Armenia’s Emerging New Foreign Policy

The Armenian Weekly March 2014 Magazine:
Armenia’s Foreign Policy in Focus

Ukraine has been in the spotlight of the international media since President Viktor Yanukovich announced1 the suspension of the Association Agreement with the EU, just a week before it was due to be signed in Vilnius, Lithuania, in favor of deeper ties with Russia. The Nov. 21 decision3 sparked a wave of protests, known as the Euromaidan, demanding Yanukovich’s resignation. In December, following a meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, an agreement was reached for a $15 billion Russian loan and an over 30 percent cut in the price of Russian natural gas, which further angered the opposition that supports the European integration of Ukraine. The, however, issue is not as black and white as the classic case of a people against its repressive government. The country has a stark divide between its eastern and western provinces—the former being generally more supportive of closer ties with Russia, and the latter in favor of Ukraine’s European path. Historical and geographic factors4 play a big role in the recent developments taking place in Kyiv and other regions of Ukraine.

Sahakyan 3: President Serge Sargsyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Yerevan in Dec., 2013. (Photo:
President Serge Sarkisian and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Yerevan in Dec., 2013. (Photo:

Similar to Yanukovich’s announcement on Nov. 21, the Sept. 3 joint statement5 by the presidents of Armenia and Russia—announcing Armenia’s desire to join the Russian-led Customs Union (CU)—came as a big surprise to many, especially in the West. It was expected6 that Armenia would sign the EU’s Association Agreement with a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (AA/DCFTA) component later in 2013, yet the Armenian leadership ostensibly notified7 the EU Commission of its decision to join the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space (CES) of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia just three days before the official visit by President Serge Sarkisian to Moscow. Official Yerevan effectively made a U-Turn from the Association Agreement with the EU, which took more than three years to negotiate8 and was due to have been signed at the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit.

In making its decision between the “East” and “West,” the Armenian leadership did not have many alternatives. Just like Russia, the EU was not eager to allow Armenia much maneuver space. Therefore, Brussels, alongside Moscow, has its own share of the blame in regards to the recent developments. Blaming Armenia for choosing the CU in this case is unreasonable, as it would have been blamed regardless of which side it chose. Rather, the question should be addressed to the EU and Russia, as to why they are so unwilling and incapable of coming up with a framework that allows for the dual integration of the states in the shared neighborhood, especially when both sides claim9 that their policies are not targeted against the other.

Considering the close collaboration between Armenia and Russia in the economic, political, and military spheres, news of the Armenian choice should not be entirely surprising. Russia maintains a

President Serge Sargsyan and President François Hollande during Sargsyan’s working visit to France in Oct., 2013. (Photo:
President Serge Sarkisian and President François Hollande during Sargsyan’s working visit to France in Oct., 2013. (Photo:

military base in Armenia10 (effectively serving as the security guarantor of the state), owns most of the country’s critical infrastructure, is the leading foreign investor, and is home to the largest Armenian diaspora in the world. Having so much political and economic leverage over Armenia, Russia did not face a major challenge from the European side, whose collaboration with Armenia has been limited. Armenia’s chances for a possible membership in the EU are currently close to zero, whereas the CU and consequently EAU membership might prove to be beneficial in increasing Armenia’s international relevance as part of a much larger entity. Taking into consideration the above-mentioned factors, as well as Armenia’s cultural and historical connections with Russia, one can better understand why it ended up rationally choosing the Russian side, when cornered by Brussels and Moscow.

Since the Sept. 3 decision some noteworthy developments have taken place, which will likely change the geopolitical and economic situation of Armenia and the region at large. President Sarkisian paid a working visit to France in October 201311 and delivered a statement during the plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).12 During the Q&A session, he touched upon the topic of the AA/DCFTA agreement with the EU, noting, “We [Armenia] are still ready to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union… [A]fter our announcement that we join the Customs Union, our partners in the European Commission said that there is a direct contradiction between the Customs Union and Free Trade Agreement; the rules are different.”13

Even though Armenia took part in the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius on Nov. 28-29, and despite President Sarkisian’s earlier statement regarding Armenia’s readiness to initial the AA/DCFTA with the EU, no agreement was signed (as many expected). A joint declaration between Armenia and the European Union following the Vilnius Summit stated that “based on common values, both sides are committed to further cooperation aimed at the continuous improvement of democratic institutions and judiciary, the promotion of human rights and rule of law, good governance, the fight against corruption, the strengthening the civil society, the further improvement of the framework for enhanced trade and investments, the continued implementation of the mobility partnership, and increased sectorial cooperation.”14 The parties further acknowledged the completion of negotiations for the Association Agreement, but said they would not proceed with its initialing due to Armenia’s new international commitments.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits his country’s military base (102nd) in Gyumri, Armenia, accompanied by Armenian President Serge Sargsyan in Dec. 2013. (Photo:
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits his country’s military base (102nd) in Gyumri, Armenia, accompanied by Armenian President Serge Sarkisian in Dec. 2013. (Photo:

On Dec. 2, 2013 President Vladimir Putin paid a state visit to Armenia.15 As part of his trip, he visited the 102nd Russian military base stationed in Gyumri,16 participatedin the Russian-Armenian Interregional Forum,17 and together with his Armenian counterpart witnessed the signing of a set of bilateral agreements. Putin was accompanied18 by a 500-member delegation, including 6 cabinet ministers, 11 provincial governors, and heads of large Russian companies, signifying the importance Russia places on Armenia as a strategic partner. Additionally, Russia recently announced19 its plans to create a unified air defense network with Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states, including Armenia. This will effectively further expand and modernize the latter’s air force. Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan declared that “the agreements [with Russia] on buying up-to-date interoperable arms, military equipment, and long-range precision-guided weapons allow us to improve our defense control mechanisms.”20 In short, the economic, political, and military cooperation between Armenia and Russia is expected to only expand in the future, since there is no motive to predict otherwise.

The Eurasian Supreme Economic Council (the highest decision-making body of the CU/CES) convened21 its meeting on Oct. 24, 2013. In addition to the presidents of Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus, the leaders of Ukraine, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan were also present at the assembly. It was agreed to create22 working groups to develop roadmaps in order to expedite Armenia and Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the CU/CES. As early as Dec. 23, 2013, the government of Armenia adopted23 the road map, which entails 262 measures, 150 of which should be realized prior to the accession. The following day, on Dec. 24, the Eurasian Supreme Economic Council also approved24 Armenia’s roadmap.

As is evident from the timeline of events, the Armenian side is moving very quickly towards the final accession to the Customs Union. In particular, Putin stated25 that “we [Russian side] are struggling to keep up with our Armenian partners.” Furthermore, the Russian ambassador to Armenia, Ivan Volynkin, recently said that “Armenia is moving forward by leaps and bounds. Many did not expect that Armenia would be moving towards the Customs Union so fast.” 26 It is anticipated27 that Armenia will become a full-fledged member of the Customs Union by May 2014, before the existing three members initial28 the draft agreement on the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), planned to commence its full-scale work on Jan. 1, 2015.

Developments since September have effectively brought an end to the current phase of Armenia’s “Complementarity”29 policy in foreign affairs, which entailed developing good and balanced relations with regional and global powers. Although this strategy is likely to continue, since Armenia cannot afford to have poor relations with more states than it already does, some of the dynamics will change. By the summer of 2014, the Republic of Armenia will be a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the CSTO, and CU/CES, which means that it will be fully aligned with Russia in the political, military, and economic realms, respectively. This, without a doubt, will place certain constraints on how the diplomatic corps of the state conducts its foreign affairs within the framework of complementarity. The challenge will be parallel to further deepening relations with Russia, to be able to develop relations with other regional and global powers.

Armenia should also look into deepening its ties with India, China, and others—something the leadership has not given much priority to thus far. Further cultivation of a policy inclined to develop and strengthen ties with the east should be one of Yerevan’s top priorities. This will enable Armenia to create more alternatives for itself and loosen its dependence on both Russia and the EU, allowing for more flexibility in its foreign and domestic policies. How they do this is different question, but the fact that we will witness changes in the current strategy is almost certain. Armenia must develop a qualitatively new “Complementarity 2.0” policy that will best reflect current risks and opportunities.




