The talks about the Union state of Armenia with Russia and Belarus are premature - Narek Sukiasyan

15:34 - 27 June, 2022

- Welcome to Infocom. In the new episode of “Focus on Russia” our guest is Narek Sukiassian who is a political scientist and researcher at the Center for Culture and Civilization Studies. Mr. Sukiassian, thank you for being with us.

- Thank you for inviting me.

- Today I would like to discuss with you Russia’s foreign policy and interests in the South Caucasus region. Could you please briefly discuss how has Russia's interest and Russia's behavior in our region evolved in the last ten years?

- I would like to take not ten years, a decade historically but a political decade in which case we have to start either from 2008 - the Russian - Georgian war - or Vladimir Putin’s presidency, come back to the presidency. If we start from the earlier event - the 2008 Russia-Georgia war we can see that the Russian approach to the South Caucasus has been largely securitized to an unprecedented degree since independence. We can even argue that the securitization process that was present in the North Caucasus, albeit on very different issues, was extended to the South Caucasus and the process was very much accompanied… and we can argue on the chicken and egg issue, which started earlier, whether the conflict there or the enlargement of western institutions and western interests on more practical terms into the South Caucasus. 

In that case, we have to speak about the institutionalization of EU presence here by the establishment and the start of activities of the Eastern Partnership which even though the sides - the EU and Moscow - try to defend from one another that… EU argues that this is not a geopolitical project while Moscow was very much worried about western encroachment into its sphere of influence - we can definitely see the trends since the establishment of that format of competing integration processes in the region. And even though one may argue that the Russian integration process was in the form of the Eurasian Economic Union or in the wider CIS have started earlier and was not a response to the European projects it is obvious even one can definitely see how those projects got more and more activated, received new blood after this competing integration evolved in the region as part of the gray zone between the zone of competition between the West and EU on one side and Russia on the other side. 

That’s one perspective if we look from the perspective of EU - Russia or West - Russia competition in the region. 

The second perspective I would argue, with what I would start is the change of geopolitics after the Russian - Georgian 2008 war, maybe not the change but the intensification of trends that had already existed before that. And for me the most obvious change in that regard is the rationalization of Russia’s foreign policy from the interest of Russia in the South Caucasus, In that regard, I would like to highlight the shift of alliance policies in the South Caucasus because from 2008 we can definitely see a growing importance of Azerbaijan in the eyes of Russia. It can be argued that this change of perspective - which was very slow and we can only see it retrospectively by looking at the decade and it was hard to see by taking single events - since your question is about a decade and it allows us room to contemplate on this. We can argue that Armenia was not the ally Russia expected to have during that war… 

- The Russian war in Georgia. 

- Yes, Armenia did not intervene in the war for very understandable reasons because it could not and will probably not ever choose between its strategic ally and most important neighbor which provides the pressing majority of its communication with the entire world. More than that, Armenia maybe was expected to recognize or name or give or evaluate the actions of the Georgian government in those regions in Tskhinvali in the terms that Russia was describing them which the Armenian government avoided. But even though we have to be frank and say that Armenia after the war joined the CSTO declaration condemning the actions of the Georgian government and in very general terms but in the semantics of the Kremlin condemned the actions of the West that destabilized the region, the South Caucasus. 

On the other side, we can see that Azerbaijan in that period even though at the beginning of the war, on the first two days we could hear very many merry and happy voices from Azerbaijan welcoming the precedent of restoring territorial integrity through force albeit coming not from very official sources but when the trend of the war shifted towards Russian domination those voices immediately got silenced and Azerbaijan was even maybe a little bit worried being forced to learn a lesson that - of course understanding all the differences between the conflicts - but an unlucky precedent was set when a country attempted to its territorial integrity through force.

