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From April to April: Armenia’s game on three boards and Karabakh

Serzh Sargsyan and Jens Stoltenberg. Photo: mediamax.am

In late February 2017, President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan paid an official visit to Brussels where he met with top leadership of EU and NATO. That visit triggered “some ripples on water.”

In full accordance with the U.S. post-Soviet policy, Yerevan’s relations with the West are built on a political and economic line with EU and on a military and political line with NATO.

It is no secret that the EU and NATO are advancing to the East in a tandem – it is a well-coordinated plan.

At first, let us speak of Armenia’s relations with EU. The major goal of President Sargsyan’s visit to Brussels was to compete the Armenia-EU talks for a new framework agreement that will come to replace the current Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA) dating back to 1999. The new EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement may be initialed in a month and signed within the year. The document is based on the failed Armenia-EU Association Agreement and DCFTA dating back to 2013. Armenia made U-turn then and allied with Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The new framework agreement among others addresses Armenia’s admission to EU.

What Yerevan anticipates from the new agreement is opportunities to attract more investments from Europe. The new document deliberately avoids sensitive aspects of Armenia’s foreign and security policies. Now, the leadership of Armenia insists that no provision of the new Armenia-EU agreements runs contrary to its commitments of the EAEU member-country. Yerevan hopes to combine the military and economic union with Russia and prospects of economic and neutral foreign-policy cooperation with EU. Besides, Yerevan asserts in a sophisticated way that in the generally negative background, the agreement between EU and Armenia will become an example of positive interaction of the two integration unions – EU and EAEU. Yerevan is cunning. One can hardly agree with such interpretation. In fact, in turns out that EU is building its relations with the EAEU-member Armenia on a bilateral basis, even if it looks out for EAEU, it does not recognize EAEU as an integration union and supra-national economic structure. From our point view, such relations should have been preceded by a “framework agreement” between EU and EAEU. Otherwise, the Armenian precedent of a bilateral agreement with EU, even if it gets silent consent of Moscow, is actual undermining of the EAEU.

If EAEU members keep building their relationships with EU on a bilateral basis, so what do they need EAEU for? Do they just seek easy access to the Russian market and gas supply on preferential terms?

Now, let us speak of Armenia’s relations with NATO. During his recent visit to Brussels, Armenia’s president visited the NATO Headquarters where at a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Serzh Sargsyan said Armenia’s relations with NATO are based on clear understanding of “mutual interests.” Sargsyan called Armenia “an active partner of NATO.” Stoltenberg, in turn, said cooperation with Armenia may be intensified in the fields of defense and security. He said possibilities of enhancing the partnership and cooperation with Armenia were discussed with Serzh Sargsyan. Stoltenberg said he sees closer partnership with Armenia in defense and education reforms. He assured the leadership of Armenia that they can rely on “resources and experience” of the Alliance in military reform in armies of allied states.

At present, the Armenia-NATO cooperation is based on Individual Partnership Action Plan – IPAP that was signed in December 2005. IPAP provides for regular consultations with NATO on regional security, development security strategy and military doctrine of Armenia, improvement of the defense and budget planning and others. At present, they are planning to agree upon the fifth action plan for 2017-2019.

Noteworthy that actions were planned immediately after flare-up in Karabakh in April 2016 that claimed hundreds of lives on both sides – it was the most severe fighting since ceasefire of 1994. Another coincidence - a year ago, just in April 2016, NATO Partnerships and Cooperative Security Committee + Armenia met in Brussels.

