Thursday, November 28, 2019

Why Strong Armenia is Beneficial for both Russia and the US

Both need valid leverage against Turkey

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan
Founder and Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies, Armenia

Why Strong Armenia is Beneficial for both Russia and the US

Image by Makalu from Pixabay

The South Caucasus always has quite complicated geopolitics. Russia, the US, the EU, Iran, Turkey, and China all have interests here. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have different domestic political structures and cultures. Besides that, their national security threat perception and foreign policy goals do not coincide with each other. The protracted conflicts in Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia make the regional geopolitics even more complicated. All actors involved in the South Caucasus seek to exploit these conflicts to pursue their national interests; meanwhile, conflict sides themselves have an absolutely different understanding on how these conflicts may be resolved. 

Despite the numerous actors involved in the region, the key players are Russia and Turkey. South Caucasus is the part of Russia's self-proclaimed sphere of legitimate interests. Meanwhile, Turkey has a strategic alliance with Azerbaijan and quite a strong economic presence in Georgia. Besides these two, only the US has resources to significantly influence the situation in the region. Iran is on survival mode, EU struggles to digest the results of previous enlargements and Eastern Partnership program has no potential to strategically influence regional geopolitics. China is gradually reaching the South Caucasus; however, as for now, its influence is too small to be counted as decisive. 

Armenia is one of the South Caucasus republics and probably is in the least favorable situation. It has to resist joint Azerbaijan–Turkey pressure which threatens the physical security of both Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic's population. Given the gap between both human and economic resources (Azerbaijan and Turkey together have some 90 million population and their combined GDP is more than US$ 800 billion, while Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh Republic joint population is approximately 3 million and GDP is reaching US$ 13 billion), this is quite a tough task. The absence of sea access as well as two closed borders (Armenia has only two functioning borders with Georgia and Iran), make the situation more complicated. Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide adds tensions as Armenia views the denial as a continuation of genocidal policy. However, despite this negative environment, Armenia managed to have impressive economic growth rates recently (7.5 percent in 2017, 5.2 percent in 2018, and most probably 7 percent in 2019). 

Armenia is a strategic ally of Russia and seeks to develop partner relations with other powers involved in the region. The current impasse in West–Russia relations makes Armenia’s life more complicated as Russia views with suspicion any efforts by Yerevan to establish closer connections with the West. Meanwhile, there is a little essence now in Armenia–US relations. Americans are interested in isolating Iran and furthering the Southern Gas corridor to bring Azerbaijani natural gas to Europe. Both intentions have little to do with Armenian national interests as they may strengthen Armenia’s isolation and increase Azerbaijan’s strategic importance.

Another source of concern for Armenia is the growing Russia–Turkey partnership. Armenians remember quite well the results of the Russia–Turkey rapprochement in 1920-1921. Meanwhile, Turkey continues its membership into NATO and thus is in an interesting position to be an ally of the US and partner of Russia. 

Quite paradoxically, the issue of Turkey may be one of the few points where Russian and the US positions on Armenia may coincide. Despite the growing Russia–Turkey cooperation in Syria as well as significant joint economic projects (construction of nuclear power plant, Turkish stream gas pipeline, etc), both states have strategically diverging interests in the Middle East and South Caucasus. Turkey’s strategic goal in Syria remains the removal of Assad and the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood connected government in Damascus. Turkey has no intention to cease control over the Syrian territories which it currently occupies as a result of 2016, 2018 and 2019 military operations. Regionally, Turkey views himself as a hegemonic power in the Middle East, while Russia is interested in keeping a balance of power between Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel and playing a power broker role there. 

