Disappointed in Russia: Armenia's security disillusionment


After Armenia's defeat in the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, foreign and security policy developments in the small South Caucasian republic are happening at an unprecedented pace. Looking to the West for additional security guarantees, Armenia has inevitably aroused the displeasure of its strategic security partner, Russia. It is still difficult to assess what consequences this will have.

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Russia’s inaction as a security ally of Armenia and the refusal of the Collective Security Treaty Organization[1] (CSTO), of which Armenia is a member, to invoke collective defense during the recent military clash on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border seem 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. A small social movement has even formed in the meantime, demanding that the government withdraw from the CSTO as soon as possible.

After the fighting this September, Armenia's political leadership for the first time publicly doubted whether the country's membership in the CSTO can still be regarded as a serious security guarantee. Parliament Speaker Alen Simonyan and Security Council Chairman Armen Grigoryan summed it up as follows: Armenia's expectations have not been met by the CSTO and it must be recognized that the alliance does not serve the purpose for which Armenia joined it.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan indicated in his speech that under these circumstances the country should look for additional security measures. According to him, there are not only problems in how the CSTO fulfills its obligations related to collective defense, but also in arms deliveries. Without naming a specific country, he referred to millions in advance payments that Armenia had made for arms purchases without receiving deliveries, even from close partners. In addition, Pashinyan mentioned great difficulties in procuring weapons from new providers, with conflicting interests of existing partnerships in this field being suspected as the reason. If one remembers that Armenia obtains approximately 85% of its armaments from Russia, there should be no doubt which partner the Armenian head of government could have meant.

Russia's interests in the South Caucasus

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[2] 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.

Russia's reputation in free fall

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.

This is one of the reasons why anti-Russia sentiments are increasing in the country. A survey from 2021 showed that Russia is now only perceived as a friendly country by 35% of Armenians. This figure was above 80% until the four-day Armenia-Azerbaijan war in 2016, after which it dropped to 64%. It is to be expected that new surveys will show no improvement in this value after the recent military escalation in September. If Russia does not react, it will lose the trust it still has as an ally. However, it must also be stated in this context that the invasion of Ukraine seems to have forced Russia to show even greater consideration for the Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance.

This state of affairs has been accepted in Armenia, which now seeks political support from the West as a way out of Armenia's threatening security situation.

Will the EU take the lead?

Since the 2020[3] war, the EU and the US have intensified their efforts to contribute to easing the security situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan and to open the way for peace negotiations. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, has meanwhile held several trilateral and bilateral meetings with the Armenian Prime Minister and the Azerbaijani President in Brussels. The French President is also in frequent contact with the parties to the conflict.

At the summit of the new European Political Community in Prague on October 6, 2022, a meeting between Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Aliyev with Charles Michel and French President Emmanuel Macron took place, which was a further important step in conflict management. The parties issued a joint statement in which Armenia and Azerbaijan pledge to mutually recognize their territorial integrity and sovereignty in accordance with the UN Charter and the 1991 Alma Ata Declaration (the founding document of the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, that emerged during the process of dissolution of the USSR). The conflicting parties also confirm that this recognition must form the basis of the delimitation and demarcation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, for which an Armenian-Azerbaijani commission has already been formed (it had its first session in Moscow). The Commission’s next meeting will take place in Brussels at the end of October. In addition, in October, an EU Monitoring Capacity along the Armenian border with Azerbaijan became operational for an initial period of two months. Its task is to monitor the situation, build confidence and support the border commission. After the meeting in Prague, it also became known that a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan could be signed by the end of this year.

The EU and the USA may soon assume political leadership in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This role had previously been played by Russia as the main mediator for decades. Russian involvement in conflict management would then consist primarily of its 2,000-strong “peacekeeping force,” stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh for five years since the ceasefire on November 9, 2020 (with an option to extend if both parties to the conflict agree). The fact that the last ceasefire, for the first time in the history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, was not mediated by the Russian President alone, but with the intensive participation of the USA and the EU, suggests that Russia’s role of sole "chief mediator” may have been lost.

