In an interview to NEWS.am Richard Giragosian, Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC) has talked about recent developments in South Caucasus in terms of Russian-Turkish renewed relations, Iran’s reengagement in the region, as well as their possible impact on Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process.
Russia and Armenia have announced about plans on signing a United Military Agreement. What, do you think, has led Armenia to sign such an agreement?
Well, in many ways it’s an aftermath or an outcome of deepening the Armenian-Russian security relations over decades. However I think it’s a mistake to put Armenian units under any foreign command, theoretically it’s unacceptable. Moreover, this seems to be more potentially theoretical in times of crisis in times of military exercises even outside of Armenia. So it’s not that serious, nor is it a major achievement. Having said that in principal I don’t think it’s wise. In other words, clearly aligning with the Russian military is not an equal relationship and it wouldn’t be anything unless it’s under Russian command, which I think in practice and in principal wouldn’t be good for the Armenian armed forces.
So, you think, the agreement is not that dangerous for Armenia?
Not necessarily. In other words although it is a mistake in principal, in practical terms it’s not a threat or a challenge. However, in this time of crisis in Armenian-Russian relations where the security guarantees from Russia are much less trustworthy and second in terms of Armenia needing to strengthen its own independence and sovereignty, I think it is a mistake.
How would you assess Russia’s recent activity in the region?
Well, since April, the most serious fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh since the ceasefire it has been largely a Russian led diplomatic initiative within the Minsk group to actually have the parties agree to cease firing but that’s not a ceasefire. However, it’s important to note that Russia continues to work with and not against the West over Nagorno-Karabakh. But I think that in a broader picture there is a deep crisis in Armenian-Russian relations where the lack of balance, the asymmetry, the lack of respect, where Russia takes Armenia far too much for granted is a new development and a serious one. Having said that, we see that Russia is only deepening its military ties and cooperation with Azerbaijan which is obviously a direct threat to the security of both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
How about Russia’s recent initiatives towards wider partnership with other states of the region, in particular, Iran and Turkey? What challenges will these new developments pose for Armenia?
In the strategic sense the restoration or repair of relations between Russia and Turkey actually eases one challenge in crisis for Armenia which was in danger of being caught in between both parties. Secondly Russia’s now making a very significant use of Iran as a military base for operations in Syria, also makes Armenia less important, whereas before Russia was looking to Armenia as a potential platform or base. What this also means in the bigger picture, like history Armenia may become victim in terms of the competition in clash between much bigger powers, including Iran, Russia and Turkey. The other lesson from Armenian history is whenever Russia and Turkey are closely working together we always suffered. So there is a danger. In terms of trends we see the reopening of Iran, its reengagement offering opportunities for Armenia. The real challenge there is how much Russia allows Armenia to deepen its relationship with Iran. Secondly, what’s interesting after the attempted coup in July in Turkey, Turkey is in a much weaker position and in general in the regional context Armenia is in a stronger position. Despite the negative trends Armenia has demonstrated that again it is much more stable and much more of a predictable regional state unlike Azerbaijan and even Georgia.
How can you explain USA’s decreased regional involvement. Do you think it’s the upcoming presidential elections that make USA limit its engagement?
It’s a deeper trend where the United States has been long disengaging from this region and the broader region. Now it is natural in some ways but we shouldn’t expect USA in terms of Western engagement. We should look more to the EU in terms of especially Armenia’s deepening relationship with the EU offering an important western element but not the US in particular. Having said that, it may be good not bad for Armenia in terms of preventing this region from becoming more of an arena of competition between the US and Russia and in this regard Armenia is smarter than say Georgia where Armenia is prudent in ruling out NATO membership or even EU membership at this time in terms of not provoking unnecessarily a reaction from Moscow, but at the end of the day the big challenge for Armenia is increasingly internal and domestic and much less foreign or external.
Do you observe any progress in Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process after recent high level meetings between the presidents of Russia, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia?
Clearly no, there is no progress. However the threat is diminished slightly. In other words what’s different about the current new context, is Armenia has very belatedly learned the limits of its security relationship with Russia and has recognized the need for self-sufficiency and the fact that Armenia stands alone in guarantying its security, in the security of Nagorno-Karabakh. This is a good, important realization. What it also means, however, is Russian President Putin first met with the Iranian president and president Aliyev than president Erdogan and finally president Sargsyan. This also reinforces the new policy modification in Armenia not to surrender and submit to Russia automatically and actually to fight a little harder to defend Armenian national interest.
As Armenia’s strategic partner what’s Russia’s policy in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
Russia’s doing what’s in Russia’s national interests. That should not be a surprise. It is a painful lesson in Armenia, however, that Russia’s national interest today is much less and much further away than Armenia’s national interest. In other words, Russia’s N 1 arms supplier to Azerbaijan. It’s becoming much more pro Azerbaijani pressuring Armenia over the return of some occupied territories, for example in the Russian policy. So therefore the security relationship, the overdependence on Russia needs to be addressed with urgency.
Turkey’s possible involvement in NKR settlement process was discussed at the meeting of Russian and Turkish Presidents. Dow you think this is an ever possible scenario?
Turkey is in even a weaker position now much less relevant to becoming more active or more of a player in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. This is actually probably helpful but it’s also related to the declined tensions in relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan and what we see after the coup attempt in Turkey, Turkey is in a much weaker position and overly distracted by its own internal domestic problems. Turkey may be interested in being involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution process but it is in fundamentally weak position to reengage the region. First of all because the little brother of the relationship, Azerbaijan has much more power to limit Turkish activity and Turkish options. In fact, there is a great deal resentment in Turkey over that. Moreover, Turkey is no longer just biased in terms of its support for Azerbaijan but seen as a less trustworthy ally even for NATO and the West. So this doesn’t give Turkey an opening. We should expect increased Russian engagement but less Turkish engagement.