Unhappy with Russia, Armenia seeks new security partners

Nov 15 2023
Arshaluis Mgdesyan Nov 15, 2023

For most of its post-Soviet history, Armenia has essentially had one partner in the field of defense and security: Russia. 

But recent experiences have shown that Moscow cannot be relied on for help when the chips are down. 

So now, despite the country's deep economic dependence on Russia, Armenia's leaders are looking elsewhere for security cooperation and finding eager partners. 

France steps in to boost Armenia's weak air defenses

On October 23 Yerevan signed an agreement with Paris on the purchase of three GM 200 anti-aircraft radar systems and a memorandum of understanding on the future delivery of Mistral short-range air defense systems.

Future cooperation will also include French training for Armenia's ground forces and support for Yerevan's military reform efforts. 

After the signing ceremony, Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikyan and his French counterpart Sébastien Lecornu spoke of the importance of helping Armenia protect its vulnerable airspace.

In the 2020 Second Karabakh War Armenia's air defense turned out to be woefully unprepared for the onslaught of Turkish and Israeli-made drones used by its adversary Azerbaijan. 

Those drones owned the skies and are widely acknowledged to be one of the decisive factors behind Armenia's defeat after 44 days of fighting. 

To address this weakness, Armenia decided to procure the three French-made radar systems, which have a range of 250 kilometers. 

Military analyst Leonid Nersisyan, who has closely monitored Armenia's arms purchases over the last 10 years, believes security cooperation with France was chosen for two reasons.

 "First, France's political leadership has on numerous occasions shown its sympathies towards Armenia, renderning diplomatic support to it in the conflict against Azerbaijan. Second, France is one of the few players in the arms market that makes practically all kinds of weapons," Nersisyan told Eurasianet. 

With the signing of the deal, France became the second country, after India, with which Armenia has intensified its defense contacts. Armenia's previous near-total dependence on Russia was recently acknowledged as a "strategic mistake" by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. 

 Armenia tends to be quiet about the details of its defense cooperation with India, neither confirming nor denying Indian media reports about major arms purchases. 

In contrast Yerevan shares some details of its deals with France that are usually not made public in such transactions, including precise numbers of units purchased, asin the case of the GM 200s. 

Away from Russia and toward the West

Russia has different feelings about Armenia's new military partners. It pays little mind to the  Indian weapons but flies into a jealous rage when arms are procured from NATO member France. 

The Russian authorities see in such deals an attempt to reduce its influence in the South Caucasus. 

As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently put it, "The Western countries now actively courting Armenia want to be friends with it against the Russian Federation." 

Armenia's growing proximity to the EU, in particular France, and growing distance from Russia are indeed related phenomena. 

The breaking point was the Azerbaijani army's incursions into Armenian territory in September 2022. Russia, and the Russian-led CSTO, which both have treaty obligations to protect Armenia from attack, rebuffed Yerevan's call for military assistance and instead took only the mildest of diplomatic steps in reaction.

Since then, relations have been in a steady decline, with Prime Minister Pashinyan recently remarking that Armenia has seen "no advantages" in hosting a Russian military base in the post-Soviet period (though he added there are no plans to attempt to remove it). 

 Not everyone supports the Armenian leadership's attempted pivot away from Russia. The country's established opposition groups warn that such a course contains risks for Armenia that Western countries can't help it mitigate. 

Tigran Abrahamyan, an MP from the I Have Honor faction, sees danger in recent statements by high-ranking Russian officials. 

"At the moment it is not clear what specific steps will be taken in what direction, but one gets the impression that at some point this [approach] will lead to serious consequences," Abrahamyan told Eurasianet. 

He also expressed doubt that the "collective West" would be willing to support Armenia in the face of the threats hanging over it. For this reason, the opposition MP believes that "ratcheting up tensions with Russia is an extremely incautious step." 

While Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan says his country has no intention of leaving the CSTO and changing its foreign policy orientation, Armenia has reduced its participation in the Russian-led bloc to a bare minimum. Most recently, he informed Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko that he would not be attending the next CSTO summit in Minsk on November 23. 

"Armenia is practically not participating in the CSTO. We are not taking part in the meetings of the organization, we are not signing on to the documents they adopt, we have recalled our representative at the CSTO and not appointed a new one. We are effectively not members of this organization," a source close to Armenia's ruling elite told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity.

Some analysts say it is precisely the freeze in Armenia's participation in the CSTO that has opened up opportunities to buy weapons from NATO member France. 

"Earlier, Armenia was told privately that there could be no supplies of weapons from NATO countries because of the access Russia has to its defense sector as a member of the CSTO," military-political expert Armine Margaryan told Eurasianet. 

She added that if Armenia is to fully exit the CSTO, it has to have security alternatives in place and she views the fostering of defense cooperation with France and other NATO countries, like the U.S. in this context. 

France is not the only NATO country with which Armenia is fostering defense cooperation. In September, after a long break, Armenian and U.S. armed forces held joint drills in Armenia, to the Kremlin's chagrin

But despite Russian rumbles of dissatisfaction, Yerevan appears determined to stay on its current course. 

"Armenian-American cooperation, including in the military sphere, is continuing according to plan, on the same basis as before. This includes training, military, and technological support," the chairman of the General Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces Edvard Asryan, told journalists on November 9, shortly after his return from Stuttgart, Germany, where he held talks with the European Command of the U.S. armed forces. 

During his meetings there, Asryan discussed details of the reforms conducted in the Armenian armed forces in areas such as combat readiness and the modernization of command systems, as well as the U.S.'s future involvement in this process.

This is a striking development, given that two years ago Armenia had been planning to reconfigure its military, freshly battered in the 2020 war, based on the Russian model and was discussing the details of corresponding reforms only with high-ranking representatives of the Russian General Staff. 

France's "signal" to other NATO countries

Now the taboo on security cooperation with NATO countries has been broken, and France seems determined to ensure the trend continues. 

"We are the first NATO country to have an open and confident cooperation in the field of defense with Armenia. And that's a signal to the regional environment, of course, but it's also a signal to our NATO partners," France's ambassador to Armenia, Olivier Decottignies said in an interview with CivilNet on November 2. 

"We wouldn't invest in cooperation in training, in cooperation between military academies if we didn't have a long-term perspective. On the other hand, Armenia's defense partnership cannot rely only on France."

The envoy went on: "We are the first partner among NATO countries for Armenia. But there are partners in the field of defense and the Armenian government is actively pursuing the diversification of their partnerships and we support that."

Arshaluis Mgdesyan is a journalist based in Yerevan.