At present, Armenia’s leadership is trying to explain Moscow its actions to enhance cooperation with NATO. On March 11, 2017, at Yerevan meeting of Valdai International Discussion Club, Defense Minister of Armenia Vigen Sargsyan said Armenia is trying to build a system of national interests “in the zone where interests of global and regional actors coincide and not collide.” Otherwise, the minister said, Armenia will be feeling growing pressure of international threats. The Armenian minister’s interpretation suggests that Armenia is the zone where the interests of Russia and NATO “coincide.” Therefore, even if the relations of Russia and NATO get worse (actually “in the other zones” where interests do not coincide), the minister said, it would be useful for Russia to have Armenia as a clear, transparent and predictable channel for communication with the Alliance. The minister’s logic suggests that in the worst-case scenario, if there is an armed conflict between Russia and NATO, Armenia is ready to become a “dialogue channel.” Historically, neutral states had provided such services.

Actually, Yerevan has warned Moscow beforehand that it has no desire to occur between Russia and U.S. and its allies. Hence, Armenia’s “interaction” with EU makes EAEU vulnerable, while Armenia’s contacts with NATO affect CSTO.

Meantime, in Yerevan they keep saying that “the strategic alliance” with Russia within CSTO and on a bilateral basis is a fundamental element of security policy of Armenia and Karabakh. Simultaneously, in Russia they perceive Armenia “within general security space” of CSTO.

What Minister Sargsyan called CSTO’s shortcoming was “insufficient comparison of foreign policy priorities of member-countries.” It is a kind of conceptualization of the statements President Serzh Sargsyan made in Sochi in September 2013. Otherwise, such double-edged remarks mean that CSTO experiences deficit of the known Roman principle – vires unitae agunt (forces act united).

Eventually, here is how we understand the situation: at the meeting of Valdai Discussion Club, Defense Minister of Armenia Sargsyan tried to explain Armenia’s “national interest” amid its contacts with NATO and to justify those contacts with “useful functions” they would have for Russia. For conclusion, note that Minister Vigen Sargsyan is not a professional military. He is from administrative circles of that country. Furthermore, he received “additional education” at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at private Tufts University and Harvard. Sargsyan is a diplomat, not a military. He is a pro-Western diplomat.

Hence, according to Armenia’s leadership, national interests prevail within CSTO, which questions the Organization as a common military and political union. A question arises: what is CSTO? Is it a political union or a consultative club on private national security issues of its members? Is it normal that the CSTO Collective Security Strategy for 2015 does not contain such simple word as “NATO”?

Should we blame Armenia’s leadership in this light?

Russia has special bilateral relations with Armenia – the only country in South Caucasus to join Eurasian integration projects – CSTO and EAEU. Geopolitically, for Russia the situation in South Caucasus after 1991 have made Armenia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia what is called “tête de pont” in military strategy i.e. a work thrown up at the end of a bridge nearest the enemy, for covering the communications across a river; a bridgehead. It can serve for both defense and offensive. “Tête de pont” guarantees presence.

Generally, after 2008, there is still status-quo that was reached in the South Caucasus after the Russian-Georgian short war with uncertain outcome. War has ensured “reinforcement of bridgehead” for Russia (in Abkhazia and South Ossetia), nothing more. After the Russian-Georgian war, Russia undertook the role of an “effective mediator” in the South Caucasus. In fact, it so far fails to settle frozen and protracted conflicts. Despite Armenia’s discontent during the flare-up in Karabakh, Moscow is still committed to conciliatory note in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and maintains formally constructive relations with Baku. Meantime, the United States assign the key strategic role in the region just to Azerbaijan. Like in the case of Ukraine, without restoring control over Azerbaijan, its energy resources and communication lines, Russia will not be able to restore its influence in the region at full. Furthermore, Russia suggests “productive cooperation” based on pragmatism to Georgia too.

Yet, Georgia is still Russia’s weakest point in South Caucasus, as it does not ensure territorial connection of Russia and Armenia making Russia’s “tête de pont” unsteady.

Evidently, the status quo in South Caucasus continues for too long. Armenia’s foreign policy shifts are a bright example of this.

