The Threat to Armenia's Sovereignty
A disunited and weakened Armenia will lose its status as an independent state
I arrived in Armenia from Barcelona this Sunday. It's the first time I've visited the country since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. After only a few days of assimilating myself and speaking with locals, many of my deepest concerns around Armenia's future have, unfortunately, intensified. I've never been more worried about the nation's security and the future prosperity of its people.
Why am I worried?
Armenia is surrounded by two increasingly hostile neighbors, Turkey and Azerbaijan, who continue to invest heavily in military technologies and upgrade their armies. I worry that, within the next 10 years, Armenia will lose its status as an independent state to the hands of a dangerous dictatorial duo - Turkey's President Erdogan and Azerbaijan's President Aliyev.
My concerns are not without merit. Earlier this month, Turkey and Azerbaijan signed a declaration to increase military cooperation and began joint military drills this week. Turkey's government continues to prioritize its defense industry; expenditures reached an all-time high of $15B last year, a 6.5% increase on 2019, and are set to steadily rise until 2025. Moreover, Turkey's current regime is not opposed to bullying weaker countries or displacing millions of people, as evidenced by their actions in Syria. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has allocated $2.6B for defense and national security expenses in 2021, 20% more than in 2020. Emboldened by its oil and gas windfall, Azerbaijan increased its military expenditure more than twenty-fold between 2004 and 2014.
The military investments of Turkey and Azerbaijan dwarf Armenia's plans to allocate $600M to its military in 2021. Turkey's outsized investment is supported by its population of 85 million (compared with Armenia's 2 million) and its $800B GDP (compared with Armenia's $13B). Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has a GDP of $50B, a population of 10 million, and deep hydrocarbon resources to draw on, which provide direct royalties to the state budget. In contrast, Armenia needs to place these costs on its tax base.
The pre-corona economic situation in Armenia
According to the World Bank, Armenia was making "gradual improvements to its business environment and establishing a track record of prudent macroeconomic policy management" prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Between 2010 and 2016, Armenia's GDP growth averaged a modest 3.5%. From 2017 onwards, however, things began to look up. GDP growth averaged 6.8% between 2017 and 2019, and growth in GDP per capita was the second-highest in Europe and Central Asia.
Armenia's progress was, however, derailed in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic and a six-week war with Azerbaijan.
Armenia's COVID-19 outbreak
As of 30 June 2021, Armenia has recorded 225,000 COVID-19 cases and 4,514 deaths in a population of only 2 million. After a surge in cases in the first quarter of 2021, Armenia is now ranked 33rd globally in recorded cases per million. The country's vaccination program, which started in April, has seen only 1.8% of the population receive one dose of the vaccine, and 0.4% have been fully vaccinated.
Armenia's war with Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan defeated Armenia in a six-week war that ended in November 2020. The conflict was over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory in the Caucasus inhabited mainly by ethnic Armenians. For over 30 years, Nagorno-Karabakh has been locked in a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. From 1994 to 2020, Armenia controlled Nagorno-Karabakh, while Azerbaijan rebuilt its military. Fighting erupted again in the summer of 2020, and Azerbaijan went on the offensive — eventually capturing most of Nagorno-Karabakh and dramatically reshaping the region.
The fighting ended when both sides agreed to sign a Russian-brokered peace deal. Under its terms, Azerbaijan holds on to several areas that it gained control of during the conflict, and Armenia will withdraw troops from them. Almost 2,000 Russian peacekeepers will monitor the truce.
The war is concerning for several reasons.
- It evidenced Azerbaijan's willingness to use military force to take over land it deems strategically valuable. Control of Nagorno-Karabakh and, in turn, Armenia, would help Azerbaijan export oil and natural gas to Turkey and the rest of the world.
- It evidenced Turkey's interest in gaining influence in the Caucasus and acquiring leverage over Russia that it could potentially use in Syria or Libya. As part of this, Turkey has forged closer economic and military ties with Azerbaijan. The countries regularly conduct joint military exercises, including in July and August 2020, and Turkey's arms sales to Azerbaijan increased sixfold in 2020. After Israel and Russia, Turkey is now Azerbaijan's third-largest supplier of weapons. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, is crucial for Turkey's energy security; its state oil company has become Turkey's biggest foreign investor.
- It evidenced Russia's apathy in defending Armenia. A bilateral military treaty between Russia and Armenia seems increasingly unlikely. Russia is placing greater importance on continuing its tactical alliance with Turkey while also creating inroads over Armenia's territory for regional economic reasons. Not only this, but Moscow seems to have sold arms at a higher rate to Azerbaijan to effectively subsidize lower-cost supplies to Armenia – a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). In other words, Armenia can no longer rely on Russia for protection.
- It evidenced the diminishing ability of smaller and poorer nations, like Armenia, to defend themselves against full-spectrum air attacks. Azerbaijan's use of state-of-the-art missiles, drones, and rocket artillery (funded and supplied by Turkey) was crucial in its victory over Armenia. The strategy was so effective that it inspired the UK's military to embark on a new armed drone program.
- It evidenced America's apathy and passivity for the region and Armenia. While the warzone's proximity to Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the broader Middle East could attract more US attention, the South Caucasus is not a prime area of strategic interest for the US, according to Carey Cavanaugh, a former US ambassador and co-chair of the OSCE Minsk group. Again, Armenia can not rely on the US for support or protection.
The situation in Armenia today
Armenia's severe COVID-19 outbreak and its war with Azerbaijan have exhausted its military resources, decimated its economy, and increased poverty. As a result, much of the population is nonchalant and has been left without care for the nation's future. To make things worse, this has only accelerated the systematic emigration from Armenia since the early 1990s; the country has experienced negative net migration for every year between 1994 and 2021, other than five. The people are now either searching for a better life by emigrating to Russia, America, and Europe, or they've simply given up and become despondent.
The population's lack of enthusiasm derives from the country's dire political situation. In Armenia's recent snap elections, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan won 54% of the vote to cement his position as the country's leader. His primary opposition was a coalition, widely perceived as corrupt, led by ex-PM Robert Kocharyan, who only secured 21% of the vote. Pashinyan's victory, on paper, seems like a great victory. In reality, his government was just the best choice amongst a bad bunch.
The threat to Armenia's sovereignty
The threat to Armenia's sovereignty comes from internal weakness and external force. While Azerbaijan and Turkey continue to nibble away at Armenia's borders, Armenians worldwide remain as divided as ever. Inside of Armenia, June's elections were evidence of this; the nation, which counts only 2 million inhabitants, had over 100 participating political parties. Outside of Armenia, within the diaspora, opinions are fragmented, incomplete, partisan, often directed at the past by pointing to the mistakes of actors.
A disunited and weakened Armenia will be easy prey for the foreign aggressor, and the flow of emigration will take care of the rest. But unity cannot be decreed; it can only be achieved after exchanging views and reaching a compromise on fundamental points.
So what are Armenia's options?
Honestly, I'm not sure. I'm a 26-year-old member of the Armenian diaspora; I've spent my life in the bubble of western comforts and have little experience navigating such complex issues. Nevertheless, a few options come to mind.
- Armenia could purge Russia from its borders and welcome US military bases into the country. Georgia did this after its Rose Revolution in 2003 and has since continued to consolidate democratic reforms at home and pursue closer ties with the West in its foreign policy. The move might make sense now more than ever, as Biden tries to reverse Trump's insular America-first policy, and US relationships with Russia, Turkey, and Iran remain unstable.
- Armenia could prioritize on STEM education and attract Big Tech and Big Pharma into the country. Tech is the largest foreign investment in Armenia, and companies like Intel, Microsoft, Google, IBM, Synopsys, and Cisco already have a physical presence there.
- Armenia could expand its military and conscription. Like Israel's Defense Force, Armenia could increase the length of its conscription program, make it mandatory for women, and increase its desirability by investing more into academic programs.
- Armenia could double down on its relationship with Iran, whose interests are related to its border with Azerbaijan and the fear its domestic Azerbaijani minority will revolt.
- Armenia could double down on its relationship with India, whose interests are related to the Azerbaijani and Turkish appeal to fellow Islamic nations, especially Pakistan, for support in various international bodies.
- Armenia could double down on its relationship with China, whose interests are related to its One Belt One Road initiative and creating new economic corridors in the South Caucasus by virtue of Armenia membership of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
I could speculate more and elaborate even further, but that's not why I'm writing this.
I'm writing this because all components of the nation must debate all these options.
I'm writing this because Armenia and Armenians have contributed so much to our collective humanity. The fall of Armenia would be a loss for all humankind. As a human, I want to see Armenia survive, thrive, flourish, and continue to contribute to the fantastic things it has evidenced it's capable of.
I'm writing this to call on everyone in our society—both Armenian and non-Armenian—to notice and engage with the possibility that Armenia could lose its position as an independent state. This is not beyond possibility; there are 650 ethnic groups worldwide, but only 190 countries. Armenia only has to look at the 30 million Kurds straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran to see evidence of this.
The most important thing is to act now, mobilize and dedicate intelligence and resources to a few objectives, have a real diplomatic and security strategy in the short and long term, and put aside interpersonal conflicts.