Armenia and Russia on a Collision Course

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As Armenia was engulfed in internal squabbles, a Russian bomb was lobbed into the political forum which mushroomed to cover the entire horizon.

Since the middle of March, the entire state apparatus, with its ministers and parliament members, was mobilized to criticize His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, for a single sentence in which he asked for house arrest for former President Robert Kocharyan, instead of prison, in light of the danger of COVID-19.

The controversy had hardly died down when the same establishment, aided and abetted by a friendly press, had found another piece of trivia to turn into a huge political controversy: a studio technician had left a mike live 15 minutes before the prime minister’s planned nationwide address last week. Recriminations were made and resignations demanded.

Unfortunately, that kind of mobilization of forces against minor issues reveals nervousness by the administration. One begins to wonder if the new government believes itself to be so weak that it is shaken by such trivial problems.

Those issues should fade into the background as Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, detonated a much larger bomb for Armenians to worry about. The attack came as a surprise but in fact, had been in the making for a long time.

Lavrov’s public statement puts Armenian-Russian relations into a new perspective instantaneously.

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On April 21, Lavrov lobbed two consecutive salvos at Yerevan. The first was a response to Yerevan on Moscow’s decision to raise gas prices, and the second was a blunt statement on the solution to the Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) impasse, which turns on its head all the negotiations, expectations and methods that the Armenian side has entertained and relied on.

Years ago Armenia signed a lopsided deal with Russia to buy gas. Moscow determines the price of gas delivered to Armenia and the latter has to accept it, since it has no alternative. What is unusual is that demand is at its lowest point now. Had it been a moment where there is a high demand on energy, Moscow could at least have a fig leaf to justify its decision. However, there is a glut of gas and oil and prices are plummeting globally. Therefore, the price increase indicates a political punitive message.

This is not the first time that Moscow has used its energy resources for a political end. We have witnessed this in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe.

This time around, Russia did not need that fig leaf, as Mr. Lavrov’s response was accompanied by a reprimand that when Russia delivered gas to Armenia and Belarus below market price, considering them strategic allies, there was no complaint. And then, he went on to lambaste Armenia’s launching a criminal law suit against Gazprom and the South Caucasus Railway, both Russian companies that operate in Armenia.

The signals indicating tensions had been given much earlier when President Vladimir Putin sent birthday messages to Kocharyan when the latter was behind bars. And when Mr. Putin visited Armenia to attend an alliance conference, he took time in his tight schedule to visit Bella Kocharyan, the former president’s wife. Authorities in Armenia were not oblivious to the gesture but they kept Kocharyan in his jail cell, refusing to consider his presumption of innocence before the trial and its subsequent verdict.

This was either an arrogant political affront to Russia’s president or it was commissioned by outside quarters to intimidate Russia’s president.

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This unfolding case, accompanied by an anti-Russian chorus comprising government ministers, members of parliament and a plethora of news outlets friendly to the government, did not leave observers in Moscow indifferent.

On the Armenian front, the anti-Russian campaign conducted by such prominent commentators such as Levon Shirinyan, Hakob Patalyan, movie director and president of the European Party Tigran Khzmalyan and a number of government officials writing under assumed names.

Mr. Lavrov’s other bomb was more frightful and damaging. He stated that the foreign minsters of Armenia and Azerbaijan had been negotiating on a document which calls for a) a phased solution to the Karabakh conflict, b) that the first step has to be the partial evacuation of Armenian forces from territories around Karabakh and c) no changes could be made to the format of negotiations proposed by one party.

This last item refers to Armenia’s plea to involve representatives of Karabakh as a third party at the negotiation table.

A comment is appropriate here: Russia has acted as a ballast as the co-chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, not necessarily to favor Armenia, but to have control of the situation. Now that Moscow has let loose, the other two chairs, US and France, will be on the same side, tilting towards Azerbaijan.

When a NATO member (Turkey), and a virtual NATO member (Israel), have set up shop on Azerbaijan’s territory, it is not difficult to imagine that France and the US will side with Azerbaijan. And now that Russia has decided to teach a lesson to Armenia, the wishes of the two other chairs has been fulfilled.

