By Grigor Hakobyan
The visit of American National Security Advisor, John Bolton to Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia more than a week ago has caused a wave of political commentary in host countries ranging from hostile (in Russia) to cautious (Armenia and Azerbaijan). As expected, Bolton has articulated American position on a range of geopolitical issues where the interests of both super powers are found to be in contradiction across the Eurasian continent. Among everything that was said and done, Bolton’s comments made in Yerevan about the possibility of selling weapons to Armenia and urging Pashinyan’s government to change country’s “historical patterns” probably caused the most steer in the region, especially in Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.
What did Bolton really mean with his comments made in Yerevan and to what extent a revision of historical assumptions and expectations held as unquestionable truths by generations of Armenians for the past one hundred years is called upon by the present political leadership in the White House ? Do any revisions to Armenia’s foreign policy, change of expectations and deeply held beliefs among Armenian people both at home and around the world really needed to ensure Armenia’s prosperity and security for the next five to ten years ?
Multiple interpretations of Bolton’s comments were offered by political observers in Armenia and diaspora which unsurprisingly ranged from one extreme to another. Some interpreted Bolton’s comments as a call to forget the Armenian Genocide and make territorial concessions in Artsakh in exchange for Turkey lifting its blockade of Armenia. Additionally, Bolton’s comments were interpreted as a directive for Armenia to pull away from Russia’s orbit despite the security guarantees that military alliance with Russia provides, and a demand by the U.S. for Armenia to close its border with Iran despite historically friendly relations between the two countries for the past two hundred years and the fact that Iran provides Armenia with natural gas as a backup to Russian gas and a geographic outlet for Armenian goods to be delivered to consumer markets in the Middle East and southern Europe.
Per our previous article, Armenia: Geopolitical Analysis, the interests of US and Russia are found to be in direct contradiction with each other in the greater Middle East region. Specifically, Russia is interested in maintaining geo-political influence in Near East thus maintaining influence over Armenia’s foreign policy orientation and interactions with other states is a key component of that strategy. In the meantime, US works actively to weaken Russian grip over this region through geopolitical engagement with Georgia, geoeconomic engagement with Azerbaijan and purely political engagement with Armenia by supporting democratization processes taking place in Armenia and its fight against corruption through diplomatic means. At maximum, the U.S. would like to see Armenia’s foreign policy to become independent of Russian influence or at minimum be able to keep Russian influence at arm’s length; make decisions without giving much regard to what Russia may say or do in response.
Although many Armenians would aspire to achieve such level of sovereignty not only in its interactions with Russia but also with everyone else in the world, the chances of realizing such an aspiration are not realistic for the most immediate future, at least not for the next few years. In fact, at least in public, Bolton didn’t offer anything that the Armenian government can rely upon to lessen the geopolitical and economic consequences of such a bold move if it ever decides to undertake at any time in the future. There is no question that Russia will be able to leverage significant consequences against Armenia if it ever attempts to ignore or lessen Russian influence over its foreign policy or the region at large. Such consequences may range from hikes in gas prices that Armenia imports from Russia, embargo on agricultural goods imported from Armenia and deportation of tens of thousands of Armenia labor migrants currently working in Russia. Actions of greater magnitude may follow also such as the resumption of war in Artsakh after delivering another multi-billion-dollar batch of heavy weapons to Azerbaijan thus tilting the military balance between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the war zone.
It is true that Russia manipulates Armenian foreign policy and significantly limits Armenia’s interactions with the US and NATO not only via economic and geopolitical consequences described above but also via fear mongering that targets general Armenian populace. Subtle mentions of potential Turkish aggression to finish off the Armenian genocide in case if Russian military pull out from Armenia generates the public pressure upon the government of Armenia to toe in line with Russian narrative of international affairs and regional outlook. Yet the truth of the matter is greatly different. Armenia is found in such a perilous geopolitical situation because of the decisions that were made by the leaders of former Soviet Union which attempted to appease Turkey and win them over to its struggle against “global imperialism” by signing the Treaty of Moscow (1920) and the Treaty of Kars (1921) in effect surrendering internationally recognized Armenian territories (Treaty of Sevres 1918) to Turkey and Azerbaijan without the approval of the Armenian people thus setting them up for future slaughters and the war that followed from 1988-1994 when former soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the rest of the ruling elite refused to settle the issue of Artsakh in Armenians’ favor and resorted to violence against Armenians both in Yerevan and Artsakh.
Bolton’s demand for Armenia to pull away from Russia without offering Armenia any security guarantees against Turkish aggression or significant American investments in Armenia’s economy didn’t make much sense but only antagonized Russia at Armenia’s expense. Furthermore, offering Armenia to purchase American weapons knowing fully well that Armenia cannot afford to buy them unless they are offered at deeply discounted rates or given for free was rather a deceptive tactic meant to prepare grounds for potential acquisition of American weapons by Azerbaijan. The later from time to time has publicly aired its displeasure with the quality of Russian weapons acquired and it doesn’t hide its continuous interest to purchase American weapons at any cost.
The only political mechanism that restrains both sides from making such a deal is the Section 907 of the United States Freedom Support Act which bans United States from directly selling weapons to Azerbaijan. Furthermore, knowing the needs of Armenian military and very limited budget that is available to meet its needs, besides sniper rifles and some sidearm weapons that Armenia may be able to afford in very small quantities what other weapons had Bolton in mind? It seems that the target audience for his message was not necessarily the government of Armenia but Azerbaijan.
As it relates to Bolton’s statements about Iran it is no secret that the United States is actively working to isolate Iran and therefore open border between Armenia and Iran complicates their efforts to contain it. Yet again, without offering any practical alternatives to strengthening of Armenia’s economy and country’s national security Bolton is pressuring Armenia to close its border with Iran, its only southern outlet to the world, and mend fences with genocidal states of Turkey and Azerbaijan who are eager to finish off the last Armenian in the region. As the Four Day War of April 2016 has shown, Turkey and Azerbaijan continue to seek the extermination of Armenian people and the Armenian state and will not think twice if such an opportunity presents itself again. Therefore, Bolton’s comments in this regard make no sense from an Armenian perspective and insult not only the collective memory of Armenian people who lost their lives at the hands of genocidal Turks and Azerbaijanis but also an insult to intelligence of Armenian people.
On the other hand, Iran is a friendly state to Armenia that didn’t engage in the destruction of Armenian people for more than hundred years and furthermore has offered refuge to the victims of Armenian Genocide during WW-1. The Armenian community in Iran is one of the most prosperous Armenian communities in the Middle East. As an ethnic and religious minority, it is defended by the state while its cultural monuments are often restored or conserved. Moreover, Iran provides Armenia with natural gas which serves as an alternative to Russian one. During 1988-1994 Armenian-Azerbaijani war Russian gas pipelines leading to Armenia via Georgia were often destroyed by Azerbaijani saboteurs. As a result, laying out another gas pipeline from Iran to Armenia became a matter of national security. