Armenian leader Nikol Pashinyan says he is pushing ahead with democratic reforms while trying to keep the peace with his powerful neighbours
He is in the middle of delicate peace talks, trying to please Russia and the West, and sits on a geopolitical fault line where wars in Ukraine and the Middle East overlap.
So it is no surprise that Nikol Pashinyan chooses his words with the care of a man handling a box of matches in a petrol station.
“Fear is not the right word,” the Armenian prime minister says when asked about mounting concerns of a new war in the South Caucasus.
“The Republic of Armenia is a democratic and developing country,” he told The Telegraph in an interview in his Yerevan office.
“And the Republic of Armenia is implementing wide-scale reforms for improving our country’s resilience. By the way, in recent years, I think that the international community and our society have seen that our country’s resilience has improved significantly.”
Nonetheless, he concedes: “Of course, anyone with common sense would have such concerns.”
Mr Pashinyan, a former newspaper journalist, came to power in 2018 on the back of anti-corruption protests that ended with the country’s first free and fair elections.
His pitch then, as now, is that democratic reform and a pro-European path would make the country not only more prosperous but more secure.
Since then, the country has indeed crept up international indexes on press freedom, democracy and transparency. He won re-election in 2021 suggesting he still has a mandate for that strategy.
But the entire premise of that project has come under unprecedented stress.
In the past three years Armenia suffered attack and defeat in a 2020 war with Azerbaijan, the humiliating loss in September 2023 of the Armenian backed, self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh republic, and effective abandonment by Russia, its principal military ally.
Since then Mr Pashinyan’s willingness to make concessions in pursuit of peace, including recognising Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh, has caused public anger at home and a wave of protests he claims were designed to oust him from power.
However, it has not yet produced a peace treaty.
His search for a more reliable security partner has strained relations with Moscow without winning concrete commitments from the West.
And to cap it all, many in Yerevan fear that Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s strong-man president, is laying the pretext for a third offensive – this time to conquer land inside Armenia proper.
Azerbaijan’s 24-hour reconquest of Karabakh five months ago extinguished a 30-year old Armenian-backed republic that broke away from Azerbaijan in a brutal and bloody six-year war in the 1990s.
More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled in what the European Parliament condemned as ethnic cleansing, and Mr Pashinyan was forced to face down angry protesters in Yerevan who accused him of abandoning the region.
It also closed the central dispute in a conflict that has blighted Armenia and Azerbaijan since their independence.
For a while, both leaders appeared keen to seize the opportunity to make peace.
At separate meetings with Emmanuel Macron in Prague and Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Mr Pashinyan and Mr Aliyev agreed to renounce the use of force, respect one another’s territorial integrity and using the Almaty declaration, the document that saw the Soviet Union’s republics declare independence, as the basis for border delimitation.
By the end of October 2023, “the architecture and principles for a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been agreed upon. And at the end of last year, it seemed to us that we were very close, finally, to a final text of agreement,” he said.
But on Jan 10, Mr Aliyev appeared to walk back those commitments, warning in a rambling interview with local media that he would take military action if Armenia tried to rearm.
He also said he would not remove Azeri troops from several areas they have occupied inside the Armenian border, and rejected using late Soviet maps for a peace deal “precisely because our historical lands had already been given to them”.
Azeri officials strongly deny planning a new war or harbouring territorial claims against Armenia, and have blamed delays in the peace process on Armenian intransigence.
In Yerevan, the remarks sounded very much like the pretext for a land grab.
“One may not say that these assessments are groundless,” Mr Pashinyan said when asked if he feared such a plot. “I publicly have said this is a blow to the peace process.
“When these events are seen side by side, there are some analysts in Armenia who think that all of this indicates that Azerbaijan is step-by-step refusing and walking away from the agreements reached among us and international platforms.
“But so long as Azerbaijan has not declared that it is withdrawing its signature from the Sochi and Prague declarations, then it’s very clear that Armenia and Azerbaijan recognise each other’s territorial integrity based on the 1991 Almaty declaration, and any statement that contradicts this logic is not legitimate.”
That is a long winded way of saying Mr Aliyev ought to keep his word. Does he trust Mr Aliyev to actually do so?
“I put my trust in God. And I think that every country that respects itself must follow the commitments it has undertaken.”
Much of the tension focuses on Nakhchivan, an Azerbaijani enclave bordering Turkey, Iran and Armenia.
Baku wants to create a road and rail link to Nakhchivan along Armenia’s 25-mile border with Iran exclusively under the “neutral” control of Russian border guards.
Armenia, which has promised to provide access between Nakhchivan and mainland Azerbaijan, fears a trap that would force it to relinquish control of its southern border.
Mr Pashinyan has made a counter offer based on a general reopening of all transport corridors in the region. So far, Mr Aliyev has dismissed the proposal as unworkable.
