When Turkey signed an agreement six years ago to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system, the US and its NATO allies condemned the step. As a NATO member Turkey should not be buying advanced Russian weapons. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s steps led to a deterioration in Turkey’s relations with Washington and the European Union.
France recently announced the purchase by Armenia of 3 GM-200 radars and Mistral air defense system there was no outcry from the US and its NATO allies in Europe. ‘Even if we are not part of the same military and political alliances, we assume this defense relationship, which is based on the simple principle that you need to be able to defend yourself and your civilian population,’ French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu told his Armenian counterpart Suren Papikyan at a press conference.
Why was there no US and NATO condemnation of France’s decision to sell two air defense systems to a Russian ally, Armenia?
Armenia is a founding member of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) which Russia created in the early 1990s as a counterweight to NATO. Russia’s armed forces man Armenia’s air defenses alongside a nominal number of Armenians. France has promised to send trainers and advisers to set up and help run the GM-200 and Mistral air defense systems.
Why is Washington applying double standards in condemning Turkey’s purchase but ignoring France’s sale? Of the two, France’s sale of sophisticated military equipment to Armenia is more of a potential security concern than Turkey receiving a Russian air defense system.
French advisers and trainers will be literally working on Armenia’s air defense alongside the Russian military.
Despite recent criticisms of Russia’s passivity in the Karabakh conflict, Armenia has no plans to end its deep level of military cooperation with Russia.
US and European double standards are an outgrowth of a romantic perception of Christian Armenia in a region dominated by larger neighbours, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, with whom there have been historical conflicts. Hence the optimism surrounding Western media reports of Armenia re-orientating from Russia to Europe. Speaking to the European Parliament on October 17, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan complained at being betrayed by Russia when its peacekeeping forces did not halt ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Karabakh and attempted to incite regime change in Armenia.
The US and Europe should certainly welcome Armenia’s reorientation from Eurasia to Europe but, setting aside early doses of euphoria, this will be more difficult than most commentators and policymakers are admitting. Armenia should prove its commitment to European integration by ending assisting Russia to evade Western sanctions. Georgia has also participated in the busting of Western sanctions against Russia.
Armenia’s reorientation will be welcomed by Azerbaijan, Turkey, and the opposition in Georgia. Nevertheless, Western policymakers should be aware that Armenia’s reorientation will require tremendous political will on the part of Pashinyan to counter Russian and Iranian opposition. With a post-conflict peace treaty signed, Armenia should view Azerbaijan and Turkey as allies to keep Iran and Russia out of interfering in the South Caucasus.
Pashinyan emphasised to the European Parliament that ‘The Republic of Armenia is ready to be closer to the European Union, as much as the European Union considers it possible. Our joint statement with President von der Leyen reads: ‘In these diﬃcult times, the EU and Armenia stand shoulder to shoulder.’
In February 2021, the EU and Armenia signed the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement that supports reforms taking place in Armenia. At the European Parliament, Pashinyan said ‘the EU is the key partner supporting the fundamental reforms of the Armenian government in recent years,’ describing the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement as ‘one of the pillars of our reform agenda.’
All three South Caucasian countries – Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia – have different foreign policies. Azerbaijan was briefly in the CSTO but withdrew in 1999 and has since pursued a non-aligned status and multi-vector foreign policy of maintaining good relations with Russia and the West. Contrary to public perceptions, Israel has a military partnership with Azerbaijan that is a decade older than that of Turkey. Georgia has pursued a pro-Western foreign policy of seeking NATO and EU membership. From 2012, following the coming to power of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili as prime minister and Georgian Dream’s victory in parliamentary elections. Under pro-Russian Ivanishvili, Georgia has played down NATO membership. Ukraine and Moldova were given candidate status by the EU last year. Georgia was not given candidate status by the EU in 2022 because of democratic failings, such as the imprisonment of political opponents like former President Mikhail Saaakashvili. Until now, Armenia has been fully integrated under Russian-led institutions in Eurasia and instead of signing an Association Agreement with the EU in 2013 joined the Eurasian Economic Union. Armenia has never stated it wants to join NATO and the EU because it has been a member of Russian-led alternatives – the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union.
The Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement is not as comprehensive as the Association Agreements signed by Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia within the framework of the EU’s Eastern Partnership launched. In 2013, Armenia was set to sign an Association Agreement with the EU but under Russian pressure withdrew and joined Vladimir Putin’s alternative project, the Eurasian Economic Union.