However, Moscow's reaction to the Prague agreements and the EU's swift decision to send the Monitoring Capacity to Armenia shows that Russia does not simply want to stand by and watch. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov promptly arranged bilateral and trilateral meetings with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts on October 13/14 and announced that the CSTO was also ready to station a mission on the Armenian side of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. While the Russian Foreign Minister was holding talks, the technical group of the EU mission arrived in Yerevan. 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.

The question of the future fate of Nagorno-Karabakh is not openly discussed in the current official meetings. However, the envisaged mutual recognition of territorial integrity suggests that it will likely be a solution based on Azerbaijan's state borders as of the Soviet Union's disintegration. What the future status of the once autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh will look like remains to be seen. For now, at least, the Azerbaijani President has ruled out any autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh. Immediately after the meeting in Prague, he advised the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians to accept the idea of ​​becoming ordinary citizens of Azerbaijan, which, according to Aliyev, they would not regret. The President also advised those who were not ready for this to look for another place to live.

The importance of the Prague Declaration for Armenia can only be appreciated by looking at what has happened on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border since the end of the war in 2020.

The most recent military escalation

On the night of September 13, 2022, heavy fighting broke out in several places on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Baku blamed Armenia, while Armenia blamed Azerbaijan. Yerevan pointed out that after the heavy losses in the 2020 war and because of the precarious security situation and economic challenges, it had zero interest in provoking another war, knowing full well that the opponent was militarily superior and was sure of Turkey's unlimited support.

Azerbaijan put its casualties in this clash at 79 dead and 282 wounded. Armenia suffered 201 dead and over 293 wounded, as well as dozens of soldiers captured by Azerbaijan. In addition, there is the loss of 10 km² of its internationally recognized territory (in 2021, in a similar situation, Armenia already lost 42 km² to Azerbaijan). Because of the two-day fighting, around 8,000 residents of the villages and towns near the Armenian border, some of which were destroyed by rocket and combat drone fire, were evacuated. With over 20,000 Nagorno-Karabakh refugees from the 2020 war sheltering in Armenia, providing these people with shelter and food is another burden on economically weak Armenia.

A week after the fighting, Azerbaijan handed over the bodies of 133 Armenian soldiers to Armenia through the Red Cross. In early October, Baku then released 17 Armenian prisoners of war. The release came under international pressure and was mediated by the US after a video of the execution of several Armenian prisoners by Azerbaijani soldiers circulated on the internet. The international community called on Azerbaijan to fully investigate the case.

The CSTO: A treaty of collective inaction

On the first day the fighting broke out, Armenia invoked collective defense from the CSTO and Russia, with which the country has had a bilateral treaty on friendship, cooperation, and mutual aid since 1997. Armenia also turned to the UN.

Article 4 of the CSTO describes its collective defense mechanism as follows: If a member country is attacked militarily and its security, stability, territorial integrity, and sovereignty are threatened, this is seen as an attack and a threat to all member countries. In this case, the Alliance must immediately provide the necessary assistance, including military assistance.

Multi-day discussions with the CSTO allies (a ceasefire had meanwhile been agreed upon under massive international pressure) led to a modest result in the eyes of Armenians. It was only decided to send a delegation consisting of representatives of CSTO member countries to Armenia to observe the situation. That's why there is now a political joke in Armenia: There are many tourists out and about in Armenia who are already observing the destruction the Azerbaijani rocket and combat drones have caused in Armenian towns. The delegation could join them.

Moreover, the representatives of the CSTO did not arrive in Yerevan until September 17. The meeting of the acting Secretary General of the organization (a representative of Belarus) with the Prime Minister of Armenia took place on September 29. At the initiative of France, a UN Security Council meeting had already taken place on September 15, during which the military operations on the border and the shelling of Armenian settlements were been condemned by a majority (a resolution was not passed due to a lack of consensus). Four out of five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the US, France, Britain, and Russia - called on the warring parties to withdraw their troops to their original positions. Later, the international community became more specific when, above all, the US, France, Great Britain, and the EU called on Azerbaijan to withdraw its troops from Armenian territory. It was not lost on Armenia that Russia had remained vague in its calls. Russia created the impression that both parties to the conflict had occupied territories because both were called upon to withdraw.

