As the tensions are rising again in Nagorno-Karabakh, Denys Kolesnyk discussed it with Richard Giragosian, Armenian expert and Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent think-tank based in Yerevan, Armenia. The role of Türkiye and Iran, as well as the Middle Eastern dynamics, were also discussed.
Tensions are rising again between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh. Recently the Iranian military delegation visited Baku and had talks with their Azeri counterparts. What is the role of Iran in regional security, from an Armenian standpoint?
From an Armenian perspective, Iran has always been valued as a strategic alternative to Armenia’s over-dependence on Russia, as a potential trading partner and energy source, as well as a security bulwark against Azerbaijan.
Moreover, Armenia has long maintained a stable and friendly relationship with its southern neighbour — Iran. Since attaining independence, Armenia has both prized and prioritized close bilateral relations with Iran, in large part driven by the country’s pronounced geographic vulnerability, as both Azerbaijan and Türkiye closed their borders with Armenia in the early 1990s. Over time, while Armenia tended to adapt to this East-West isolation, Iran was increasingly valued as a vital alternative trade and energy link. On a strategic level, for Armenia, with two of its four borders closed, Iran offered an important opportunity to minimize dependence on Georgia as its primary external trade route.
From the Iranian perspective, Armenia stands out as its only stable neighbour, especially given the instability in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently, in Syria. For both Armenia and Iran, the bilateral relationship was based on a shared sense of isolation and a deepening degree of mutual need.
Although there is a long history of close relations between Armenia and Iran, Armenia’s strategic approach toward Iran has been rooted more in practical necessity than historic ties. Through the 1990s, this practical foundation for closer Armenian-Iranian relations only deepened, as Iran pursued a cautious policy of neutrality over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, despite its seemingly more natural bias for fellow Shi’ite neighbour Azerbaijan, and as both Iran and Armenia were further isolated by the exclusion of both countries from the most important regional development project — the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline.
In more practical terms, however, such as in the area of trade, Armenian-Iranian relations have been both limited and marginal. Although bilateral trade remains rather meagre, the Armenian government plans to deepen relations in the wake of any new opportunities from the possible re-emergence of Iran as a more active player in the region after the successful Western nuclear deal with Iran. The strategic Armenian planning for engaging Iran in the future includes the creation of a “free economic zone” along the southern border with Iran, which is aimed at leveraging Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) by offering Iranian products duty-free status for re-export through Armenia to Russian and other EEU markets. Armenia also plans to expand its role as a transport hub, focused on improving road and rail links to offer Iran greater connectivity between the Persian Gulf and Black Sea ports to reach European markets.
Beyond the planned expansion of trade ties, Armenia is also prioritizing energy links with Iran, with the expansion of power transmission lines connecting the two countries’ electrical grids, thereby greatly increasing the volume of Armenian electricity exported to Iran. The planned transmission line would expand the potential for existing swap-based trade, whereby Armenia pays for imports of Iranian gas by providing seasonal supplies of electricity to northern Iran in return.
However, the energy sector is the most difficult and daunting sector for the further development of bilateral relations. With Armenia importing about 80 per cent of its gas from Russia’s Gazprom, or about 2 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas annually, the existing natural gas pipeline from Iran to Armenia remains marginal, providing a mere 500 million cubic meters of Iranian gas to Armenia. And since Russia’s success in limiting the volume and diameter of the 141-kilometre Iran-Armenia gas pipeline since its construction back in 2008, recent Armenian attempts to attract new supplies of gas from Turkmenistan will largely depend on Russian permission, which seems unlikely to either accept any competition to Gazprom that would lessen Armenian dependence on Russian gas or to allow Armenia to re-export the gas supplies.
Despite these obvious challenges and inherent limits, at the same time, there is a potential opportunity for Armenia to leverage its role as a potential “bridge” or “platform” for engaging Iran. As a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Armenia can now offer Iran access to markets much larger than its own, as well as maximise its position for greater Western commercial entry into Iran. Yet once again, the real determinant of just how far or how quickly Armenia can develop and deepen its ties with Iran will depend on Russia’s reaction.