Formally, the West agrees with Russia’s efforts to keep the current balance of power. Assumption is that the frozen conflict in Karabakh is the guarantee of Russia’s military presence and political influence in the South Caucasus i.e. Russia’s “tête de pont” in the region. In fact, things are not that simple. U.S. (NATO) and EU used the April flare-up in Karabakh to strengthen their positions in the region, particularly, in Armenia. This became possible, as Russia failed to settle the Ukrainian crisis rapidly and found itself in a chronic conflict with the West. This has swung EAEU and CSTO.

After the April escalation in Karabakh, at the instigation of the authorities, Russian-Azerbaijani military and technical cooperation, its scales and admissibility to Armenia, appeared in the focus of attention of the Armenian mass media and public. Evidently, if Russia is Armenia’s military ally on a bilateral basis and within CSTO, any supplies of weapons to Azerbaijan amid frozen and unresolved conflict in Karabakh are simply inadmissible.

As a result, Armenia-EU and Armenia-NATO interaction may affect the military-strategic positions of Russia in the South Caucasus soon. The West seeks to remove Russia’s residual military presence in the region. Armenia is the key point here.

Noteworthy that after Russia’s presence in South Caucasus has weakened after 1991, the regional hegemons – Iran and Turkey – automatically resumed their rivalry for control over the region. Turkey seeks military build-up there to upgrade its own security and to oust Russia from the South Caucasus. Iran seeks the same but tries not to let Turkey improve its positions in the region.

Armenia’s problem given its conflict with Azerbaijan is still the hardest foreign policy strategy for Turkey in the region. Currently, Armenia relies on Iran and remains hostile to Turkey in the fight of these two regional forces.

One cannot but admit that Yerevan’s additional orientation to EU and NATO that is taking shape now will impede the Armenian-Iranian cooperation.

So far, Donald Trump’s America has not determined its policy to Iran finally. It is not clear if the new administration will continue Obama’s efforts to prepare Iran for the role of Russia’s rival in South Caucasus and Central Asia, and the role of alternative natural gas supplier for Europe. Armenia’s hostility towards Turkey with simultaneous orientation at NATO – Ankara’s political cooperation with NATO was broken under Erdogan – looks quite equivocal too. Since there is nothing certain yet, Armenia’s games with EAEU, EU, CSTO, NATO and Iran look very complicate and extremely risky in neighborhood of burning Syria and Iraq and amid open hostility towards Turkey and military conflict with Azerbaijan - the West’s key strategic foothold in the region.

Like on chessboard, in a losing position, the player has two ways out: either to surrender or to complicate and protract the game, or even postpone it. Serzh Sargsyan tries to postpone the game both on the domestic policy board – transition to the parliamentary system of governance and decentralized power – and on the foreign policy board – by pushing EU and NATO interests into EAEU and CSTO. What can cut the knot is resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This will put an end to Sargsyan’s game and give start to a new one. Moscow is taking a series of smart actions to that end. Besides, secret work is carried out in the formats that seemed impossible until recently” Moscow-Baku-Ankara and Moscow-Baku-Tehran.

Yerevan did not anticipate Trump’s victory and evident, though temporary, throwback of U.S. from Middle East and post-Soviet space. EU’s integration capacities have weakened either. What shocked Armenia most was reconciliation of Moscow and Ankara after Turkey shot down Russian warplane over Syria.

At present, Serzh Sargsyan has no time to think over new combinations: Armenia will see parliamentary elections in early April and then the government system will be changed under new constitution. God knows what will be happening in Karabakh in that period. Perhaps, Ilham Aliyev knows too. In a year, Azerbaijan’s president is risking to remain tete-a-tete with Karabakh (now Artsakh, after recent referendum) without powerful counterpart from Yerevan. So, he has no time to think of new combinations either. He is trying to tell that to everyone through the recent intensified tensions in the Karabakh conflict zone.

From this point of view, Serzh Sargsyan’s game on three foreign boards and two domestic ones will be painful for Artsakh. Apparently, Karabakh will be experiencing hard times from April to April.

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