However, Azerbaijan was also in a better condition because not being officially an ally of Russia it did not also have such obligations and no allied expectations were set in front of Baku. But there is information that.. and these are unconfirmed and here we go completely into the field of speculation but later we will talk about the trends of Russian-Azerbaijani relations we can find the sources of those trends in this war starting from this war. There are unconfirmed sources saying that Azerbaijan showed some kind of military support to Russia during the war not, of course, obviously intervening in the war but providing reconnaissance or other forms of support that Russia did not or could not from technical considerations received from Armenia. 

And if we look at the military-technical cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan we can see the most intensified period comes of arms transfers already comes started from 2010 to 2011 and we know that that kind of big deals and that deal was probably the biggest between Azerbaijan and Russia they take a lot of time to negotiate. Some military experts say that it takes around 2 years and we come back to the counting it should fall around that time. I mean I understand that this is speculation but from where did it starts the trend is obvious in the military-technical cooperation. 

- Yea it is obvious that there were several factors that affected Russia’s decision to have closer military-technical cooperation with Azerbaijan. In my understanding, apart from the war in Georgia, the launch of the Eastern Partnership project was also a key factor in that because Russia was quite envious towards Armenia and other post-soviet countries trying to get integrated into European projects. Moving on from this period we were just discussing the period when the Europemaidan revolution happened and the annexation of Crimea and first if we can say the first war in Ukraine that escalated in the Dombas region. What do you think what were the implications of these events for our region? Because there is a view in Russia, especially in Russia that after the first Ukraine crisis Russia’s foreign policy towards the post-soviet area has also changed significantly, especially in terms of intervention in domestic political issues. There is a view that Russia’s approach towards the post-soviet countries’ domestic politics has been much more pragmatic than before that because there was an understanding that all their attempts before the Ukraine crisis I don’t know to put a puppet government in place or to somehow manipulated the domestic politics had failed and the Russian policymakers and decision-makers have since then changed there approach. What’s your take on that?

- I think the policy learning process that you’re describing started even earlier during the Orange revolution when not the politicians that would best fit Russia’s interest came to power. But I would definitely agree with the argument that post-Maidan, the war in Donbas, and those integration competitions that we discussed have changed Russia’s approach towards domestic politics and also foreign politics of post-soviet space. And after Euromaidan Russian foreign policy is definitely looked at from the perspective of those events. When we come to the case of Armenia I think here we have paradoxical trends. I’ll explain why. When in the period 2009-2013 Armenia was negotiating the association agreement and DCFTA with the EU, for a very long time we can remind ourselves that the Armenian government was very much welcoming of that cooperation and stated that it did not have any desire, on very many levels - on the level of the prime minister, of deputy of foreign minister. Even days before the announcement that Armenia will join the Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union Armenia has stated that it had not had such a desire. 

However, it was not also very loud about European aspirations. Of course, it was negotiating those deals which in the academic circles became known as a silent Europeanization of Armenia because in that period Armenia had to adopt the Acquis communautaire of some parts of the European Union and undergo a huge reform process and it was not very loud about that because it was clear in Yerevan that speaking too much about that will just bring too many returns in its relations with Russia. However, if we do a comparative analysis of those reform processes between Armenia and Georgia or Amenia and Ukraine or Armenia and Moldova, you can see that Armenia was not in the last ranks of that silent Europeanization. However, when we were reaching the last parts of those negotiations and agreements and the events that were accompanied by the crisis in Ukraine everything in this regard got way too securitized for Armenia and the Armenian government decided it cannot afford Europeanization into European integration at such costs. 