Armenia was ruled by the pro-Russian ‘Karabakh clan’ until Pashinyan came to power in 2018 in a popular revolution. Putin has always had a visceral suspicion of colour revolutions, believing them to be not genuine popular uprisings but Western orchestrated plots against Russia. Not surprisingly therefore, Putin has always therefore been suspicious of Pashinyan.
Pashinyan’s freedom to manoeuvre was made possible by Russia becoming bogged down in a full-scale war in Ukraine which has sucked in over 90% of the Russian army. Of the former Soviet republics, only Belarus has remained loyal to Russia in votes at the UN on Crimea’s occupation and the war in Ukraine.
Russia’s ability to control Eurasia, which the Kremlin has viewed since the 1990s as its exclusive sphere of influence, was vastly reduced by the war in Ukraine. Russia’s so-called peacekeepers, introduced after the November 2020 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, became superfluous and their passivity satisfied neither side. Russia’s pushback against Armenia’s geopolitical reorientation will be weaker because it is bogged down in a war in Ukraine and unable to halt Armenia’s ‘Brexit.’
Nevertheless, a weakened Russia will remain obstructive towards Armenia’s path to Europe. No member of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) and Eurasian Economic Union has attempted to do a ‘Brexit’; indeed, although Pashinyan has criticised the CSTO for inaction he has not threatened to withdraw Armenia’s membership.
No country can be a member of more than one customs union. Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are members of the EU customs union through the DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement) that accompanies their Association Agreements. Armenia is a member of the customs union of the Eurasian Economic Union – which Pashinyan has never threatened to leave.
Another obstacle to Armenia’s European integration is the CSTO, the object of derision by Pashinyan. Again, no member of the CSTO has ever withdrawn its membership and it is unlikely the Kremlin would agree to this step which it would see as a major affront to its status as a great power. No member has ever sought to withdraw from NATO which the CSTO was set up to counter as a kind of surrogate Warsaw Pact, the military alliance created by the USSR from countries forcibly incorporated into the Soviet empire.
Remaining a member of the CSTO will complicate and undermine Armenia’s cooperation with NATO through the PfP (Partnership for Peace) and other bilateral programmes with NATO members. Armenia’s armed forces, which are dominated by Russian training and military equipment, would certainly benefit from greater exposure to and interaction with that available from NATO.
The Kremlin has also never been faced with a major request by its Eurasian neighbours to close its military bases. The Russian military base in Akhalkalaaki, Georgia was closed in 2007. A year later, after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, the Kremlin recognised the ‘independence’ of South Ossetia and Abkhazia where it has expanded major military bases. In response to Ukrainian military attacks on Crimea, Russia is building a naval base in Abkhazia. In 2012, Russia’s small military base in the Qabala region of Azerbaijan was closed.
Russia has two military bases in Gyumri and Yerevan, Armenia. Their closure would be unpopular among many Armenians because of the country’s geography sandwiched between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Putin would be highly unlikely to agree to their closure which he would see as another slap in the face of Russia’s status as a great power.
A final complication, although perhaps less controversial will be Armenia taking control over its borders which since 1992 have been guarded by Russian border guards. In 2003, Russia’s Federal Border Guard Service was returned under the control of the FSB (Federal Security Service) as part of Putin’s resovietisation of Russian society; in the USSR the border guards came under the jurisdiction of the KGB.
Following the signing of a peace treaty with Azerbaijan and a border treaty with Turkey, Pashinyan’s confidence towards Russia could grow sufficiently for him to request Armenian replace Russian border guards on the country’s frontiers. But this step would require training and the expansion in number of Armenian border guards.
France has jumped the gun in selling two air defense systems to Armenia before it has left Russia’s orbit. Pashinyan’s reorientation of Armenia from Eurasia into Europe should be welcomed by the US and Europe, although this remains at the beginning of a long journey through unchartered waters. A first step should be for Armenia to end assisting Russia to evade Western sanctions. Following the signing of a peace treaty, the second step should be to cooperate with Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey in blocking Russian and Iranian interference in the South Caucasus.
Dr. Taras Kuzio is Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and Associate Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. Winner of the 2022 Peterson Literary Prize for Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War: Autocracy-Orthodoxy-Nationality (Routledge, 2022).