For the small country of Armenia, the past several months have marked an impressive emergence on the world stage. In a first-ever visit by a German leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Armenia in late August, followed by French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, joining other leaders for the Francophonie summit held earlier this month.
While the timing of these high-profile arrivals had little to do with Armenian politics, the significance of the visits was bolstered by the rare victory of “people power” that saw the establishment of a new, more democratic government in May 2018. Yet even with such enhanced strategic significance, Armenia still faces the burdens of unresolved conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and a dangerous over-dependence on Russia.
Against that backdrop, however, Armenia has sought greater balance to resist the gravitational pull of the Russian orbit. In fact, its rebalancing strategy was well under way before the change of government, as Armenia deepened relations with both the European Union and neighboring Iran.
Now this success in mitigating Armenia’s dependence on Russia is now facing an unforeseen and surprising new challenge. And ironically, this threat comes not from Moscow, but from Washington, evident in a regional tour of the South Caucasus by US National Security Adviser John Bolton, who arrived in Armenia on 24 October.
Although the visit’s symbolic significance as the highest level visit of a U.S. official to Armenia, the implications of such engagement by the Trump Administration have sparked concerns.
Bolton eyes Armenia-Iran ties
From a broader perspective, US policy toward Armenia has long been defined and driven by the perspective of Armenia as a subset of broader US-Russian relations. Such a view was generally consistent through both the Bush and Obama Administrations, and even given the unpredictable nature of the Trump White House, the view of Armenia through a prism of relations with Russia still applies.
Another fundamental element in the US approach to Armenia has been a longstanding, yet relatively unsuccessful bid to negotiate a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Although the Armenian side’s policy has been generally more moderate and flexible than Azerbaijan’s maximalist stance on the conflict, Bolton did exert some pressure on Armenia.
Specifically, on his arrival in Yerevan from Baku, the US official suggested that the coming to power of a more democratic new Armenian leadership demands “leadership” on moving the peace process forward. This new pressure may be both unrealistic and unacceptable for the new Armenian government, especially given the militant rhetoric and threats emanating from Azerbaijan.
What is also different is the message and mission of the Bolton visit. In both public statements and private meetings, the US national security adviser made it clear that Washington is now closely scrutinizing Armenia’s relationship with Iran, and seeks to enlist Armenian support to apply “maximum pressure” in order to “squeeze Iran,” as Bolton openly admitted.
Bolton also informed the Armenian government that the Trump administration intends to enforce tightened sanctions “very vigorously,” adding a warning that the Armenian border with Iran will be “a significant issue.”
Although these warnings were softened slightly by Bolton’s reassurance that Washington is not seeking to “cause damage to our friends in the process,” it is now clear that the past practice of the United States “looking the other way” as Armenia deepened its ties and trade with Iran is over. This is despite the fact that Armenia has consistently conformed to previous sanctions and only saw Iran as an essential alternative to depending too much on Russia.
But there were two other rather strange twists to Bolton’s visit to Armenia. First, in a rather vague and abrupt reference that would be a substantial shift in US policy, Bolton announced that Washington would “look at” potential arms sales to Armenia, despite the American position as a key mediator of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan. And with Russia as the primary arms supplier to both sides in that conflict, such an off-hand statement is certain to trigger Russian unease.
The second twist was even more bizarre, as President Trump’s “private lawyer” Rudolph Giuliani arrived in Armenia just days before Bolton, on a “private visit” to attend a conference devoted to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, and during which he hailed Armenia’s potential role as a “bridge” between the Eurasian Union and the EU.
While Giuliani’s optimism for such cooperation with the West was perhaps designed to offset Bolton’s tougher talk in Moscow days earlier, like everything else in the Trump Administration, the outlook for US policy and the real implications for Armenia remain as unpredictable as ever.
Richard Giragosian is the director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia