The small but mighty nation of Armenia is in an interesting geopolitical neighborhood. On its western border is Turkey, a NATO ally but longtime enemy. To its east is another enemy, Azerbaijan, with which Armenia just fought over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, claimed by both countries.
In the north is Georgia which is in a never ending war of words and spies (and sometimes actual wars) with Russia. Both Georgia and Armenia were part of the Soviet Union, but even when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, support for Russia in Armenia was high.
To Armenia south is Iran, which, for the moment, is friendly to Russia-aligned Armenia. But in late September 2023, Armenia will host the United States for a joint military exercise. The move is far more threatening to Russia, which hosts Russian military forces as part of its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) membership. The exercises are the latest in a split between Russia and Armenia, which could permanently break their relations – or worse.
Armenia and Russia have retained close relations since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Armenia joined Russia in the Commonwealth of Independent States, and joined the economic military and mutual aid collaboration of the CSTO in 1997. But since Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was elected to lead Armenia in 2018, the country has been slowly breaking away from Russia’s sphere of influence.
When fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out over the Nagorno-Karabakh region once again in 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t immediately intervene, cooling relations between the two even more. Pashinyan went further in September 2023.
“Moscow has been unable to deliver and is in the process of winding down its role in the wider South Caucasus region," Pashinyan said. "The Russian Federation cannot meet Armenia's security needs. This example should demonstrate to us that dependence on just one partner in security matters is a strategic mistake."
The Prime Minister’s words come after Armenia announced it sent the first lady of the country to deliver humanitarian aid to Ukraine. It has also begun to further distance itself from the Russia-led CSTO. The military drills are just Armenia’s latest effort at realigning itself with the West.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the drills are “cause for concern” and Moscow will “monitor the situation.”
Armenia now finds itself in a Ukraine-like situation. Tired of dealing with Russian hegemony, which has caused a lot of economic hardships in Armenia, the Armenian government is beginning to look further and further West toward the U.S. and EU.
But Russia has built up a lot of armed forces inside Armenia. Even worse, Russians fleeing the war in Ukraine have moved to Armenia in droves, meaning Moscow has the ability to hide its own people among the refugees there, a potential hidden “fifth column” like the tactic used to seize Crimea.
Enemies on three borders, a country potentially filled with pro-Russian sympathizers and an ever-worsening lack of external will to keep Armenia independent could mean Armenia loses its independence entirely. It could be one more former Soviet republic absorbed by Putin’s dream of rebuilding the USSR.