Armenia is a country still recuperating from the disastrous 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, a conflict that illustrated its precarious geopolitical position. Wedged between two hostile nations of Turkey and Azerbaijan, Yerevan has had little choice but to rely on the protection and vassalage of Russia.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Armenia finds itself in an even more precarious situation. Facing potential new military aggression with Azerbaijan, growing normalization talks with Turkey, and a drift away from the Kremlin, Armenia finds itself in one of the most fraught geopolitical standoffs existing in the world today—and the wrong move against one of the three authoritative leaders of these countries could spell disaster.

Armenia has historically been used as a battleground between world powers due to its strategic location in the Caucasus. Between the Romans and Persians fighting over control of the country to the Arabs, Turks, and Russians—Armenians persisted and continued to survive endless conflicts and even a genocide. The country’s winds of change blew once again during the Bolshevik Revolution where the ‘Wilsonian Armenia’ idea died, and the Soviets annexed the country into the USSR. Ever since then, Armenia has found itself under the boot of the Kremlin.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia engaged in a years-long  war with Azerbaijan over the region known as Karabakh. The war saw several massacres on both sides and mass displacement of refugees, with the origins of the conflict tracing back to border manipulations created by Moscow. The region, which has had an Armenian majority for over a thousand years, was transferred to Azerbaijan by Josef Stalin, a Soviet dictator who was not averse to deporting millions of people out from their homelands to “conform” to the Soviet lifestyle.

Despite the early nineties war ending with a decisive Armenian victory, the region is still internationally recognized as Azerbaijan and the war created a refugee crisis that is still not resolved to this day.

After years of pro-Kremlin prime ministers, many of which were shrouded in controversy stemming from either corruption or negligence, the Armenian military and Artsakh Defense Forces were left in a hollowed-out state. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan quietly built up its own military following the disaster of the 1994 war. Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan since 2003, used his country’s oil wealth to his advantage, signing defense contracts with Turkey, Israel, and Russia—the same nation that promised to protect Armenia and incorporated it into the CTSO collective security framework, which effectively tied Armenia’s ongoing security to its willingness to appease the Kremlin.

In 2018, Armenians took to the streets to protest decades of corruption, deposing a leadership structure rife with oligarchs and other Kremlin-linked figures. This was known as the Velvet Revolution, which has created consequences felt to this day.

Under the administration of Nikol Pashinyan, there have been several OSCE Minsk Group conferences to press the issue of the peace process between Baku and Yerevan, only to quickly falter each time. Aliyev had continued to build up his military while the inexperienced Pashinyan focused more on corruption from past administrations rather than bolstering defenses for the inevitable war to come. The first major clashes took place between Pashinyan’s Armenia and Aliyev’s Azerbaijan in the Tavush region of Armenia in July 2020, lasting several days. A quick ceasefire was established, though in retrospect the fighting was likely a combat test for the wider clashes to come later in the year.

Using the most opportunistic time during the United Nations General Assembly, Azerbaijan launched a war against Armenia and the Artsakh Defense Forces in September 2020, an operation that actually changed the face of conventional warfare forever. Using the now-infamous Baykar Bayraktar TB2 advanced drone platform from Turkey, the Azerbaijani military hit Armenian logistical supply chains, convoys, and troops in open territory, resulting in stunning success on the battlefield and, subsequently, serious psychological blows as the footage was quickly disseminated across the Internet.

Armenia suffered from its reliance on Soviet-era military doctrines and weaponry that a conventional military could not manage against a more well-armed conventional force. Toward the end of the war, Armenia could have used its geography to embark on a war of attrition against Azerbaijan akin to the Taliban’s methods of holding out against NATO forces, but the country’s leader signaled for capitulation, giving way to an unpredictable future.

The capitulation of Armenia was met by a trilateral agreement between Yerevan and Baku, mediated by Moscow. Though Azerbaijan had won the war, many people have mused that Russia was the true winner. The Kremlin, which stayed idle most of the war, showed Armenia that it had to depend on Russia to survive, and expects complete loyalty from here on out. They also gained a near permanent foothold in the Karabakh region, solidifying Russia’s influence in the lower Caucasus.

The 2020 war was a hard lesson for Armenia—not only did it learn the error of its ways in not investing in defense after decades of stagnation and reliance on Soviet-era weaponry, but it also learned first-hand what would happen to states that broke ranks with Russia. Such lessons have also been learned by countries like Georgia, Belarus, and Ukraine, all of which have had to respond in various ways when their citizens pushed back against pervasive Russian influence.

The war also showed Western hypocrisy when it came to human rights violations, as numerous executions and instances of cultural destruction took place under the Azerbaijani military, allegedly under Ilham Aliyev’s orders. Contrary to the framework of the Geneva Conventions, Azerbaijan has also refused to release Armenian POWs and has held mock trials for them in kangaroo courts, akin to what Russia has done with POWs from the Ukrainian Azov regiment.

Now the trilateral agreement faces increasing uncertainty, and “Russian peacekeepers” are clearly not living up to their name. Numerous ceasefire violations have taken place, primarily faulted to Azerbaijan, and all with little enforcement of the peace deal by Russia.

Over the past year, Armenia has initiated a normalization process with Turkey. This has led to skepticism and division between Armenians and the diaspora, as the issue of genocide recognition from 1915 and the question of whether the Turkish government will keep Azerbaijan at bay loom large. Likewise, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has cozied up to Russia over the past several years, establishing a joint military base with Moscow in the Karabakh region, purchasing S400s despite wide NATO condemnation, and giving Russian oligarchs a haven from sanctions in Turkey. This has also put Yerevan in a predicament, with fears that Moscow would leave the country to its fate in order to placate Erdogan’s authoritarian government, and in the process seed new conflicts in NATO at the expense of its own allies.

Against the backdrop of the Ukraine war, Putin solidified an alliance with Ilham Aliyev on February 24th, causing new concerns in Yerevan. Armenia has taken an extremely neutral approach thus far, though fake news rumors at one point put the country on the international radar when, early in the war, NATO officials visited Armenia on rumors that they had sent their fixed wing aircraft to reinforce Russia’s invasion – an allegation that was proven false. Armenia has also seen a mass influx of Russian citizens and oligarchs who are bent on circumventing sanctions, putting a strain on their already vulnerable economy.

As the European Union has looked to divest away from Russian gas, Azerbaijan took full advantage, setting a landmark deal with the EU to supply gas to the continent until 2027. This has come with skepticism as EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called Aliyev “trustworthy” on her official Twitter. By effectively placating one dictatorship for another, Armenia once again has received the short end of the stick. This was further reinforced when Aliyev emphasized Armenians in Karabakh would not have special status under Azerbaijani authority, dismissing any autonomy for them and fueling more mutual antagonism between both nations.

Armenia is now a centerpiece on a chessboard between Turkey, Russia, and Azerbaijan, and with few allies and minor strategic importance to the wider international community, any wrong move could spell another humanitarian disaster right under the nose of the United Nations.


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