A high level visit to Yerevan from U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has raised some eyebrows, offering controversial solutions to sensitive issues like weapon sales and an end to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In what is being referred to as “geopolitical wreckage,” Bolton’s tour of the Southern Caucasus has had an underlying agenda: to isolate Iran, a strategic border ally of Armenia.
Yesterday I had a nice visit to Armenia, an important friend in the region. I enjoyed productive conversations with the Prime Minister and his national security team.
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) October 26, 2018
In one of several provocative statements, Bolton suggested a significant change to Armenia’s foreign policy—that Armenia purchase arms from the United States instead of Russia. “We think our equipment is better than the Russians’…it increases Armenia’s options when it’s not entirely dependent on one major power.”
Responses across Armenia’s political spectrum have been varied. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, for example, seems intrigued. “The [Armenian] government is not constrained by anything. If there is an offer from the United States that is good for us, we will discuss it,” he told journalists at a recent press conference.
Russia has long been beefing up the weapons supply of Armenia and Azerbaijan, despite criticism that this type of support increases the risk of fighting in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. An indignant Russia says Armenia would be renouncing ‘historical clichés’ and damaging a ‘traditional friendship’ if it ever chose that route; the spokesperson even holding Bolton accountable from an October 25 interview with Radio Liberty in which he said, “I think that’s really fundamental to Armenia exercising its full sovereignty and not being dependent on or subject to excessive foreign influence.” Russia responded, “It would be good if John Bolton thinks over the meaning of his own words.”
The Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), which has a history of close ties with Russia, staunchly opposes Bolton’s suggestion. The leader of the former ruling parliamentary faction Vahram Baghdasarian believed such action would “escalate the situation and aggravate the negotiating process.”
Meantime the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) welcomed the idea. Armen Rustamyan, the leader of the ARF’s parliamentary faction, believes that Armenia today is behind Azerbaijan in its military buildup. “Aggressions and hostilities start when the balance is disturbed,” explained Rustamyan, who would be open to America sharing its arsenal.
The largest and most influential Armenian-American grassroots organization, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), is also not opposed to U.S sales of arms to Armenia, but not if that means Azerbaijan gets a cut, too. That’s part of the group’s enforcement of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which restricts U.S. aid—including military assistance—to Azerbaijan. In a statement, the ANCA said, “The danger here is that Azerbaijan, given the size of its military budget, can afford significantly more advanced U.S. arms than Armenia – leading to imbalances both on the battlefield and in terms of political relationships.”
As for Bolton’s suggestion on taking “decisive action” toward a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, PM Pashinyan emphasized, “John Bolton, or anyone for that matter, cannot speak on my behalf…there cannot be a resolution if it is not acceptable to the people of Armenia, Artsakh and the government of Artsakh.” Pashinyan said he’s striving for transparency during this Pan-Armenian issue; he said the Armenian people will resolve the conflict. In reference to Bolton and the Trump administration, Pashinyan said, “They are moving forward with the logic that they have some kind of ownership of the Karabakh issue. They are attempting to sell it to me without asking my opinion.”