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Russia-Armenia-U.S.: A visit with implication for “peacekeeping”

Armenia's Defense Ministry. Photo: armenews.com

The recent working visit of Armenia’s first deputy minister of defense David Tonoyan to the United States has drawn special attention of analysts and media. The trip of the deputy minister of that Caucasian country having close military and political alliance with Russia was immediately qualified as a certain “anti-Russian” glimpse. The Armenian official also gave a reason for such assessments - he declared in Washington that Yerevan seeks to involve U.S. into the process of maintaining the ceasefire in the Karabakh conflict zone. Analysts and experts say the authorities of Armenia have hinted at their Russian partner that Armenia is keen to balance its military and political priorities between Russia and the United States.

Such a conclusion tends to be objective, however, it is marked with too sketchy understanding of the processes and it derives from a too linear comprehension of the regional developments relevant to the long-standing Armenian-Azerbaijani standoff. Before the visit of Deputy Minister Tonoyan to the United States, Lieutenant General Igor Sergun, the head of Russian Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Department, travelled to Yerevan, so it must be allegedly because of a possible trick from Armenia. Before Igor Sergun’s visit to Armenia, Tonoyan travelled “unexpectedly” to Georgia and had confidential talks with the military command of that country.  In addition, they point at rather intensive diplomatic discussions of Moscow and Baku over the last two months.  Such visits appear to define the current relations in the Russia-Armenia-Azerbaijan-U.S. square.  

The ratio of the number of the first deputy defense minister’s visits to Moscow – many of which have remained out of sight of the media – to the number of his trips to Washington is not in favor of the United States. Yet, the matter is about the content of the military and political contacts of Armenia and its foreign partners, not about the frequency of the visits. It is noteworthy that the trips of Armenian military officials to the United States draw more attention of the media than the visits to Russia that are considered daily rigors lacking “sensations.”

The goal of a certain group of authors in Yerevan is obvious, as they not just feel sympathy for the Euro-Atlantic countries, but lobby their interests locally.  The monolith Armenian-Russian military alliance appears to have some “cracks” where elements of mutual suspicion in underhand actions have accumulated.  If Armenia’s deputy minister of defense left for Washington amid intensive contacts of the above four countries, it means that he sought support and assistance there – support in the efforts to prevent Russia’s dictatorship in the Karabakh peace process, and assistance in the development of military capability. It can be called nothing but an “intellectual sabotage.”  Russia forces “the pro-Azeri” settlement-scheme - unconditional withdrawal of the Armenian forces from one or two regions around Nagorno-Karabakh - upon Armenia. The Euro-Atlantic party of Yerevan considers it an “undisputable truth.”  They think U.S. can replace Russia when it comes to provision of military security to Armenia. This is what makes some Armenian authors so enthusiastic about any contact of Yerevan and Washington. They anticipate that U.S. will replace Russia in the South Caucasus.

The U.S. planners that use any opportunity to press Russia in the Caucasus have been recently paying more attention to the Armenian army as the most efficient state institution of that South Caucasus country. The Western military-political community is “nursing” the Armed Forces of Armenia. They do it not only in opposition to Russia, but also with an aim to create a solid regional factor that would restrain Turkey’s too high ambitions in the South Caucasus.

Tonoyan’s visit to the United States did not become an extraordinary event, but it must not be assessed in the light of the ordinary inter-state etiquette too. It would make a splash if the U.S. president received his Armenian opposite number in the Oval Office these days. However, the U.S. Administration has not lost the thread of the processes in the Black Sea-Caucasus region to claim the laurels of Russia – the country that dominates there.

Yerevan is said to have staked on the complementary foreign policy trying to bring its relations with the West in general and with the United States in particular to the level that existed before the Armenian leadership’s known decision to join the Eurasian Economic Union.  So, the deputy defense minister’s visit to U.S. fully fits into this logic. Having a deeper look into the issue, one can see some new details able to unveil Yerevan’s interests from the viewpoint of the Karabakh peace process.

