Armenia's strategic pivot: Navigating between Russia and the West

Joint military exercises with the U.S. highlight Armenia's evolving stance amid South Caucasus tensions

Armenia and the United States will conduct joint military activities from September 11-20. This move underscores Armenia's shifting stance and intent to communicate a break from Russia.

Border conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia have intensified since 1991. Azerbaijan gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh, which had a sizeable Armenian population, after a war in 2020. Although a ceasefire was brokered, no lasting settlement was achieved. These unresolved tensions have occasionally escalated, and the recent Armenia-U.S. military exercises have added to the complexities, drawing attention from Russia and Iran.


In 2020, skirmishes between Azerbaijan and Armenia escalated into a full-fledged war. Azerbaijan captured Nagorno-Karabakh, and a Russia-mediated ceasefire was declared on November 9. As part of the accord, Russian forces established a presence in Nagorno-Karabakh, ensuring the Lachin Corridor remained accessible. This passage, crucial for humanitarian aid, connects Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. However, sporadic clashes persist because of unresolved border issues.

Elections in Azerbaijan-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh have reignited tensions. Though within Azerbaijan's territory and predominantly Armenian, the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic isn't recognized internationally, including by Armenia. The E.U., Turkey, and Azerbaijan condemned the recent elections.

The Lachin Corridor is essential for local Armenians' humanitarian needs. Azerbaijan shut it in July because of alleged contraband transport by the ICRC from Armenia. The ICRC refuted these claims but terminated contracts with four drivers. Irrespective of the veracity of these allegations, humanitarian aid is currently halted, causing swift resolution.


Armenia has a strong bond with Russia and is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and the CSTO. But following Nikol Pashinyan's election as prime minister in 2018, Moscow viewed him as leaning westward. When war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Armenia didn't seek CSTO intervention. However, when Azerbaijan amassed troops on the border in Spring 2021, CSTO declined Armenia's help request. Pashinyan refuted claims of procedural errors in the submission. The CSTO's refusal disheartened Yerevan.


Feeling abandoned by the CSTO, Armenia has expressed its disillusionment with Russia. Pashinyan, in a recent interview, critiqued Moscow's inability to ensure Armenia's security. He also noted that Armenia's over-reliance on Russia was strategically flawed.

Armenia's joint military exercises with the U.S. upset Moscow, Tehran, and Baku, weakening its relationship with the CSTO. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov remarked such exercises don't promote regional stability or trust. Russia complained about Armenia's reluctance to participate in CSTO exercises while collaborating with the U.S.

This year, the U.S. has conducted military exercises in the South Caucasus twice: first with Georgia and now with Armenia. Calls for Armenia's NATO membership have added to the tension between Russia and Armenia.

The U.S. and E.U., especially NATO, recognize Russia's predicament in Ukraine. However, the expected withdrawal has yet to materialize. Pashinyan, under public pressure because of perceived defense lapses in the 2020 war, is inclining toward the West. For the U.S., diminishing Russia's stature here is pivotal. Yet, the U.S. also signals Iran, which has complained about these exercises.

Iran and Russia are closely monitoring the exercises but are not expected to cause any disruptions. In the aftermath, heightened diplomatic activity between Moscow and Yerevan is expected. Armenia is unlikely to challenge Russia, even with the challenges posed by Russian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and its reliance on defense. Direct U.S. or NATO help in a potential clash seems unlikely. Armenia's pivot shows a significant change, emphasizing its developing relationship with Russia through these exercises.

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