Putin’s tactics at play in Armenia

Putin’s tactics at play in Armenia
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A revolution is brewing in Armenia. Since April 15, massive demonstrations have occurred in the capital city of Yerevan. Protesters oppose a Putin-like attempt by the ruling party to maintain political power. 

President Sergei Sargsyan rewrote the constitution and pretended to establish a more parliamentary system, hand-picked his successor and resigned. He then engineered his nomination and installation as the all-powerful prime minister, subsequently reappointing many members of his former cabinet. Sargsyan seeks to ensure they maintain power, oppress the population and openly draw closer to Russia. 

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Sargsyan’s actions evoke memories of the infamous “castling move” between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in 2011 that brought Putin back as president of Russia. That triggered large demonstrations in Moscow, and launched Putin on the aggressive course of domestic and foreign policies he now pursues.

 

As in 2011, Sargsyan’s machinations generated huge demonstrations, clearly aimed at a revolution. These demonstrations display profound lessons and repercussions for Armenia, the post-Soviet sphere and international affairs in general. 

First, in Armenia, Sargsyan’s maneuvers and the reaction underscore the ruthlessness of the ruling elite in Yerevan. Although the West more often censures Azerbaijan for human rights violations and corruption, Sargsyan’s regime jails political opponents and clearly is equally corrupt. Moreover, it has clearly mortgaged Armenia’s political and economic sovereignty to Moscow, unlike Azerbaijan.

The transparent similarity of Sargsyan’s games to those of Putin seven years ago and Moscow’s rush to congratulate the new government highlight this dependence on Russia. This also shows Russia aims to replicate Putin-like regimes wherever Russian influence holds sway.

Armenia’s developments also show the continuing harmful influence of the unresolved war in Nagorno-Karabakh since that war has long since hijacked Armenian politics at the expense of its actual sovereignty and economic progress.

Armenia’s population is declining, its economy is stagnant and, thanks to its dependence on Russia, is oriented to the Eurasian Economic Union rather than the EU. So it is no surprise that the revolutionaries are primarily young people who have nothing to lose.

Second, Armenia’s third upheaval since 2015 also shows that once again Putin-type, post-Soviet regimes are inherently unstable even if they maintain an imposing façade for a long time.  

Moreover, throughout this period, Russia has had to subsidize them at the cost of its own internal development and use or threaten force to keep them in line. Moscow already has a major base in Armenia, among other major investments.

Third, this inherent instability has a significant impact on regional security issues. In Armenia, it means that Sargsyan cannot be an effective partner for peace with Azerbaijan. The demonstrations in 2016 stemmed from the belief that Russia was selling weapons to Azerbaijan and ignoring Armenia despite Armenia’s subservience to Moscow. 

Nationalist sentiment may well be a core part of the revolutionary upsurge today. But that means that Sargsyan’s government cannot and probably will not negotiate seriously with Baku — or credibly enforce a peace settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh. Since Moscow is not interested in bringing the parties to peace, Sargsyan’s continuation in office does nothing to curb the potential for increased violence. A more nationalistic regime in Yerevan also could not restrain the movement. 

Renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh could eventually drag Turkey as well as Russia into war. Facing this reality, the U.S. should not only bring the parties to negotiation but, in general, take the Caucasus a lot more seriously than in years past.

Finally, the repeated instability of the area and the entire post-Soviet area not only obliges Russia to subsidize these dysfunctional regimes at the cost of its own national development, it also means that Russia ultimately cannot obtain security except by war or the threat of it. Russia has no other means to maintain authority or legitimacy than naked displays of power. Moscow’s drive for empire presupposes constant war in Eurasia, which will only breed repeated revolutions and wars.

Armenia represents a warning to all of us. If we continue to ignore the handwriting on the wall in Yerevan, Armenia won’t be the only country to pay the price of ignorance.

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College.