U.S. must support Armenian PM in bid to fend off Russia (OPINION)

Boston Herald, an American daily newspaper, has published an article titled “U.S. must support Armenian PM in bid to fend off Russia”.

News.Az reprints the article by Ivan Sascha Sheehan, the executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore.

For weeks, protests have roiled Armenia. Thousands have marched in the streets calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to step down. Post-Ukraine, in what Moscow views as its backyard, and with the leading protagonists not only sympathetic but warm to Vladimir Putin’s worldview, the crisis should be cause for alarm amongst Western governments — and particularly U.S. officials.

If protesters succeed in ousting Pashinyan, Russian control will once again spread beyond its borders. Unlike Ukraine, it would not be through invasion. Effective annexation would nevertheless be the result.

Armenia’s former president, Robert Kocharyan, is reportedly spearheading the protests and has already set out his vision. Just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, he called for Armenia to join a Moscow-led union state, reaffirming his past commitments to fully fledged integration with Armenia’s neighbor. Kocharyan is not only an eager supporter but a seeming client of Russia. He has long sat on the board of one of the country’s largest investment companies, Sistema; the same company to post part of his multimillion-dollar bail when he faced criminal charges in 2020. In the context of the war in Ukraine, the U.S. cannot afford for another post-Soviet state to fall under the control of a Putin ally. Washington must therefore look to shore up Prime Minister Pashinyan.

The protests themselves center on the issue that has dominated Armenia since independence from the Soviet Union: Nagorno-Karabakh. Legally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, it has been under the control of Armenian separatists since the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s; the territory governed as an effective extension of Armenia — like the Russian Republics of Crimea or Donetsk in Ukraine, or Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.

A short conflict two years ago saw Azerbaijan regain most of its territory. Having removed a critical obstacle to the decades-long conflict, efforts to formally reach a peace settlement appear to be taking shape and compromises will be necessary. Armenia will need to rescind its territorial claims over Azerbaijan, presumably for formal protections for ethnic Armenians living there. But any hint of concession is what demonstrators rally against.

With thousands in the streets, Pashinyan’s future looks shaky. Even if he is not replaced by a Russian puppet, the protests could still secure Russian interests. The prime minister may see his survival only in acquiescing to protesters’ demands and spoiling the peace deal. That would maintain the current status quo, which currently protects and projects Moscow’s influence in the region. Accordingly, the U.S. must persuade Pashinyan to stay the course.

An agreement would also break Armenia’s economic dependence on Russia, equally essential for peeling away support. With a durable peace comes the end of Armenian isolation — not only opening borders with Azerbaijan to the east, but unlocking them with Turkey to the west. To the south lies Iran, but the difficult terrain is inhospitable to trade. Ankara severed diplomatic relations in the 1990s in support of its ally Azerbaijan. Trade and renormalization with both offers the opportunity to diversify away from food and remittances reliance on Russia; Armenia receives, for example, 99% of its wheat from Russia, in addition to 5% of its GDP in remittances from emigrant workers based there. Natural gas-rich Azerbaijan also holds out a break with its near total dependence on Russian energy, as well as new opportunities for renewable-generated electricity from wind and hydro-rich Karabakh.

Free from such dependency, Russia could not so easily impose its will on Armenia — regardless of who sits atop the government.

America must lend a hand to Armenia’s embattled prime minister. Only by taking a broad approach can Russian aggression be checked. The recent trip by the Armenian foreign minister to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and sign an memorandum of understanding on civil nuclear cooperation is a start. But more diplomatic support must be forthcoming, and assurances given that America stands with him, and will assist, were Russia to economically punish Armenia for not toeing the line.

The U.S. must therefore forcefully encourage the peace deal with Azerbaijan and parallel rapprochement with Turkey — even if it comes at the price of concessions. Only then, in the long-term, can Armenia break free from Russia’s orbit.


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