Armenia had already submitted a request for assistance to the CSTO in 2021 when Azerbaijani troops invaded several locations across the border in Armenia and established positions there. The consultations at that time also remained without result, so Armenia had to rely on a bilateral emergency solution with Russia. Since then, some sections of the affected border sectors have been patrolled by Russian soldiers stationed at the Russian military base in Armenia.

Russia: the strange ally

Even before the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, Armenia had had doubts about Russian security guarantees - about a supposed security partner who sold state-of-the-art offensive weapons on a large scale to a country that is not a member of the CSTO and with which Armenia has de facto been in a state of war.

According to SIPRI data, in the arms race, Armenia and Azerbaijan mainly bought Russian arms, which accounted for more than 80% of the total arms imports of both countries. As a member of the CSTO, Armenia acquired Russian weapons on relatively favorable terms – directly from the producer, bypassing the Rosoboronexport intermediary. However, the volume of Armenian arms purchases was much smaller than that of Azerbaijan. For comparison: Armenia's annual state budget is around $3 billion, which is roughly the same as Azerbaijan's annual military budget.

Since 2010, Russia has supplied Azerbaijan with more than $4 billion worth of state-of-the-art and primarily offensive weapons. Since 2015, Azerbaijan began to further diversify its arms imports. Contracts worth billions were signed with Turkey and Israel.

When there was public displeasure in Armenia about Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan, Russia came up with an incomprehensible explanation: by supplying arms to Azerbaijan, it could also exercise control over the use of these arms, which was in Armenia's interest. The question of why Azerbaijan should spend billions if Russia retains the right to control the weapons remained unanswered.

However, the Armenian leadership at the time, suffering from a political legitimacy deficit that had brought the country into almost absolute dependence on Russia, clung to this declaration to reassure the public. Many in Armenia believe that, despite all the contradictions, if the worst came to the worst, Russia would step in as an ally.

Then, on April 1, 2016, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale attack on the line of contact with Nagorno-Karabakh, the first since the 1994 ceasefire, to change the status quo (during the first war, Armenia had not only brought the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, but also the surrounding seven Azerbaijani districts under its control). During this four-day war, the Armenian Armed Forces had to learn that the opposing side had a wide range of modern Russian weapons that they did not have. At that point, Russia had not yet delivered the advanced missile systems ordered by Armenia, the purchase of which had previously been hailed as substantive evidence of the effectiveness of the Armenian-Russian alliance.

The now escalating public criticism in Armenia forced the then President Serzh Sargsyan to take a stance. During the visit of then Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, Sargsyan made a remark that was very open by Armenian standards: Russia is certainly aware that Azerbaijan made full use of Russian arms, which spoiled the friendly feelings of Armenians towards Russia.

This description was downright euphemistic, for anti-Russian sentiment had become almost hostile. Only then did Russia deliver the ordered weapons to Armenia. However, after that Moscow continued to supply arms to Azerbaijan and informed Armenian society that this is a natural process in the context of bilateral trade relations. The Armenian political leadership had no choice but to accept it.

Public criticism in Armenia also took offense at the fact that in 2013, under Russian pressure, the incumbent Serzh Sargsyan had refrained from signing the Association Agreement with the EU in favor of joining the Customs Union initiated and dominated by Russia, later Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). At the time, without going into details, the political leadership of Armenia indicated that this decision was taken for security reasons: it should not be forgotten that Armenia was still exposed to a threat emanating from Azerbaijan and Turkey. Closer cooperation with Russia would better cover Armenia's security needs.

Precisely because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the difficult relations with Turkey caused by the genocide of the Armenian minority in the Ottoman Empire, the Russian military presence in Armenia was seen as indispensable. It was therefore not surprising that Russia was able to extend the use of its military base[4] in Armenia from 2010 to 2044 (Russia does not pay a lease fee for its base; Armenia even bears the utilities of the base).

