Armenia defies Russia with army exercise with US, tensions with Baku rise at 11:56 AM Abroad American soldiers are starting a military exercise in Armenia today, to the anger of Russia. The threat of a new war with Azerbaijan is now increasing.

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An Armenian soldier near the border with Azerbaijan
NOS News
  • Iris de Graaf & Chiem Balduk

    Russia correspondent & Foreign editor, from Armenia

  • Iris de Graaf & Chiem Balduk

    Russia correspondent & Foreign editor, from Armenia

Dozens of American soldiers are starting a military exercise in Armenia today. They train for ten days for peace operations.

The exercise comes at a tense time: the relationship between Armenia and its ally Russia has cooled considerably in recent times. In addition, the relationship with arch enemy and neighboring country Azerbaijan is under high tension. Armenia has been accusing Azerbaijan of starving the ethnic Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh for nine months by blocking the enclave.

Moreover, according to Armenia, Azerbaijan is rapidly building up military forces on the border, possibly in preparation for a new attack to take control of the enclave. Three Armenian soldiers were killed in brief shelling last week. Armenians are also said to have died of hunger in Nagorno-Karabakh. Conversely, Azerbaijan accuses Armenia of shelling Azerbaijani positions.

The South Caucasus with Nagorno-Karabakh in the middle

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bloody war in the 1990s over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is governed and inhabited by Armenians. After a six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan captured regions around Nagorno-Karabakh and a settlement for the enclave was reached under Russia’s leadership.

From now on, Russian peacekeepers would guard the border as well as the only road connecting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh: the Lachin corridor. This should ensure that the Armenians do not lack anything.

Azerbaijan has been blocking that road for nine months, according to authorities in the Azerbaijani capital Baku because Armenians are allegedly smuggling weapons in. The result: a humanitarian crisis. The 120,000 inhabitants are cut off from the outside world and deprived of food and medicine. Baku wants to supply the enclave via a different, self-controlled route.

Armenian and Karabakh authorities seemed to agree to this out of desperation this weekend, on the condition that the Lachin corridor is also opened. An agreement was reached this weekend, but so far no transport has reached the enclave. The fear in the Armenian capital Yerevan is that Azerbaijan will de facto gain control of the enclave.

Russia is falling short

Armenia feels cheated by Russia, says Richard Giragosian, director of the think tank Regional Studies Center in Yerevan. “After the failed invasion of Ukraine, it is clear to Armenia that the great Russian ‘power’ is a myth.” As an ally, Russia is failing to protect the Armenian population: Russian peacekeepers have been thinned out since the war in Ukraine and the focus in Moscow is not on the fragile situation in the Caucasus. And so Armenia is looking for new allies.

Dependence on Russia is a mistake.

Prime Minister Pashinyan of Armenia

The military exercise with the US is an important development in the geopolitical balancing act that Armenia is now carrying out. “It involves few troops and equipment, which makes it a relatively small exercise. But it is a clear step away from Moscow,” says Giragosian.

And it is not the only step that Yerevan has taken recently that is being experienced as a stab in the back in Moscow. Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan hit out at Moscow in an unprecedentedly harsh manner in an Italian newspaper: Armenia would be abandoned by the Russians, while Azerbaijan is busy ‘ethnically cleansing’ Nagorno-Karabakh. “Our dependence on Russia is a big mistake,” he said.

Furthermore, Armenia sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine for the first time and Pashinyan’s wife attended a summit of first ladies in Kyiv. Armenia also announced the recognition of the International Criminal Court, which has issued an arrest warrant against Putin, and pro-Russian bloggers were arrested in Armenia. In response to these developments, the Armenian ambassador was summoned to Moscow, where he was criticized for the “many unfriendly steps”.

EU jumps into Russia’s gap

Yet Giragosian does not think that the relationship with Moscow will be completely trashed. According to him, Armenia is operating in the survival mode of a small country: “Yerevan wants to broaden the number of allies, from China and India to also the EU and the US. To complement Russia, not as a replacement.”

Russia emphasizes that it continues to have confidence in the alliance with Armenia, but in Moscow they view Yerevan’s renewed Western friendships with suspicion, especially the military exercise with arch-enemy America.

Giragosian thinks that less dependence on Russia could help Armenia in the conflict with Azerbaijan. “As a mediator, Russia always has its own interests at the table: Moscow wants to retain power in the Caucasus no matter what.” Now the European Union is filling the gap left by Russia, a party that, according to Giragosian, can mediate independently and therefore facilitate promising negotiations.

The fact remains that Armenia is in a weak position militarily without Russian support, while the larger Azerbaijani army can count on unconditional Turkish support. Now that Russia has its hands full with Ukraine, Azerbaijan could take the opportunity to start a new war and completely annex the enclave. A temporary American military presence cannot prevent this, but perhaps diplomatic channels can. The only question is who will ultimately take on that role of mediator.

  • Nagorno-Karabakh faces shortages of food and medicine due to road blockade
  • Deal on access to Nagorno-Karabakh, but also rising tensions
  • In Nagorno-Karabakh there is a threat of crisis again between old enemies
  • Armenia appears prepared to give up the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh
  • UN court: Azerbaijan must lift Nagorno-Karabakh blockade
  • Abroad

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