The Russian foreign minister was referring to the Madrid Principles which call for stage-by-stage solutions. Armenians have been adamantly opposed to those principles, because they don’t address the status issue at the outset.

Reacting to Lavrov’s statement, one Karabakh leader, Ashod Ghoulyan, said that the stage-by-stage solution can be considered, depending which stage comes first. Under Mr. Lavrov’s proposal, ceding territory without a counter measure will only leave the Armenian positions vulnerable. As territorial concessions will leave the Armenian position weakened, we cannot rule out Azerbaijani aggression to use that weakness. As such, no sooner had Mr. Lavrov made his statement than an Azerbaijani drone was shot down over Karabakh territory.

On the other hand, a mysterious chain of events was unleashed to attack Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, paving the way for Hikmet Hajiyev, the foreign affairs advisor to President Ilham Aliyev. Mr. Hajiyev’s first reaction to those developments was to issue his own ultimatum that given Armenia’s intransigence; there remains no alternative but a military one. It is interesting that while these co-chairs were negotiating on the principle that there can be no military solution to the conflict, there was complete silence to the Azeri statement.

Throughout all the negotiations, no matter what format was proposed by the co-chairs, Azerbaijan persistently held to one single position: To allow a special level of autonomy for Artsakh under Baku’s rule. President Aliyev went even further, claiming Armenia itself as “historic Azerbaijani territory,” again with no reaction from the co-chairs.

Azerbaijan has not agreed to any other solution, neither publicly nor during the negotiations. Therefore, weakening the Armenian position will strengthen Baku’s hand to become even more belligerent.

Here below is Mr. Lavrov’s statement. Referring to documents on the negotiation table, Lavrov said, “Those documents imply progress in the settlement on the basis of a phased approach. I believe the first stage is the solution of the most pressing problems, the liberation of a number of areas around Nagorno Karabakh and unblocking of transport, economy and other communications.”

Once the Armenian forces move out of those territories, Azerbaijan’s population will return, no one knows if armed or unarmed. And yet, the status issue will be up in the air with the potential danger of co-chairing countries colluding with Baku to forcing the Armenian side to be left to the tender mercies of Azeri authorities.

Armenia’s Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan responded with a statement, which leaves many critical issues unanswered.

Mr. Mnatsakanyan stated: “The top priority for the Armenian side is security. As for the territory that Mr. Lavrov mentioned, it is among other things, a security belt and a defensive line. In no way could Armenians even imagine endangering the security of the people of Nagorno Karabakh.”

Noticeably absent in its statement is the issue of the future status of Karabakh.

As we can see, Moscow has landed a two-pronged attack on Armenia to weaken the country’s economy and to place a big question mark on the strategic alliance of the two countries. Referring to the alliance, Mr. Lavrov stated, “Yerevan too should demonstrate its commitment to the Russian-Armenian alliance by dropping ‘inappropriate’ criminal proceedings against major Russian companies.”

But the mood in Armenia is oblivious to the gravity of the situation. Indeed, one of the most popular commentators in Armenia, Levon Shirinyan, is asking the Armenian government to “nationalize” the Russian companies.

The other threat is more serious as it refers to Karabakh.

The Armenian side is putting too much emphasis on the Russian military base in Gyumri. It is no secret that Russia’s military presence in Armenia goes far beyond guaranteeing Armenia’s security, by projecting the Russian forces throughout the Middle East. But observing Russia’s behavior or the military presence issue, we can safely assume that Russia can survive without that base. With the current technology of warfare, Russia can find alternatives; it launched air raids over Syria from Iranian territory and hit missile targets in Syria from its naval forces in the Caspian Sea. Also, when Georgia asked for the removal of the Russian base in Javakhk, Moscow complied even before the expiration of the treaty. The same thing happened when Azerbaijan asked for the removal of a listening post from its territory.

In light of this record, the comment of a government official hiding behind the assumed name of Aram Amadouni sounds hollow as he states, “If Russia loses its base in Armenia, it will lose the Caucasus.”

The situation should not have gotten to this point. We have a confrontation on our hands. Armenia and Russia are on a collision course. Somebody in this young and proud government has to be able to stop this dangerous course in its tracks and chart a wiser one.

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