By Benyamin Poghosyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a special military operation in Ukraine. Russia published draft texts of two agreements with the US and NATO in December 2021, putting forward three primary demands – to stop NATO’s further enlargement, bring back NATO military infrastructure to the positions of 1997, and refrain from deploying modern attack systems near the Russian borders. It was clear to everyone that neither the US nor NATO could accept these demands, which from the Western perspective, equaled capitulation. Then, Russia might use the rejection of its offers as a pretext to make a move on Ukraine. There were several options available for Russia. The Kremlin might recognize the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics within their current borders, covering only 30 percent of the territories of Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts. Moscow could recognize them with their constitutional borders covering the entire area of two oblasts and then start a military operation to “liberate occupied territories of republics.” Another option was to launch a full-scale attack to take Kyiv and other major cities and topple President Zelenski’s government.

The Russian president chose the third option, and Russian troops entered Ukraine from different directions – Crimea, Belarus, and mainland Russia. Russian armed forces have already taken several Ukrainian cities and wholly or partly encircled others, including the capital of Kyiv. Russian actions created an acute crisis in West – Russia relations. The US, European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, and some Asian allies of the US, such as Japan and Australia, imposed severe sanctions on Russia, including cutting some Russian banks from the global financial messaging system SWIFT. The Western powers significantly increased the supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine, including anti-tank missiles and portable anti-aircraft missiles. Alongside hostilities, diplomatic efforts are underway to organize high-level Russia – Ukraine negotiations. Several countries, including France, Hungary, and Turkey, made efforts to facilitate the dialogue.

The war in Ukraine unfolds within the tectonic transformations in the world order. The post-Cold War order was based on absolute US hegemony, dubbed by Charles Krauthammer as the “Unipolar Moment” in his famous Foreign Affairs magazine article. This era was marked by US efforts to extend the area of liberal democracies to cover former members of the Socialist camp in Europe. The enlargement of NATO and EU were the primary tools of this strategy. The 9/11 attacks shifted the US focus to the war on terror in the Greater Middle East, but democracy promotion and the NATO and EU enlargement remained a priority for the Bush and Obama administrations. However, the world financial crisis of 2008 marked the beginning of the end of the “Unipolar Moment.” It showed the limits of US geostrategic might, while other players, most notably China, Russia, and India, started their rise. The US sought to answer to the rise of China by launching the strategy of “Pivot to Asia” in 2011, while the Trump administration acknowledged the transformation of the world order towards multipolarity by embracing the notion of “great power competition” in its strategic documents. The term is also crucial for the Biden administration, which overtly designated Russia and China as the main rivals of the US in its “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” published in March 2021.

Meanwhile, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, Russia firmly believes that Russia should be one of the main pillars of the emerging multipolar world with the US and China. From the Russian perspective, the West used the moment of Russian weakness in the 1990s to shape the European security architecture in such a way to violate vital Russian interests. Since President Putin’s famous Munich Security Conference speech in 2007, Russia launched consistent efforts to upend the post-Cold War security architecture of Europe, demanding the recognition of its legitimate special interests in its neighborhood. The Russia – Georgia war in 2008 and Ukraine crisis in 2014 were the manifestations of Russian growing assertiveness and resentment over the post-Cold War European security architecture.

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Meanwhile, the Russian leadership probably believes that without control over Ukraine, or at least without pro-Russian Ukraine, Russia has no chances to become an equal pole with the US and China in the coming multipolar world. Late Zbigniew Brzezinski captured this moment in his seminal work The Grand chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, arguing that “Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.”

Where does Armenia stand in all this turmoil? Armenia suffered a severe geopolitical setback in 2020 due to a humiliating defeat in the 2020 Karabakh war. The loss of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic – Iran border and the approximately 75 percent of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic’s territory significantly reduced the geopolitical potential of Armenia. The war resulted in a significant increase in Russian influence over Armenia. Currently, Russia is not only the sole guarantor of security of Armenians living in Nagorno Karabakh, but also it protects parts of the Armenia – Azerbaijan borders through the deployment of small military units in Ararat and Syunik provinces alongside the Armenia – Nakhijevan and Armenia – Azerbaijan borders. Armenia faces multiple security challenges. It should prevent the exodus of Armenians from Nagorno Karabakh and manage the complex process of Armenia – Azerbaijan border delimitation/demarcation and Armenia – Turkey normalization process. Yerevan should not allow Azerbaijani and Turkish large-scale economic penetration in Armenia, especially in Syunik province, as Ankara and Baku do not hide their intentions to impose de facto, if not de jure control over the Syunik to unite the “artificially separated Turkic world.”

Despite being firmly anchored in the Russian sphere of influence, Armenia developed modest cooperation with the Euro-Atlantic community – the US, NATO, and EU. Armenia has always enjoyed partner relations with the US and launched a strategic dialogue with the US in May 2019. Despite the lack of essence in this process, the mere existence of such dialogue is a positive fact. Armenia developed its cooperation with NATO within Individual Partnership Action Plans (IPAPs), signing the first IPAP in 2005. Armenia is a member of the EU Eastern Partnership initiative and signed a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the EU in 2017. Armenian national interests require cooperation with the Euro – Atlantic community to receive assistance in modernizing state institutions and access Western funding.

The immediate consequence of the ruined Russia – West relations will be the restricted flexibility of Armenia in its relations with the West. Yerevan should do everything not to cancel its relations with the Euro-Atlantic community, but it will be challenging, if not impossible, to keep the same level of relations. Armenia will also suffer economically due to the West’s economic war against Russia. It is too early to assess the potential damage to the Russian economy and provide detailed assessments of its implications for Armenia. However, the impact of the 2014 Russian economic crisis on Armenia, which was triggered by limited Western sanctions, may tell us that Armenia will face serious ramifications.

Armenia cannot avoid the consequences of the Russia – Ukraine war entirely. However, while not irritating Russia, Yerevan should avoid complete rupture of its relations with the West. In this regard, the upcoming discussion and vote in the UN General Assembly on the situation in Ukraine is a pivotal moment for Armenia. No one should expect Armenia to vote for an anti-Russian resolution, as that vote will immediately put Armenian vital national interests into the threat. Meanwhile, the vote against the resolution may put Armenia against the West. Perhaps the best solution here is not to participate in the voting at all. This step probably will not be perceived by Russia as betrayal and will not anger the Kremlin, while it will not destroy the few bridges with the West.

Dr. Benjamin Poghosyan is chairman of the Center for Political and economic strategic studies, Yerevan.

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