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Armen Sahakyan

Armen Sahakyan

Armen V. Sahakyan specializes in international political economy. He serves as the executive director of the Eurasian Research and Analysis (ERA) Institute, and as an Eurasian affairs analyst at the Political Developments Research Center (PDRC). Sahakyan holds a Master of Arts degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and has previously served as an adviser to the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Armenia to the UN in New York.


  1. An important article with two critical observations: the need for the possibility of dual integration of states with both EU and Russia, and Armenia’s need to look farther east past Russia.

    I am curious, however, as to WHY Armenia is proceeding so rapidly with the integration into the customs union. Why is it doing this? It does not have to.

    • It wishes to have a say in the inital draft agreement for the Eurasian Economic Union that is too be signed this summer. Therefore joining the CU by May is of paramount importance to get all benefits as a “full” member. They cannot move fast enough.

  2. let us also remember that the European union was just stringingArmenia along and at the last moment when Armenia expected to be part of the EU was told it had to wait longer and was turned down. President Sarkissian is doing a nerve wracking tightrope mission to keep Armenia safe.

  3. Russia is rapidly gaining power, or trying to do so, thereby positioning itself differently on the world map than it did in the post-Soviet days of identity loss and through political and economic collapse. What this does is escalating the differentiation between the two power grids: US/NATO on one side and Russia/BRIC on the other side – something which didn’t exist -on such a scale anyway- only about a decade or two ago.

    Our little Armenia will struggle getting its voice heard no matter which side it aligns itself with (unless it grabs one of the two sides by the throat, the way the Jewish lobby has done in the US – something we cannot do in the foreseeable future). What worries me with this re-establishment of the USSR (call it whatever you want – CU, CES, CSTO…) and particularly Armenia’s joining it as its smallest and weakest state is that we are basically choosing the side of the Weaker altogether global alliance. Say what you want about the US/NATO, but it is the stronger of the two sides. Furthermore, speaking of our immediate local geopolitical interests and most importantly our safety, I find it a CONSIDERABLY better deal to be on the same team with NATO (short of Iran, all our neighbors will soon be members), than to exacerbate our own military (etc.) dependence by joining the weaker team (Russia) and having to put the very existence of the state at odds by possibly having to confront not only the US and NATO, but -by extension- all our neighbors. Conversely, being on the same team, like it or not, with all our neighbors and collectively the strongest, by far, military in the world will inevitably protect the existence of our state since no two NATO members would attack each other. Presently, we are speedily trying to join Russia’s new union thereby becoming entirely AND EXCLUSIVELY dependent on Russia’s protection.

    No, I’m not in rush to blame anyone – I do see Russia’s effective intimidation strategies. I just continue wondering, as Alex said above, why rushing so hastily to join a union which is really not an obviously good choice for us. Why couldn’t we have negotiated a deal with EU/NATO of some kind of protection against our wonderful neighbors and continue accesion talks with the EU, while we played our cards better with Russia as well (for example by reminding Russia of its own benefits within Armenia and the admittedly many political, economic, cultural etc. ties between the two countries)?

    • Armenia does not have the option of joining NATO. It’s hosts Russia’s only military base outside its territory and is heavily dependent on it economically (foreign direct investment and remittances). Furthermore any geo-strategic benefit NATO could garner Armenja would be nullified by Turkey being a member; Turkey is far more important to NATO than Armenia could ever be(Incirlik airbase for example).

      It never has been nor will it likely ever in the near future be in the interest of the EU or NATO to give a rat’s ass about anything which is of beneficial consequence to Armenia, neither economically nor militarily. Armenia does not share a border with the EU nor does it have open access to shipping lanes destined for the EU, as Georgia does–not that we’d ever wish to become another Georgia.

      One needs to simply look at the muted/tepid response by Western media to the Turkish-sponsored al-Qaeda/al-Nusra assault against the town of Kessab for an example of their intransigence to criticizing Turkey. Rasmussen of NATO has not said a word, nor did he speak about the false-flag plot by Turkey against Syria (which amounts to state-terrorism).