Here we see … and coming back to the paradoxical trends that I mentioned. How does it show itself? So whenever we reach such a critical point between the EU and West I’m sorry West-Russia relations in the realm of Armenian interests at this tipping point Armenia sides with Russia as it did in the case of announcing its desire to join the Customs Union. However, right after that tipping point, the trend goes downwards and Armenian foreign policy becomes less securitized. Why? Because by making the pro-Russian choice we de-securitize Russian demands towards Armenia creating guarantees that Armenia is and will remain in the sphere of Russian interests. So Moscow can feel more confident about Armenia’s desires and look at it with a more predictable approach. At the same time, that trend has shown that after an initial shock or discontent the Western partners come to understand the shortcomings of the Armenian security environment and come to accept, understand or at least understand that policy choice for Armenia. And this de-securitized atmosphere paradoxically creates more room for Yerevan to maneuver because its actions are not viewed anymore as demandful as they had been before. But this leaves so long as another point of competition between those system-level actors occurs concerning Armenia’s interests. And I believe what I just described - that this de-securitization after Armenia did not sign the association agreement - opened the way for later negotiations and eventually the signing of the SEPA agreement a few years later. And also I don’t think it's incidental that only Armenia out of those 6 countries of Eastern Partnership has an agreement that has the status of SEPA, it’s neither there, nor here, it’s something in between which is only possible when that securitized level is taken out of the discussion and the room is opened for something in the middle. And I think even now Armenia enjoys out of very few things that Armenia can enjoy in its geo-political geo-economic circumstances, is the understanding of Western partners of peculiarities and shortcomings of Armenian security. So they are not as demanding towards Armenia and they cannot put such demands that the Armenian government cannot simply fulfill. But at the same time, Armenia is good enough or remains or leans towards being good enough in the eyes of the Kremlin. So,  this situation creates that maneuverability however it also contains a lot of risks because of just the trends or the circumstances that happened in the way that happened. Given the chance of changing something in this mechanism, it can simply crumble in a matter of days. 

- My third question is about Armenia’s perception of Russia’s foreign policy and Russia's interest in our region and in our country in general. What do you think how rational are our perceptions of both decision-makers and the civil society and expert community in general? I’ll give you an example. We’ve been witnessing protest actions taking place in Yerevan for the last two months and so and there is some sort of general consensus both in the ruling circles and in the civil society that Russia was behind those protest movements. However, if we look at the evidence, the evidence seems to be scarce because Russia shouldn’t be interested in some sort of regime change in Armenia because the current government of Armenia is moving forward with the Russian agendas in the region - all these unblocking of regional communication and the post Karabakh war agenda is a Russian agenda. So how would you explain this situation when on one side it seems to be obvious that Russia shouldn't be interested in the regime change in Armenia and on the other side both the government and even the opposition try to present this movement as some sort of pro-Russian or Russia-backed movement? So are our perceptions of Russia and our judgments of Russia rational? 

- I think the last part of your question is one of the most important questions posed in the or should be posed in the studies of Armenian- Russian relations or the studies of Russia in general in the post soviet space. I would not go into arguing whether Russia has any role in the protest movement in Armenia as you said. We don’t have any material hard evidence of that and it would be just wishful thinking, right? But I will go into the other part of your question about the rationality of thinking about Russia among different circles in Armenia. You made a very correct distinction which I agree with - the decision-makers, the expert community, and the public at large and we take them one by one. 

If we look at the perception of the Armenian political elite since independence towards Russia on the strategic level the discourses or the perception of Russia are very much stable. We don’t see too many variations. Such variations are only caused by times of crisis and in this case also relevant maybe to our days, more recent events. We can speak about the speech of Serzh Sargsyan after the April war in Germany where he asked about the alliance between Armenia and Russia and Turkey and Azerbaijan he said that Russia has never been for us the partner that Turkey was for Azerbaijan which clearly stands out from all the speeches that we hear from our political elite in this regard. Or coming even to more fresh events, fresh speeches we can look at the speech by prime minister Pashinyan I think it was November 2018 when asked about the role of Russia in the conflict and in the mediation process he said that he can not believe that Russia will tolerate or allow another war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus. But when we read the text of the same person right after the war when he published an article entitled “The causes of the 44-day war”, when speaking about Russia he says that the difficulties for Russia in the post-soviet space arose beginning with the events in Ukraine and then Syria and which brought Russia to an understanding that it cannot single-handedly solve all the issues and that is when Russia adopted what became to know the “Lavrov plan” and tried to bring mediation efforts that, according to the text of the prime minister, were not completely in Armenian interest. And that is when the war became sort of unavoidable. 