More recently, however, Iran can be seen in a different light. The mounting tension between Azerbaijan and Iran is about more than Armenia. Rather the flareup in tension is rooted in Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel and is now driven by the return of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. In this context, Azerbaijan’s new, more confrontational posture pressuring Iran is seen as assisting Israel.
You have mentioned Türkiye and, indeed, Turkish-Armenian relations are non-existent and have been hostile throughout the recent history of Armenia. Do you expect a certain rapprochement between Erevan and Ankara, given the discontent with reliance on Russia voiced by Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan? Does the reelection of Erdogan bring an opening for mending the relations?
The outlook for Armenia-Türkiye’s “normalization” is significantly better than it may seem. Although currently “on hold” and suspended until the coming peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is no longer a question of if but rather a question of when normalization between Armenia and Türkiye is completed.
For years, the strategic relationship between Türkiye and Azerbaijan was rooted in close ties based on cultural and linguistic affinity and a shared Turkic identity. In what became known as “one nation, two states”, this relationship gradually changed, however. After the emergence of a new degree of asymmetry in recent years, it was Azerbaijan that secured the upper hand in the relationship with Türkiye. Based on economic power and energy-related influence, the Azerbaijani leadership determined and drove Turkish policies in the Caucasus.
From that perspective, there has been a degree of mounting frustration in Ankara that Baku has been able to limit and leverage Turkish policy options. This suggests that no matter who won the Turkish presidency, there is bound to be more stress and strain in Türkiye’s alliance with Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, Turkish foreign policy will continue to be guided by fundamental directives, with one important pillar defined by Turkish commitment to Azerbaijan.
For Armenia, however, there was less of a direct impact from the election. The process of “normalization” will continue, with only slight variance or deviation in style but not substance in Türkiye’s approach toward Armenia. Moreover, the outlook for the process of normalization was also bolstered by the pre-election domestic environment, as the Armenia issue appeared much less politically sensitive in domestic politics than it once was. This added fresh optimism to the domestic political calculation within Türkiye regarding Armenia.
Yet the election come in the immediate aftermath of a significant “missed opportunity” inherent in the recent breakthrough from “earthquake diplomacy.” This breakthrough came in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake that struck Türkiye in February 2023. In an example of “earthquake diplomacy,” the Turkish government ended its three-decade policy of sealing its border with Armenia. Of course, Türkiye’s move to re-open the border was largely driven by necessity over goodwill, in order to quickly facilitate the influx of urgent Armenian humanitarian aid and the arrival of an expert disaster response team. Yet this was a missed opportunity as Türkiye quickly reversed course, closing the borders yet again.
The re-election of President Erdogan and his retention of a parliamentary majority allows diplomatic negotiations between Armenian & Turkish envoys to continue. Meanwhile, increased economic pressure on the new Turkish government only enhances the importance of trade restoration and cross-border commerce, with Armenia more attractive as a platform for Turkish exports beyond and to new markets. At the same time, the likely conclusion of the Armenia-Azerbaijan “peace treaty” can be expected as a critical turning point and is expected to fulfil a new Turkish-imposed pre-condition to the implementation of normalization with Armenia.
We have talked about Iran and Türkiye, but speaking of the Middle East, what are the key partners for Armenia in that region?
In part reflecting Armenia’s more pressing and urgent security concerns from other strategic trajectories — threats from Azerbaijan, pressure from Türkiye and betrayal by Russia, — Armenia remains rather disengaged and distracted from the Middle East.
It’s understandable. Let’s now talk about Syria. A few years ago, Russia has been putting a lot of pressure on Armenia asking your country to send a military contingent to Syria. You’ve made a symbolic gesture by sending a dozen soldiers. Why did your government decide not to support Russia in Syria?
The pressure on Armenia was much deeper and more distressing than any pressure from Russia over Syria. In fact, the Syria issue was always the least important of the many issues of tension from Russia. It was the failed Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian betrayal of any and all security obligations to defend Armenia against attacks by Azerbaijan and the deeper Russian shift to Azerbaijan and Türkiye that defined the tension in the relationship with Armenia. Moreover, for Armenia today, Russia poses a new more serious challenge, as an “unreliable so-called partner.”
