Armenian Security and Geopolitical Challenges Unchanged in the new Pashinyan Era

By Anthony Branch,
CRRC-Armenia International Fellow

While the recent installment of Nikol Pashinyan as Prime Minister is perhaps the most significant governmental change since the independence of Armenia, the security challenges and geopolitical realities remain the same. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continues in stagnation, Turkey’s aggressive rhetoric and partnership with Azerbaijan is unchanged, and the energy geopolitical partnership between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey is increasing. Though much remains the same, it is important to analyze and consider specific challenges the new Armenian government may face.

According to data from the Caucasus Research Resource Center – Armenia Foundation, Armenians still view Azerbaijan as the main enemy of the country. Azerbaijan has recently been reported moving troops and military equipment near the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Aliyev regime recently threatened to strike the Armenian nuclear energy facility. With low crude oil prices 2015-2017, and after a demonstration of improved military aptitude in April 2016, Azerbaijan has purchased more arms from Russia. On June 20th 2018, the Azeri government published a video claiming to have conducted a “military operation” in Nakhchivan.  In addition, Azerbaijan has been known to conduct joint-military exercises with Turkey in the Nakhchivan exclave.

While it is unlikely that Azerbaijan will outright attack the territory of the Republic of Armenia considering its CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) agreement with Russia, it is less predictable to determine when, or if, Azerbaijan will launch an offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh (as Nagorno-Karabakh is not covered in the CSTO). It is worth considering global oil prices when thinking about a possible Azeri offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan relies on its oil and natural gas as its primary source of income. During the April 2016 war, crude oil prices were the lowest in over ten years, crippling the Azerbaijani economy. As seen in the Iraq-Iran war, and countless other examples, authoritarian leaders tend to seek out foreign adventures when there is domestic political or economic strife. OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) recently held a meeting pushing to increase production, which will drive crude oil prices back down. Amidst the OPEC decision and the recent activity on the line of contact and in Nakhchivan, it is reasonable to speculate an impending offensive.

For Armenia, it is difficult to change the geopolitical balance of the region. A landlocked and dependent country with two of its borders closed, it’s been under a modern siege from the east and west for decades. In a successful effort to increase mutual state income and tighten that siege against Armenia, Baku and Ankara have several energy cooperatives that include Georgia; most notably, the Trans-Anadolu Pipeline (TANAP). For Turkey and Azerbaijan, the geopolitical balance in the region is frozen due to mutual and collective defense pacts, thus the most effective way to shift the balance is to utilize Azeri controlled Caspian Sea oil and natural gas to enrich Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey financially and diplomatically. By including Georgia as an integral beneficiary of energy projects, it allows for the shifting of Georgia’s alignment to Turkey and Azerbaijan, compromising the critical position of Georgia’s neutrality in the regional geopolitical balance.

How can Armenia rebalance this Turkish-Azerbaijani energy-geopolitical dynamic? A new energy initiative involving Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran can offset some of the shift. The North-South Energy Corridor project would bring energy from Russia down to Iran through Georgia and Armenia, like a Caucasus Tic-Tac-Toe board, rebalancing Georgia’s posture, while filling Armenia’s coffers. In addition, Armenia should capitalize on the euphoria of its recent revolution to advance diplomatic relations with the Georgian government and its citizens.

While Mr. Pashinyan has focused his efforts on reformation of Armenian domestic policy, he should reassess the 2007 Armenian national security doctrine to define and promote Armenia’s national security interests. In revising the doctrine, Pashinyan and his security council should outline Armenia’s energy security strategy. Pashinyan’s selection of Armen Grigoryan for National Security Council Chief, a notable thought leader and scholar of Armenian national security, should be effective in leading the Council to author a timely and comprehensive doctrine.

The South Caucasus geopolitical balance will continue to be a constant security challenge for Armenia. At the moment, it appears that Azerbaijan and Turkey are shifting the balance through military advancements, and a plurality of benefits from multi-national energy projects. Regardless, Armenia may have the opportunity to rebalance the dynamic through the North-South Energy Corridor and through effective diplomacy between Armenia and Georgia. While the geopolitical dynamic in the South Caucasus has remained largely the same, the subtle nuances in marginal shifts are important to consider.