political will of Armenia and Azerbaijan.” At the same time, Iran supports Russia’s mediation efforts and the participation of other regional powers in the settlement of this conflict. Nevertheless, the support of regional powers (in this case, Russia) and the obvious attempts to prevent the spread of Ankara’s further influence show the sensitivity and complexity of that conflict. The extent to which Armenia may leverage Iranian and Russian interests against growing Turkish interests in the region, and by extension, paint Baku as a conduit for Turkish power, will be crucial in allowing Yerevan to counterbalance the regional powers against the Baku-Ankara tandem.

The further development of events in the South Caucasus region will largely be determined by the answers to the following questions:

  • When and how will the Russian-Ukrainian conflict end?
  • How will the situation around Iran develop?
  • Will Erdogan win this year's May elections?
  • Will the West contribute to the further democratization of Georgia and Armenia?


(*Speech delivered at the India-Central Asia Foundation Seminar in New Delhi in April 2023)

H.E. Mr Youri Babakhanian currently serves as the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Armenia to the Republic of India. Before this he headed the Near East and Northern Africa Division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia.
He has served extensively in the Middle and Near East region in the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. He has graduated from the Department of Oriental Studies, Yerevan State University.


     

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