Despite the now obvious mistakes, missteps and miscalculations in Russia’s failed invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has excelled in one area. More specifically, the Russian leader has achieved tremendous success in making enemies and losing friends. From Central Asia to the South Caucasus, each of Russia’s neighbours now understands the weakness of Russia and recognizes that Russia is ever more dangerous and deeply isolated. And nowhere is that as clear as in Armenia.
More specifically, Russia presents a new and more serious challenge for Armenia: that of an unreliable partner. But it is not only Russia that has lost Armenian confidence, but also the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). This stems from the failure of the CSTO to adequately respond to Azerbaijani attacks on Armenia and that has only reaffirmed the empty value and bankruptcy of the so-called alliance. In the current context, the organization is more aptly seen as the Collective INSECURITY Treaty Organization.
More broadly, Putin’s failed invasion of Ukraine has also gravely, if not fatally weakened Russian power and influence. And with the demonstrable defeat of the vaunted Russian military, we now see an isolated, angry and vengeful Putin, especially sensitive to any signs of weakness.
For Armenia, which is now moving much faster and farther to the West and the European Union, the contrast between the Russian inaction and Western reaction is startling. This is also evident in the recognition that in response to war in Ukraine and reaction to Azerbaijan’s attack on Armenia, Europe’s actions are for the first time matching its aspiration.
Since the unjustified and unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, the failure of the Russian military campaign has revealed that the Russian military is much weaker than previously thought. The repercussions from the unexpected weakness of the Russian military have also fostered a new realization among many of Russia’s neighbours that although they may come under threat from Russia, the limits of Russian power and influence are now undeniable.
One notable example of this is evident in Azerbaijan’s recent escalation and challenge to Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh. In this context, Azerbaijani aggression is as much directed against Russia, in open defiance of Moscow, and no longer limited to only pressuring Armenia and Karabakh.
And for other “frozen” conflicts, ranging from Georgia to Moldova, Russia may seek to enforce its declining power in a show of strength. Although a move of desperation, Russian failure in Ukraine may only encourage a more dangerous, isolated and resentful Russian leadership to demand greater loyalty among its “allies,” like Armenia and the Central Asian states, while also pressuring other neighbours.
In strictly military terms, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has little to no direct impact on the Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno Karabakh. But in diplomatic terms, Azerbaijan has already taken advantage of the situation by increasing pressure on Armenia and Karabakh, as seen by the ongoing blockade of Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s strategy consists of more than simply taking advantage of the distraction presented by the war in Ukraine or increasing pressure on Armenia, however, and stands out as a bold defiance of Russia. In this context, Azerbaijan has become quite emboldened to challenge Russia. And bolstered by Turkish support, this Azerbaijani strategy is only likely to continue.
For over twenty years, Armenian foreign policy has been defined by a pursuit of “complementarity,” where Armenia struggled to maintain a strategic “balance” between its security partnership with Russia and its interest in deepening ties to the EU and the West. This policy has been difficult to maintain over the years, especially given the underlying trend of Armenian dependence on Russia driven by security and military ties. But since the 2020 war for Nagorno Karabakh, the limits of Russian security promises to Armenia have become open and obvious. And with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Armenia now faces an even more imposing and perhaps impossible challenge to meet Moscow’s expectations for loyalty and support for Russian aggression against Ukraine.
In that context, Armenian diplomacy has sought to engage in a delicate dance between not openly angering Russia and avoiding being caught on the wrong side of history by siding with the Russian aggressor. This is why the Pashinyan government has relied on a tactical policy of employing “strategic silence,” designed to do no more than the basic minimum to not defy Moscow. This is most clearly seen in the lack of statements by the Armenian Prime Minister or Foreign Minister, issuing a diluted and empty statement of support for a “diplomatic resolution” of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine through the Foreign Ministry spokesperson instead.
But there are limits to such “strategic silence” by Armenia, as demonstrated by Armenia’s reluctant vote in the Council of Europe against the move to suspend Russia from that body. And although Armenia’s position, as the only other country besides Russia to oppose that move, dangerously isolates Armenia, there was little choice and even less of an alternative for Armenia. Yet the danger now is as Russia demands greater support and more open loyalty from Armenia after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, any sense of diplomatic balance may be lost, threatening to push Armenia into a vulnerable and isolated position on the wrong side of history.