And if we compare those two texts of the prime minister - the one before the war when he thought that Russia would not allow war and the second one after the war which is said that Russia could not single-handedly avoid the war - we can see that maybe there was …also considering the previously mentioned speech by Sargsyan we can see that at least in the last decade the political elite in Armenia came to an understanding that Armenia has to take the opportunity of the Russian alliance, take most of it to strengthen its security positions and attempt to prevent the war, however, none of them seemed completely sure that this geopolitical environment in which both Armenia and Azerbaijan and Russia find themselves has the guarantees of preventing a war. 

Now if we come to the expert level I think that the myths are mostly here not at the elite level because the elite level has the information that the experts do not have. And here we have to deal with a lot of bias because just in any society expert communities have their own interests, and serve those interests. And here the myths are also watered by an unclear understanding of Russia, maybe redundant understanding of Russia because the political system and the foreign policy of Russia have been evolving rather quickly and maybe these experts are sometimes behind. Аnd both me and you, I’m sure we also experienced those problems with our knowledge very soon becomes redundant.

But I think the most important myth about Russia that the expert community had or has is the extent of Russian interest in Armenia as compared to those other interests of Russia in the region and in general. I think what Pukhov recently mentioned in an interview that he gave to an Armenian journalist regarding his book and analyzing the second Kաrabakh war, he was saying that Armenia is the headache number 16 or 17 for Moscow. Sometimes we overestimate the importance of our strategic importance of Armenia in the Kremlin’s calculations and we don’t even understand how are decisions concerning Arмenia are made in Мoscow, what circles exactly are involved in those decision-making processes, what are the lobbying institutions or individuals in the process that serve or go against our own interest, So in the expert community we have a lot of room of improvement ourselves as well for better understanding of Russia and I think this program is a great platform for that. 

The second level is the perception of the public towards Russia. Here it is worthy to mention the most recent survey by “Caucasus Barometer” done by CRRC in which we can see an intensification, a dramatic intensification of a trend that we were seeing even before. The “Caucasus Barometer” survey shows I think from 2013 if I am not mistaken …. 

- from 83% of trust to 36 - 35 

- And if I’m not mistaken even France… they were 35-36, both are there. A trend which was traditionally up high here with France, and Iran ranking 1 or 2 % as the main friend of Armenian in those surveys. And this is a worrying signal to Russia in regards to its public diplomacy in Armenia because… Aand Russia traditionally is not an actor that invests too much in soft power it has tried to and the examples of that are the Russian house, Russian language houses, and Rossotrudnichestvo in various countries but those institutions do not seem to be the most popular public institutions in the societies where they function as compared to other NGOs or foundations which may even have interest that opposes the Russian interest in the region. Also the Russian language TV channels and setra. Those are the tools of soft power. However we can speak about the fact of soft power through those institutions through those mechanisms but it is obvious that this dramatic sharp decline in the last polling which was the first one I think after the 2019 or 2020 survey is the result of the change in the security environment, the defeat in the Second Karabakh War. And the narratives of condemning or criticizing Russia in Armenia’s defeat have a lot to do with explaining the sharp decline in that trend. And I think as I said this is a worrying sign for Russia and if it pursues public diplomacy goals in Armenia, some policies or some mechanisms need to be reviewed. 

- It’s actually very interesting how Russia, having so much influence in Armenia and being after the Second Karabakh War the guarantor of the security of the people of Nagorno Karabakh manages to work so untalentedly in this soft power area. I’ll give you an example, lots of editors I know of famous media outlets in Armenia have been trying to invite the ambassador of Russia to Armenia to their studio but he has never accepted the invitation. That's interesting. 