Turkey has no intention to reduce its involvement in the South Caucasus and will do everything possible to keep its strategic alliance with Azerbaijan and the current level of influence over Georgia. Turkey will never accept the total Russian domination over the region and this makes Ankara an objective adversary of Russia. Given the strategic divergences of interests, Russia needs several leverages to deter further Turkish encroachment in the South Caucasus. In this regard, Armenia is a player at the right time and the right place for Russia. Strong Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic are objectively deterring Turkish influence in the region. Not surprisingly, during his visit to Armenia Russian Defense Minister Shoigu stated about Moscow’s intention to double the firearm capacity of Russian military base deployed in Armenia. Meanwhile, it does not mean that Russia may not make efforts to re-launch the Armenia–Turkey normalization process as was hinted by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov during his recent visit to Yerevan. Russia may advocate the opening of the Armenia–Turkey border on its own terms, for example, to be able to export Russian companies produced electricity from Armenia to Turkey. However, Russian national interests require having strong leverage against Turkey and Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic are ideal for that role. Meanwhile, if the current status quo in Karabakh will be changed in favor of Azerbaijan, Armenia will be strategically weakened and will have very little intensives, if any to continue its alliance with Russia.

Given the growing tensions in US-Turkey relations due to Turkey’s current leadership strategic decision not to see Turkey as a key tool for the realization of the US policy in the Middle East and pursue a more independent policy, Washington needs checks and balances over Turkey too. Ankara’s decision to purchase S-400 air defense systems, support Iran in later efforts to circumvent American sanctions as well as targeted efforts to weaken the role of the Turkish military, which traditionally was the main supporter of the strategic alliance with the US makes Washington look for additional leverages on Turkey. One such leverage is the issue of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the US. Not surprisingly, The US House of Representatives almost unanimously recognized the Armenian Genocide in late October, when US – Turkish relations were at their lowest point in decades. Meanwhile, as a result of the President's Erdogan and Trump meeting in Washington the process of the Genocide recognition in the US Senate was stopped.

However, strategically the existence of strong Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic are much stronger leverage over Turkey. Genocide is a valid option as far as it has not been recognized. After recognition Genocide issue loses its power as deterrence. Meanwhile, given the insurmountable disagreements between Armenia and Turkey/Azerbaijan, the best way to deter Turkey’s growing ambitions is the existence of potent Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.

Thus, we may argue that the weakening of Armenia’s geostrategic potential is not in line with both Russia and US strategic interests. Meanwhile, Armenia itself should make active efforts in delivering this message to different stakeholders in Moscow and Washington, using several channels such as conferences, expert meetings, as well as official meetings and negotiations. 

About the Author:

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan
Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan is Founder and Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies and also, Executive Director, Political Science Association of Armenia since 2011. He was Vice President for Research – Head of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense Research University in Armenia in August 2016 – February 2019. He joined Institute for National Strategic Studies (predecessor of NDRU) in March 2009 as a Research Fellow and was appointed as INSS Deputy Director for research in November 2010. Before this, he was the Foreign Policy Adviser of the Speaker of the National Assembly of Armenia. Dr. Poghosyan has also served as a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences and was an adjunct professor at Yerevan State University and in the European Regional Educational Academy.

His primary research areas are geopolitics of the South Caucasus and the Middle East, US – Russian relations and their implications for the region. He is the author of more than 70 Academic papers and OP-EDs in different leading Armenian and international journals. In 2013, Dr. Poghosyan was appointed as a Distinguished Research Fellow" at the US National Defense University - College of International Security Affairs and also, he is a graduate from the US State Department's Study of the US Institutes for Scholars 2012 Program on US National Security policymaking. He holds a Ph.D. in History and is a graduate from the 2006 Tavitian Program on International Relations at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Cite this Article:

Poghosyan, B., "Why Strong Armenia is Beneficial for both Russia and the US", IndraStra Global Vol. 5, Issue No: 11 (2019) 0089,, ISSN 2381-3652

Poghosyan, B., "Why Strong Armenia is Beneficial for both Russia and the US", IndraStra Global Vol. 5, Issue No: 11 (2019) 0089,, ISSN 2381-3652

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.  

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