As Armenia continues to be gripped by street protests, matters continue to intensify as men in military uniform have been seen among the demonstrators. The military has vowed to take decisive legal action against those in uniform joining the protests. At the same time, unverified but likely legitimate videos have shown tanks from the military of Azerbaijan lining up at the contact line with the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, known as the Republic of Artsakh by ethnic Armenians. With this in mind it becomes necessary to consider both the best and worst case scenarios for Armenia and its region.
Worst case scenarios
The presence of uniformed soldiers who appear to be actual members of the Armenian military (as opposed to false flagged civilians) joining the protests could be an early indication of disorder within the ranks of the Armenian military. If this is indicative of a wider fracture in the loyalties of the military, then a formal coup could transpire in the near future. Barring that, if the military is more or less evenly divided along so-called ‘government/opposition’ lines, this could mean that the Armenian military could be rendered paralysed due to these divisions.
This could therefore be the perfect window of opportunity for Azerbaijan to send its own military into Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh and “take back” territory that Baku and the rest of the world, including Russia recognises as Azerbaijan’s territory.
Russia has been the long-time guarantor of peace in decades long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and furthermore, Russia has been careful to balance all of its diplomatic interests and loyalties evenly between Yerevan and Baku. While Armenia and Azerbaijan have incredibly poor relations with one another, both have good relations with Russia. In fact, because many Armenians have incorrectly interpreted Moscow’s strong relations with Baku as a “betrayal” of Christian Armenia, some in Yerevan have decided on a balancing strategy of their own in trying to forge economic deals with the European Union (EU) while being a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) while also engaging in security cooperation schemes with the US, even while Armenia remains a member of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a de-facto Russian led security alliance throughout the former Soviet Union.
But while Russia has shown that it is genuinely able to have healthy partnerships with a variety of different nations that may have disputes among themselves (Turkey and Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, India and China, South and North Korea, “Israel” and Palestine, Egypt and Qatar, Pakistan and India, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey), the US remains committed to a zero sum mentality that makes such arrangements impossible.
In this sense, the current Armenian government of Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan is looking a lot like the 1990s Georgian government of Eduard Shevardnadze and the former Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych, in so far as that in trying to look both east and west, but without a strong domestic base from which to remain independent of all meddling influences, chaos rather than a win-win scenario ensues. Therefore while leaders like Turkey’s President Erdogan, President Duterte of The Philippines, Viktor Orban of Hungary are able to look both ‘west and east’ from a position of strength, Premier Sargsyan is beginning to appear as compromised as Shevardnadze and Yanukovych, whose failed balancing strategy led to their own respective downfalls. Of course, in post-Soviet countries any leader looking both west and east without clear conviction will be painted by the local liberal media and western mainstream media as ‘pro-Russian’. This is just a further element of the information war that Erdogan, Duterte and Orban are excellent at fighting but which the likes of Sargsyan are not.
In reality, Sargsyan’s overtures towards the west have been seen in Washington and by the powerful Armenian community in California as a sign of weakness and therefore a chance to pounce on him. The results could be an Armenia without a unified military, a new war in Nagorno-Karabakh and an economic situation going from bad to worse.
Best case scenarios
While the ingredients for such a disaster are all in place, conflict could still be avoided. There is little doubt that the Russian Foreign Ministry will be on the phone not to Yerevan at this time but to Baku, urging restraint and insuring Russia’s neutrality in respect of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Furthermore, one could see the three Astana group partners of Turkey, Russia and Iran working to ease the situation. As a Turkic people who are culturally and ideologically close to the Republic of Turkey, President Erdogan in Ankara could call on his close ally President Aliyev in Baku and join Russia’s calls for restraint over the apparent chaos in Armenia that would otherwise represent a green light for Azerbaijan’s forces to re-start a war that no major regional power wants to see re-escalate.
At the same time, Armenia’s legitimate government could call on Iranian diplomats to mediate in the situation in Yerevan. If things get worse, Iranian peace keepers could even be sent in to quill the situation while Iran’s Turkish partner could assure Baku that any Iranian involvement in Armenia would not have any anti-Azerbaijan overtones.
To put this all in context, although Azerbaijan’s population is theoretically a vast majority of Shi’a Muslims (as is the case in the Islamic Republic of Iran), in reality, Azerbaijan is overwhelmingly secular and therefore the ethno-linguistic Turkic identity has drawn Baku closer to Ankara than to Tehran (in spite of Iran having a large ethnic Azeri population), although relations between Azerbaijan and Iran to continue to improve. By contrast, Iran and Armenia are important trading partners and cultural allies as almost all of the Christian minority in Iran are ethno-religious Armenians who are productive and loyal members of Iranian society while still having good personal relations with their brethren in the Republic of Armenia.
When it comes to Russia, while some mischaracterise 21st century Russia as always siding with Orthodox (be it Eastern or Oriental) Christians over anyone who isn’t Orthodox, in reality modern Russia runs a non-ideological and largely anti-fraternal foreign policy that is based on a pragmatic and unemotional desire to balance various ideological ‘blocs’. This has been helpful in the Middle East as it has prevented Russia from getting dragged into the Shi’a + Orthodox vs. Sunni narrative that many in the region remain gripped by, while it also has its downsides in that it occasionally leads Russia to underestimating how devious the US and certain EU states can be when threatening the lives and livelihoods of Russia’s traditional partners.
Taken together though, when it comes to the south Caucasus, this reality is an asset to Russia which seeks to minimise ill-will before former parts of the USSR, while Turkey and Iran who in many ways cannot escape from their historic ethno-linguistic and religious ties to the Caucasus, can help to foster de-escalation by building trust with valued partners.
In many ways the stakes are higher for Iran than for anyone else as if Armenia is allowed to fall to a pro-US coup, the small country could become a base of operations for US provocations against Iran. For an increasingly eastward looking Turkey, Ankara would also not want to see the US get its hands into a conflict where the US deep state would use its connections in both Armenia and Azerbaijan to play puppet master over a region where the Republic of Turkey seeks to present itself as a spiritual leader of the Turkic peoples and where furthermore, Turkey does not want to be drawn into a new conflict with Armenia as contrary to much of what is said among Armenians in the US, modern Turkey wants its disputes with Armenia to remain in the past and is all too happy for the present to be a ‘frozen’ relationship.
For Russia which is weeks away from the Victory Day holiday on the 9th of May, it would serve as an embarrassment if the streets of Yerevan were filled with chaos on the 9th rather than an orderly and fraternal Victory Day parade, which continues to be held in Armenia as it is in many former Soviet states who continue to honour the victory against fascism. More war in the south Caucasus could also disrupt both Russia and Iran’s participation in the North-South transport corridor which runs from India to Iran via the Chabahar port in the Gulf of Oman, up through Azerbaijan and into Russia.
While the south Caucasus may be more remote than Mediterranean Syria, or EU adjacent Ukraine, the states in the region are just as high as the south Caucasus is the region where all the great Eurasian powers meet.