During the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, many Armenians still showed understanding of the extreme reluctance of Russia and the CSTO to get involved, because there was a disputed assessment of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict under international law. At that time, Russia and the CSTO declared that they saw the state border of Armenia as a red line and stated that the collective defense mechanism could only be invoked in case the border was crossed. Since the 2020 ceasefire, however, Azerbaijan has crossed this red line several times without Russia and the CSTO reacting.

This contrasts with the deployment of CSTO troops in Kazakhstan during the domestic political unrest there in January 2022. Back then, the CSTO’s decision to intervene was made within hours, so military transport planes landed in the capital Astana the very next day. At that point in time, the CSTO countries could not actually have been aware of the potential danger of the situation, but they nonetheless invoked collective defense for the first time since the existence of the organization (it should be noted that Russia is the heavyweight in the CSTO due to its financial and military dominance, and the decisions of the organization can largely be regarded as those of the Russian President). Despite the massive criticism from the Armenian public, the government of Prime Minister Pashinyan was thus obliged to send Armenian troops to Kazakhstan. The government justified its actions on the grounds that, as an ally, one had to fulfill one's duty and that it expected the same if Armenia itself was threatened.


Since September 13, Armenians know that neither membership in the CSTO nor the Russian military base in Armenia ensures their security in the way they had assumed for decades.

Armenia now has to make corrections to its security architecture under enormous time and security pressure. Armenia looks to the EU and the USA, although military support is not the primary concern. It hopes that the western community of states will exert noticeable political pressure on Azerbaijan so that its troops are withdrawn from the internationally recognized Armenian state territory and that the forthcoming peace negotiations are not torpedoed by another military conflict.

The deployment of the EU Monitoring Capacity to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border is now being taken in Armenia as a sign that its appeal has reached Brussels. The next few months will show whether this assumption is true and whether the mission will meet Armenia's expectations.

[1] After the collapse of the USSR, the Collective Security Treaty was signed in 1992 as a security umbrella for some of the successor states. It was initially set up for five years with the option of extension. The founding members were Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Belarus, Georgia and Azerbaijan also joined in 1993. The Treaty came into effect on April 20, 1994. In 1999, Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan extended the contract; Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan, however, did not. In 2002, the participating states gave the Collective Security Treaty the status of an international regional organization and renamed it the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

[2] In 1921 the Caucasus Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party decided to cede the Nagorno-Karabakh region (Armenian name Artsakh), which had previously been disputed between Armenians and Azerbaijanis and had a population of more than 70%, to Azerbaijan; as an autonomous region. During the Soviet period, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians petitioned Moscow to assign the autonomous region to Armenia. They accused the central government in Baku of massively discriminating against Armenians and of changing the demographic picture of Nagorno-Karabakh through targeted policies in favor of Azerbaijanis.

In the course of Mikhail Gorbachov's perestroika and glastnost policies, a protest movement in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia took up the issue again in 1988. Moscow was determined not to set a precedent, so as not to face further ethno-territorial conflicts in the USSR.

In December 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians in the autonomous region held a referendum and voted to leave Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh did not take part in the referendum. The results were not recognized by the central government in Baku. In 1992 regular war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians received military support from Armenia and emerged victorious from this war. In 1994, a ceasefire was agreed, mediated by Russia. Since then, negotiations have been conducted under the mediation of the OSCE's Minsk Group (chaired by Russia, the United States and France), which has failed to produce any results. (Sources: Thomas De Waal: “Black Garden”; Tatul Hakobyan: “Karabakh Diary, Green and Black: Neither War nor Peace”).

[3] The status quo was changed by the second Karabakh war in 2020: supported by Turkey, Azerbaijan not only reconquered the Azerbaijani territories, but also part of Nagorno-Karabakh. After a ceasefire was brokered by Russia on November 9, 2020, 2,000 Russian peacekeepers were stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh for a period of five years.

[4] The base was established in 1941. The city of Gyumri, where the base is located, is located only 12 km from the border with Turkey. Since then, the 289 km long border of Armenia with Turkey and the 37 km long border with Iran have been guarded by Russian border guards. After the breakup of the USSR, the presence of the Russian base was regulated by the 1992 Treaty on the Legal Status of Russian Armed Forces in Armenia and the 1995 Treaty on the 102nd Russian Military Base.