The peace process here has implications for dozens of small countries in the new age of great-power confrontation.
Before the 2020 war, Armenia assumed that its membership of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation would keep it safe.
But Russia did not come to Armenia’s aid in 2020, and Russian peacekeepers also failed to stop Azerbaijan blockading a road into Karabakh in the aftermath. They stood aside again when it launched its final assault on the area in September 2023.
Mr Pashinyan insists Russia remains a valued security partner but he has barely concealed a sense of betrayal.
He has publicly said the country can no longer exclusively rely on Russia and should forge security relationships with the United States and France as well.
The realignment has drawn stern rebukes from Moscow.
In October 2023 the Russian state news agency TASS even quoted an anonymous official comparing Mr Pashinyan to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (Mr Pashinyan said he had not seen that report and would not comment on anonymous threats).
He insists that does not mean making a choice between Russia and the West, despite the fallout of the war in Ukraine.
“Look, when the Ukraine war had just started I was interviewed by CNN and I said, in the Ukraine situation, we are not Russia’s ally. And that’s the reality. But I want to also tell you that with the US or France or other partners, our security cooperation is not targeted against our other security sector partner.
“Now, our partners may have concerns about the relationship with them, or how the relationship with them could influence their security agendas. And that’s an issue we’re trying to manage by utmost transparently speaking with our partners about their shared agendas,” he said.
Nato membership, an obvious red line for Russia, “is not a question we have discussed or are discussing”.
He also suggests Armenia may rethink its membership of the CSTO. “There are some discussions in Armenia as to whether or to what extent the alliance-based strategy is consistent with Armenia’s longer term interests,” he said.
Particularly contentious is the Armenian parliament’s ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which finally came into force on Feb 1.
Russia called the move an “unfriendly” step and it is not hard to see why: the ICC has issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin over war crimes allegedly committed in Ukraine.
Mr Pashinyan declined to say whether Armenian police would act on the warrant if Putin happened to visit.
The decision to join the Rome Statute “serves to improve the level of security of Armenia. As to the legal subtleties. I cannot at the moment carry out legal analysis because that’s the job of the lawyers,” he said.
“Let me break a secret to you. After 2018 Armenia has had extensive democratic reforms. And I don’t decide whom to arrest and whom not to arrest.
“And as I said, Armenia as a responsible state must remain committed to all of her international commitments, including the commitments that it has in the relationship with the Russian Federation and commitments that the country has in international relations,” he said.
But in this era of realpolitik, Armenia has painfully few cards to play.
Moscow may be the regional super power and traditional ally but is militarily overstretched in Ukraine and diplomatically isolated abroad to prioritise enforcing its CSTO commitments.
More important to Putin is his relationship with Turkey’s Recep Tayip Erdogan, Azerbaijan’s key backer and also the only Nato leader in a position to cause him serious trouble on the Black Sea.
Turkey’s foreign minister said last week that Mr Putin was expected to visit Turkey soon to discuss the Ukraine grain initiative. It would be his first visit to a Nato country since he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago.
The West may be the natural protector of a pro-European democracy under threat, but it too is preoccupied, and Washington and Brussels value their ties to Mr Aliyev and Mr Erdogan.
In July 2022, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Union signed up to buy more gas from Azerbaijan. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, praised Mr Aliyev’s government as a “reliable” and “crucial” partner.
Mr Alieyev has also made himself useful in the grand standoff with Iran – so useful that Israeli firms reportedly supplied much of the weapons used in the final blitz on Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023.
It is an unenviable position for any leader to be in.
It gives Mr Pashinyan a unique perspective on the era of great-power confrontation and he has a warning for the rest of the world.
“I don’t want to give the impression the government of Armenia does not grasp how critical its own security problems are,” he said.
“We’re living in a world where no one can say what will happen tomorrow morning. If anyone were to think that in the global world they are more relaxed, or they should be any more relaxed than the government of the Republic of Armenia or the citizens of Armenia, they would be significantly wrong,” he warns.
“I’m saying this with full seriousness. In the last two years, and currently, the international community is discussing whether or not there will be a nuclear war,” he adds.
“My position is such that I have interactions with several potential sides to such a nuclear war. I think I know what a serious topic it is.
“In that sense, at least, Armenia is significantly safer and more secure, because I don’t think anyone is intending a nuclear strike on Armenia.”
Which brings us to his basic pitch: it is in everyone’s interests, regardless of where they stand on the world’s other grand confrontations, to make the peace process in the South Caucasus work.
“I know how hard it is, I know how difficult it is and what difficulties need to be overcome. And I will do my best for peace to be established in our region. And I will do that share of the work that concerns us. I’m hopeful that the other countries in our region will do the same.
“For some of our partners, we have some confidence that they will do that and for others, there isn’t so much confidence, but the core goal of our foreign policy is that.”