      Armenia has one road: Russia, and other BRIC nations.

  4. Just one more observation:
    Azerbaijan is on its way of joining NATO. Can anyone take a wild guess at the future of Artsakh if the Azeris join NATO before we do? How much will Mother Russia care to fight the NATO forces then? In a region of such good friends as Georgia, Chechnya, Dagestan…?
    Yes, my point exactly.

  5. I do understand the concern in hurrying to join Russia, and i do understand the fear of our countrymen about their their future, but let’s not forget 1915 when Armenians of today’s Western Turkey were being massacred all the so called Western forces were to busy trying to take a slice of Turkish land none of them were worried about what was happening to poor old Armenians, knowing that actual cleansing was happening thru their diplomats and missionaries.
    But it’s a political world now so every man for himself as they say, and we are on the Russian side as Turkey has been under American protection all these years because of their geographical position.

  6. European Union (EU)is not a done deal yet. Britain is possibly dancing out of it, or seeking to weaken it in some way or other. Some of the present member countries of EU will surely have economic situations, and Germany is not going to pay for their survival all the time. Germany is not capable of creating the desired equilibrium between its economic, military and European leadership powers. USA is not going to be in the same position in Europe, as it is positioning itself against rising China outside Europe, in further East and Oceania. Russia is on the rise in Europe and in the Middle East, therefore will not allow NATO’s further expansion into East Europe and Caucasus. Turkey cannot stand in those regions against Russia. Unfortunately Armenian will have to stay under the treacherous umbrella of Russia, also strengthening ties with China, India and Iran.

  7. Raffi, you give a very good analysis of the situation Armenia is in right now. But would you for one minute imagine Armenia without the following. A – Russian Military Base. B – Without cheap Russian gas supplied to our country. And C – Without Russia maintaining overall stability in the Caucuses. I hate to say it but Armenia would disappear within 1 month. The Turk and Azeri are the same beasts as they were 100 years ago. Considering our immediate attainable results, choosing the Russian side is our best case scenario right now. In the future when Armenia is growing economically, physically, and becomes a better Democracy then we can consider other options. But when you have over 100 Million Turks ready to invade, our options are really few.

    Also i believe it was 2001, Turkey and Greece almost went to war over some small islands near their borders. So the Nato members going to war is potentially possible..

  8. Armenia can’t trust the West, after 100 years most western countries havn’t recognised the Armenian Genocide, in Syria Turkey continues the Genocide into the 21st Century, NO body should have doubt under current circumstances Armenia’s best option is Russia.

  9. Our Americanized zombies need to wake up from their EUrotic dreams and recognize that Armenia’s only hope for a better and more secure future is Russia. For Armenia, independence from Russia means dependence on Turkey. No Russia in the south Caucasus means no Armenia in the south Caucasus. There are no viable alternatives to the above calculus. The Russian nation is providing Armenia today with an opportunity Armenians have not had in well over one thousand years. Instead of doing the work of Western reptiles by disseminating anti-Russian propaganda throughout Armenian society, we Armenians need to wake up and use our God given talents to take full advantage of being a strategic partner of a superpower like Russia. Armenians can be in Russia what Jews are in the US. Western civilization is in decline. The East is rising. Wake up!

  10. I agree staying with Russia. They understand us more than western nations do. Armenia can’t take the chance of aligning with the EU which has proven to be a failure. Armenia should stay away from any nation or union that adopts wide spread socialist or communist ideals (after what happened in the Soviet Union). I love my country (America) but believe Armenia belongs with Russia (and possibly Iran). Nerses Zeytoonian

  11. Has anyone in Armenia thought about regaining that narrow strip of land that gave Armenia access to the Black Sea and included Mt. Ararat, but is now part of Turkey, that was part of Armenia when it was created after WW1? I suppose this is a hopeless dream.

  12. A well written, intelligent and balanced article analysing Armenia’s geopolitical dilemmas and opportunities in a dangerously troubled neighbourhood. Well done Armen Sahakyan.

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