One can state for sure that a considerable, if not overwhelming, part of the last intensive contacts around the Karabakh peace process was focused on one issue – deployment of foreign peacekeepers in the conflict zone. Perhaps, this issue has more geopolitical content than the other basic elements that have been made public. Neither the status of Nagorno-Karabakh nor even the transfer of the seven regions currently controlled by the Armenian forces are as interesting to the super powers as the issue of deployment of peacekeepers along the line of contact.  Yet, deployment of the “blue helmets” of Russia in the conflict zone is a no-win scenario for the United States.  The White House has no intention to present the Kremlin with such gifts.  It will even agree that the status quo is maintained, but will never let Moscow gain full control of “the field activity” in the Karabakh process. Meanwhile, deployment of peacekeepers near the northern borders of Iran to conciliate Armenia and Azerbaijan has become attractive for Russia only after July 14 when the known comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was signed in Vienna. As is well-known, Moscow faces Washington’s countermeasures every time when it seeks geopolitical goals on the remote borders of the post-Soviet area.

This is one of the reasons why Yerevan has resorted to the complementary policy to protect its interests.  Deployment of the Russian peacekeepers on Karabakh’s frontline will result in withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontline to a particular distance depending on the range of the weaponry (nearly on the same scheme that has been applied with great difficulty in Donbass within the recent months). Withdrawal of the Armenian armored vehicles and weaponry from the ceasefire line will denude the well-fortified and deeply echeloned defense. This will predetermine the future transfer of one or two regions around Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, even if it takes time. Actually, deployment of peacekeepers will seriously affect the status-quo for the Armenian party.  Yerevan will have to retreat to the second or even third line of defense, while Baku will be gaining foothold in new regions closer to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Meantime, the Armenian authorities with their extremely low rating inside the country, amid multi-layer social and economic problems that may spark large-scale protests in the Yerevan streets, cannot afford any concessions in the Karabakh peace process.  Yet, many in Yerevan – not just those in the pro-western media, but also the persons making political decisions – consider the  deployment of only Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone as a concession. Therefore, they should work towards a joint peacekeeping operation for instance by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair-states. However, it will fail the mission, as it is very hard to imagine combined efforts of Russia, U.S., and France (EU) in such a specific project that requires a high level of confidence.  This explains the statements of Deputy Minister Tonoyan inviting the United States to help maintain the ceasefire in the conflict zone.  Armenians believe it reasonable to install sensors along the frontline, create an international mechanism of detection on the frontline that would be authorized to take retaliation measures against the party breaking the ceasefire. The international monitoring and reanimation of the abandoned mechanisms of inquiring into incidents on the line of contact – it was once suggested by the Minsk Group - is what can “replace” the presence of peacekeepers, for which Armenia is so much striving.

At the same time, the Armenian authorities do not think of replacing Russia with U.S., despite the West’s “care” for the defense department and generalship of the country. No one opposes the enhancement of the military ties with Russia. In other words, for the Armenian politicians and military command Russia is a strategic ally, while the United States is a momentary partner they can have nothing but a light military-political relationship with.  Sometimes, Yerevan demonstrates its momentary relationships with Washington with renewed vigor “to sensitize” Moscow for closer relations. It is not a warning alarm to the Kremlin, never!  There is a certain team of organizers in the Defense Ministry of Armenia who can work with the Alliance and observe the strategic policy of their top leadership at the same time.  It is noteworthy that during the Armenia-U.S. consultations on the defense issues in Washington, a delegation of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces was on a visit to Armenia to discuss the strategic planning issues in line with the Cooperation Plan for 2015 of the defense ministries of Armenia and Russia.

Tonoyan discussed many other issues in Washington, but the deployment of peacekeepers in the Karabakh conflict zone is the issue that contains many nuances explaining Yerevan’s major task i.e. to balance its relations with Washington amid its undisputable strategic alliance with Moscow. 

Nevertheless, the visit of the Armenian deputy minister of defense to Washington could be interpreted in various ways. No version must be brushed aside at once. Yet, there are screeds of some local authors who try to look more committed to NATO and the NATO members in Brussels. These ones are regrettable. 

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