The latest disaster for Armenia is the “siege of Karabakh”, which is now trapped in a humanitarian disaster, with serious shortages of critical medicines, basic food staples and dwindling supplies resembling Stalingrad in World War II. In this post-war period of insecurity and uncertainty, only one thing is certain: that Russia has become clearly unreliable and consistently unpredictable. Today’s Russia poses a deadly new challenge and since Moscow’s failed invasion of Ukraine, the logic and expectations of Russian security obligation to Armenia no longer apply.
Moreover, the timing of Azerbaijan’s imposition of a blockage of Karabakh is no accident. The Azerbaijanis are acting because they can and daring to defy Moscow for two reasons. First, Russia remains distracted and overwhelmed by its failed invasion of Ukraine. Such Russian unwillingness and incapacity to respond to Azerbaijan’s blatant violations of the ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 war is especially significant, as the presence of some 2000 Russian peacekeepers remains the only source of security and protection for the Karabakh population.
Second, Azerbaijan is emboldened and empowered by both the perception of Azerbaijani leverage over the European Union after a strategic gas deal with the EU and by the reality of influence and command over Türkiye.
Against that backdrop, the contrast between the Russian inaction and Western reaction is startling. This is also evident in the failure of Russia to respond to Azerbaijan’s flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement in place since late 2020. In this context, the Azerbaijani moves against Karabakh are also challenges to Russian power and presence in the region. Yet Azerbaijan is playing with fire, dangerously testing the limits of Russian patience and inviting a possibly deadly “day of reckoning” between Moscow and Baku.
Complicated situation, implying difficult decisions, indeed. But how do you see the dynamics in the Middle East and the possible implications of those dynamics for Armenia?
The strategic challenge for Armenia regarding the Middle East remains centred on the necessity to translate potential into reality. Armenia has also started looking farther and further away, in its own start of a “pivot to Asia”, comprised of a deepening of relations with China and a shift to expand military cooperation with India. The latter point was also the driver for Armenia’s sole arms procurement deal in the post-war period: obtaining defensive weapons from India.
Despite the obvious constraints of Armenia’s over-dependence on Russia, as seen in the new Armenian breakthrough with the EU, there have been steady and stealthy gains in Armenia’s pursuit of strategic alternatives. And beyond the largely successful recent “second chance” to regain and restore Armenian relations with the European Union, Armenia has also significantly deepened ties with China.
Although the pace of closer Armenian-China relations has accelerated in recent years, Chinese interest and engagement in Armenia is not necessarily a new or novel development. For example, China has provided economic aid to Armenia every year since 1999, posting a high of $37 million in 2012-2014 alone, bolstered by an $11 million grant in 2013. In 2012, as a more traditional element of Chinese “soft power,” Beijing also launched a new effort to provide some 250 Chinese-manufactured buses for use in the public transportation system in the Armenia capital Yerevan. This was more recently followed by the donation of 200 new ambulances to Armenia in May 2017.
In terms of bilateral trade, Armenia has also embarked on a low-profile effort to turn to China. This has also been surprisingly successful, as China recently emerged as Armenia’s second-largest trading partner, as bilateral trade increased to some $480 million as early as 2015 according to official Armenian statistics. Driven by a series of high-level visits, with the Armenian president meeting Chinese President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang in March 2017, and outlined in a five-page joint declaration matched by the signing of a dozen agreements to deepen bilateral cooperation in a wide range of areas, including law enforcement, tourism, education and energy.
But the most important element of Armenia’s strategic “pivot to China” was not limited to trade. The emergence of a more robust military and security relationship with China stood out as an equally significant achievement for Armenia. More specifically, despite its security partnership with Russia, Armenia was able to escape the confines of that orientation and forged a new military-security relationship that included the procurement of weapons systems and cooperation in the field of military education.
Since the late 1990s, for example, Armenia received multiple-launch rocket systems from China and in a deal brokered in 2011, purchased more sophisticated Chinese AR1A multiple-launch rockets with a firing range of more than 100 kilometres. At the same time, Armenian officers studying in Chinese military institutions were matched by a new agreement in April 2017 for the expansion of military education programs to include Chinese military instructors to conduct courses and training seminars in Armenia for the mid- to senior-level officer corps.
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