And one of my last questions is about serious concerns in Armenia again in the expert community about the risk of Russia trying to incorporate Armenia into its Union State with Belarus. These conversations have been very active since the end of the Second Karabakh Qar and even more active since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. So what is your assessment, how real are these risks, and how serious are these concerns? 

- I think the talks about the Union State of Armenia with Russia and Belarus are premature. I wouldn't say they don’t have any grounds, I am sure the topic appears in the talks between Armenian and Russian officials at some level, at some intensity but definitely not on the top of the agenda, especially now because I think Russia has way too many headaches to worry about, its resources both institutional and human are limited and it cannot engage in such grand foreign policy projects at the same time. And in what direction would those talks about the Union State will go very much also depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. Maybe the Russian government will need a foreign policy victory and that can be an option for that but again I think coming back to the myths I think we don’t understand how important is Armenia for Russia not only for the state but also for the people for the larger audiences because if we can say that a foreign policy victory in the example of Crimea created the Crimean majority in Russia which provided a wider pool of legitimacy for the government for years after Crimea, I don’t think even that integration of Armenia into the Union State has any potential anywhere closer to creating such majority as the Crimean majority did. So I do think that those talks exist but I don’t think that they are on the top of the agenda. I think the integration between Armenia and Russia has many other platforms where it still has room to go further before reaching the Union State. We can just simply take the evolution of Russian-Belarussian relations in the realm of the Union State and kind of understand the steps of the integration and we will see that we’re not near the final point and a number of integration spheres still exist in the Euroasian Economic Union, in the financial sphere, in the security sphere which I think will predate the Union State if it ever happens. Also, I think deeper integration between Armenia and Russia is usually determined by the level of integration or cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan which I think still has theoretical room to go deeper before Armenia faces the decision of joining such a union or not.

- And in my last question, I would go back to the question of Russia’s approaches, and Russia’s policies vis-a-vis Armenia and Azerbaijan. In one of your recent interviews, you noted that Armenia should offer more to Russia than Azerbaijan to be able to restore its role as the main ally of Russia in our region. What can Armenia offer to Russia and what can Armenia offer to Russia without giving up parts of its sovereignty?

- Just a small correction. Not that Armenia should offer more to Russia but  I was explaining how the Armenian foreign policy in the triangle of Armenia - Russia- Azerbaijan has worked in the recent years. And the trend was that whenever Azerbaijan deepened its relations with Russia and posed itself as a better partner in the region, a more important partner than Armenia in the region, Armenian governments tended to level up the cooperation with Russia on terms that Russia would welcome and by doing this trying to show that Armenia has the potential or is a more important partner for Russia than Azerbaijan. These actions should be viewed in the context of both countries seeing Moscow as the most important mediator or decision-maker or influencer in the Karabakh conflict, one aiming toward revisionism before the war it was Azerbaijan, and the other trying to keep the status quo. And understandably the revisionist state always needs to do more in order to achieve its political objectives just like in the battleground the offensive side has to concentrate more efforts than the defensive side, so the defensive side tries to maintain the status quo. And in this regard yes that’s how the trend worked and that this continue after the 2018 revolution, it remained in the same way. Moreover in that case more actions to prove Armenia’s importance or the loyalty of Armenia … 

- Started with troops to Syria and so on 

- For reasons that were connected to the intrinsic value of the revolutionary forces: first, because they had to prove that they don’t have an anti-Russian agenda in order for the revolution to happen at all, and second, since they came on this popular platform, popular agenda very often we could see how the Armenian government would stress in Moscow terms of sovereignty not interference in domestic affairs or arguments in this line of thought, however after thosе announcements or after actions that were not read in Moscow without question or exclamation mark the Armenian government had to restore to acts of appeasement in order to restore the trust of the Russian government towards it rules. So in that case already two fronts of appeasement appeared, one to prove that Armenia is more important than Azerbaijan and the other to prove that Russia doesn’t need to worry about this government. 

- Mr. Sukiasian thanks a lot for the interesting conversation 

- Thank you very much. 

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