Anahit Shirinyan

Armenia’s Foreign Policy Four Years after the U-Turn

Four years after Yerevan announced its intention to join the Russian-led Customs Union (now Eurasian Economic Union - EAEU), the consequences of the move are still haunting Armenia.

The basis of Armenia’s declared multi-vector foreign policy has been shattered. The 3 September 2013 U-turn put a halt to the Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union that Armenia was supposed to sign two months later. Apart from the long-term economic benefits, the Agreement with the EU was meant to balance Armenia’s over-reliance on Russia.  

The EU integration path enjoyed a broad consensus across Armenia’s political and civil society spectrum during the course of almost four-year-long negotiations with Brussels. That consensus swiftly turned into a polarization following the U-turn, amidst the fallout between the West and Russia and the inevitability of a choice for Armenia. Events in Ukraine deepened this polarization in political and public discourse in Armenia. Much-needed debates over Armenia’s interests were eclipsed by the hybrid war between Ukraine and Russia and the geopolitics of Western-Russia contention.

Amidst the domestic and foreign polarization, Armenia’s decision makers chose to justify the turnabout and pretended that no policy change had happened. Armenia spent almost four years in an attempt to control the damage done to the relations with the EU and sign a new, watered-down agreement.

It is an open secret that the U-turn was a decision based on thinly veiled threats from Moscow that Yerevan would not be able to rely on Russian security guarantees if it were to sign the EU agreement. Armenia’s decision makers tried to solve this strategic dilemma with logic typical to Armenian foreign policy in general -- short-term solutions without long-term planning. But while presumably neutralizing the immediate security threats, Armenia has acquired a new set of strategic setbacks that are not easy to solve.

As a result, Armenia has depleted the legitimacy of its multi-vector foreign policy, drawn doubts on its ability to make sovereign decisions, and lost its international credibility. Across the board, Armenia is seen as a satellite-state that serves Russia’s interests more than those of its own. Its own interests are ignored on the part of its formal allies, be that within bilateral relations with Russia or within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the EAEU. The security risks that once guided the September 3 decision have only multiplied, as previous deterrents against war by force of the alliance with Russia and membership in the CSTO have eroded.

These developments significantly limit Armenia’s ability to pursue its interests and the interests of de facto republic of Nagorno-Karabakh whose security Armenia guarantees.

However, the most dangerous consequence of the September 3 volte-face is the precedent it sets. The security factor is a card that can be used to further alter Armenia’s sovereign decisions. This puts Armenia in a vulnerable position, undermines its international standing, and makes it an easy target for rivals.

It was this impression of Armenia’s vulnerability that contributed to gradual deterioration of the security situation around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone during 2014-2015. This culminated into the four-day war in April 2016 against the background of the so-called Lavrov plan which aimed at partial alteration of the status quo without final solution to the conflict.

The reasons and consequences of the September 3 turnabout remain a taboo in Armenia’s official discourse. The event called for an overhaul of Armenia’s foreign policy and security doctrines, but with moves that followed, Yerevan deepened the decision’s consequences and the mistrust towards itself.

While at rhetorical level the multi-vector policy line was kept intact, Yerevan in fact ended up deepening Armenia’s integration into Russian zone of influence. One such move was the Armenian-Russian gas agreements signed on December 2, 2013, which significantly decreased Armenia’s freedom to conduct an independent energy policy. The November 2016 agreement on the creation of Armenian-Russian joint military forces was a further step in security integration between Yerevan and Moscow. Prior to that, in March 2014, Armenia found itself among a handful of states with autocratic regimes as it voted against a UN General Assembly resolution that recognized Ukraine’s territorial integrity and denounced the Crimean independence vote as invalid. Yerevan explained this move by its adherence to the principle of self-determination. However, it remains unclear as to why Yerevan needed to associate Nagorno-Karabakh with Crimea, given that Crimea’s independence, in contrast to that of Nagorno-Karabakh, is clearly denounced by the international community. Armenia’s Western partners weren’t convinced with references to the Karabakh issue, and Yerevan’s vote was seen as yet another event of Armenia putting its voice to Russia’s service.

Both domestic and foreign audiences are similarly not convinced by claims that Armenia economically benefits from the EAEU membership. All figures point to low volumes of trade within the Union, Armenia barely trades with any other Union member than Russia, and free movement of goods among the members is often hindered. The EAEU is unlikely to develop into a coherent economic union serving its members’ interests, but it will continue to incur economic and political costs on Armenia and put Armenian diplomats trying to prove its benefits in awkward positions.

The EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement set to be signed in November, Armenia’s growing participation in NATO activities, as well as deepening cooperation with Iran are important in Armenia’s bid to balance its foreign policy. However, further deepening of relations in all these directions face one and the same hurdle -- Yerevan is constrained by Armenian-Russian de jure and de facto arrangements. It is an imperative for Armenia to bring Yerevan-Moscow relations on an equal footing regardless of its relations with other partners.

Examining future foreign policy challenges, Armenia should consider the following:

Improvement of relations between the West and Russia is unlikely in the near future, which means that Armenia’s maneuvering space in ways practiced so far will continue to remain limited. Even if the relations between the two were to improve, Armenia’s benefit is not a given. This scenario would be possible if:

a) The West recognizes the post-Soviet space as Russia’s zone of interests. This is what Russia wants. For example, personal sympathies between America’s Trump and Russia’s Putin are supposedly anchored in the logic of such a possible transaction. For Armenia, such a turn of events is dangerous in that it would definitely anchor the country in Russia’s zone of influence and in the long run might led to the erosion of Armenia’s sovereignty -- with only nominal attributes of independence in place.

b) Russia acknowledges the post-Soviet space as a free zone, allowing these countries to choose foreign and security policies as they please and without attaching a price tag to this freedom. This is a rather unlikely scenario and could happen in the event of a regime change in Russia or if Russia weakens. Such turn of events would increase the maneuvering space for Armenia; however it would also create a security vacuum in the region which could immediately lead to a war.   

Therefore, Armenia’s overreliance on Russia in security terms is dangerous not only because Yerevan has to pay a high price for continuous security guarantees. Russia’s post-Putin future should be another concern for Armenia. The western sanctions against Russia, low oil price and the failure to reform combined are likely to weaken Russia economically and politically. Armenian policy planning shouldn’t exclude the risk of a systemic collapse in Russia similar to those of 1917 and 1991, or else transition of power to avoid such collapse. If something like this were to happen, Armenia would be hit hard; more so amidst the regional security vacuum such a development would have created.

Rather than wait for a fortunate change in the geopolitical environment, Armenia should create a maneuvering space for itself. Armenia’s foreign policy remains reactive, accepting the role that geopolitical circumstances draw for the country.

The strategic setbacks Armenia faces today require new systemic approaches. No ready-to-use templates are going to be presented to Armenia from the EU, NATO, Iran or China to fully balance Russia, nor will analysts draw a road map of solutions to Armenia’s all problems. It is the imperative of the Armenian state, with its human and material resources, to create, as opposed to wait for, alternative opportunities for itself.