In February 2016, the Russian air force announced that MiG-29 fighters and other sophisticated aircraft were headed to Armenia, to a Russian base 25 miles from the Turkish border. Moscow promised Yerevan a $200 million weapons credit and announced talks aimed at making Armenia the host of an essential link in Russia’s regional power grid to Iran.
Armenia is a Russian ally and a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Moscow has funneled substantial military aid to help Armenia support the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where an Armenian majority governs itself as an “island” surrounded by the nation of Azerbaijan.
But Russia’s commitment to Armenia has deepened in recent months. My research into Russia’s military policy suggests that Moscow has three goals:
1. Draw a circle around Turkey
Russia’s tightening alliance with Armenia is part of its broader strategy of intimidating the Turkish government — and making sure Ankara does not down another Russian plane en route to Syria. The first prong of Vladimir Putin’s strategy involves placing Russian troops along Turkey’s borders, including the February 2016 deployment near the Turkey-Armenia border.
Turkey considers this encirclement policy hostile. To the north, Moscow’s military annexed Crimea in 2014. And Russia stepped up its intervention in Syria, which sits on Turkey’s southern border.
The second prong of Russia’s destabilization strategy is periodically re-inflaming the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Russia has continued to sell arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, despite escalating hostilities. Even though Azerbaijan’s military capabilities remain vastly superior to Armenia’s, expanded Russian military support for Armenia could encourage Yerevan to inflame the Karabakh conflict. In December 2015, the Armenian defense minister claimed that Azerbaijan was provoking violence and undermining the cease-fire. This claim could become a pretext for more Armenian military involvement in Karabakh, and result in worsening violence in the autonomous region.
Here’s why this matters. Azerbaijan has close cultural ties and is a vital regional ally for Turkey. Turkey relies on access to Azerbaijan’s extensive energy resources on the Caspian Sea. Turkey and Armenia remain chilly because Ankara refuses to acknowledge — much less apologize for — the 1915 Armenian genocide. So Turkey has backed up Azerbaijan’s claims to Nagorno-Karabakh, to ensure its main regional ally remains stable and in control of its territory. By increasing military support for Armenia, Russia undercuts Turkey’s Caucasus strategy, and strengthens its own regional power.
2. Back a shared ally in Syria
Russia’s pro-Assad, anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria is another reason Russia decided to boost military aid to Armenia. Russia, Armenia and Baathist Syria are allied against Turkey. Syria-Turkey relations broke down in 2011 when Turkey supported anti-Assad rebel movements.
Shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenia and Baathist Syria forged a close diplomatic relationship, one that Yerevan regards as vital to securing the rights of 120,000 Armenians living within Syria’s borders. It has been a firm partnership, despite fierce international condemnation of President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian civil war atrocities. Like Russia, Armenia considers Assad the legitimate leader of all of Syria.
Armenia’s strong ties with Baathist Syria go back a full century. In May 2015, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian visited Syria, praising the Syrian people for helping Armenians during the last phase of the Turkish genocide of the last century. Nalbandian also hailed Assad’s tolerance of the Armenian minority and expressed concern that a regime change in Syria could precipitate another genocide against the Armenian diaspora. Assad responded to these diplomatic overtures by officially recognizing the Armenian genocide in a November interview with Agence France-Presse.
This was the first time any Syrian president had commented on this contentious issue — and this marked a radical shift in Syrian policy. Before the war, the Syrian regime censored books on the Armenian genocide and blocked foreign film crews from visiting the sites of Turkish war crimes.
3. Keep Armenia stable
Russia’s tighter relationship with Armenia is closely related to its interest in preventing regime change in Yerevan, a staunch Russian ally. Belarus and Kazakhstan, two other Russian allies in the region, are now increasing their trade with Western countries. Armenia’s largest trade partner remains Russia, the destination of 22.6 percent of its exports and source of 24.8 percent of its imports.
Armenia’s economic dependence on Russia meant that it followed Russia into recession in 2014. When protests broke out over electricity increases in the summer, the regime mitigated anti-Russian sentiments among the Electric Yerevan protesters by highlighting the domestic origins of the protests.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s loyalty to Russia reflects his skepticism of Western values. But his anti-Western stance has become increasingly unpopular in Armenia. Since the early 2000s, the near-universal consensus on the Russian alignment has broken down as pro-European civil society organizations have inspired young Armenians to push the country on an alternate trajectory.
As Sargsyan has positioned himself as unequivocally pro-Russian, his survival depends on Russian assistance counter-balancing Western aid to liberal groups. Unlike some of its neighbors, Armenia refused to consider the 2013 E.U. association agreement proposal, instead taking up Russia’s EEU counteroffer. This decision may make Sargsyan even more dependent on Russian assistance to survive politically.
So maintaining the status quo in Armenia keeps Moscow’s EEU alternative viable, as Armenia, along with Kyrgyzstan, is the strongest ally in the union. Moscow has increased its military assistance to Armenia to ensure that Sargsyan has the coercive capacity to repress future mass protests. The Kremlin regarded the Electric Yerevan movement and other “color revolutions” with deep suspicion, claiming that U.S.-backed NGOs inspired the protests, rather than actual popular discontent.
Don’t go changing
Regime change in Armenia would leave Russia standing solo in the South Caucasus — a major blow to Russians’ perceptions of their country’s great power status. As my research on Russian foreign policy illustrates, the perception that Russia’s sphere of influence is shrinking could potentially affect political stability at home. To keep his high approval ratings during a period of prolonged economic malaise, Putin needs the Russian public to believe that Moscow still holds power over the former Soviet territories.
A stronger Russia-Armenia partnership is a relatively underexplored geopolitical development that has profound implications for the stability and security of the Caucasus, the Middle East and the post-Soviet region. With the Syrian conflict unresolved and Russia’s relations with Turkey strained, the Armenian regime stands to benefit from an unprecedented degree of Russian economic and military assistance.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy.