Armenia's Fair-Weather Allies

4 MINS READApr 6, 2016 | 23:18 GMT
Soldiers take part in a joint exercise of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Peacekeeping Forces at a training ground in Armenia on September 30, 2015. AFP PHOTO / KAREN MINASYAN (Photo credit should read KAREN MINASYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Soldiers in Armenia participate in a joint military exercise of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which recently declined to intervene on the country's behalf in the latest Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

As fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region tapers off, the efficacy of various alliance structures in the former Soviet territories is coming under scrutiny. When the conflict began five days ago, Armenian leaders turned to the country's largest backer, Russia, and to its primary military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Since then, the media throughout the Caucasus have been abuzz with questions over whether the CSTO and Russia would intervene to support Armenia in the conflict. But so far, neither has even considered it.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the CSTO military bloc emerged to facilitate security cooperation among its members. Then, in the mid-2000s, Moscow used the bloc to expand its influence among member states and promoted the CSTO as an alternative to NATO. Though membership has shifted over the decades, the organization currently includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In some areas, such as conducting joint military training and exercises and interlinking air defense systems, the CSTO has been effective in its aims. Additionally, in 2009 the CSTO created a Rapid Reaction Force, which was considered a demonstration of the alliance's commitment to its members' collective defense.

Like NATO's Article 5, two articles in the CSTO agreement describe the bloc's collective defense policies. According to the articles, an attack on one member equates to an attack on all. But despite numerous opportunities to enforce the policies — for example, in regional conflicts between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, or Armenia and Azerbaijan — the CSTO has never used collective military intervention. And in 2010, the CSTO amended the articles: The "collective defense" policy became a "cooperative defense arrangement," giving CSTO members more discretion in responding to regional conflicts.  

So when Armenia appealed to the CSTO for assistance in the latest clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh, its fellow member states were already distancing themselves from any involvement. On the first day of fighting, Belarus' Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling for peace under the United Nations Security Council resolutions. Because the council's resolutions recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as within Azerbaijani territory, Armenia took umbrage at the statement. Belarus further asserted that its current defense policy prohibits Belarusian soldiers from fighting outside its borders. In turn, Armenia criticized Belarus for renouncing its military and economic ally, citing the countries' ties through the CSTO as well as the Eurasian Economic Union. Kazakhstan responded much as Belarus did, reiterating the need for a peace settlement. Moreover, the Eurasian Economic Union summit has since been rescheduled and moved to Moscow after Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov refused to travel to Armenia on Thursday for the event.

Although Armenia is a loyal ally to Russia as well as a CSTO member, it has little recourse in the matter. The CSTO isn't required to support the member country in the current conflict since Nagorno-Karabakh is technically outside its borders. And because the organization is certainly not an alliance of equals, Armenia has little weight to compel the bloc, or any of its members, to action. The alliance's largest member, Russia, could probably rally support for an Armenian intervention if it felt so inclined. But Moscow has gone out of its way not only to advocate for a cease-fire but also to keep an evenhanded approach to Yerevan and Baku.

In fact, Russia has become a force for calm in the dispute. On April 5, the announcement came that a tenuous cease-fire agreement in the conflict had been reached at a meeting in Moscow between Armenia's and Azerbaijan's military chiefs. In the coming days, Moscow will divide its diplomatic attention between the two countries: Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev is headed to Armenia on Thursday and Azerbaijan the day after. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in Baku today and will meet with his Armenian counterpart on Friday in Moscow.

For now, Russia sees maintaining its relationship with Azerbaijan as a greater priority than supporting its small ally, Armenia. Moscow knows Yerevan does not have any viable alternative relationships it can call on to aid its situation. Conversely, Azerbaijan could call on increased support from its own ally, Turkey. Keeping the peace will allow Russia to forestall Turkey's involvement in the matter. Furthermore, promoting peace in Nagorno-Karabakh provides good press for Russia among the Europeans and Americans — with whom Moscow has been in constant contact during the conflict.

All of this suggests that the CSTO may be a fair-weather alliance whose functions and membership, in the context of the current clashes, are at odds with Russia's interests. For Yerevan, this means its primary military alliance is above all an alliance of its partners' convenience.


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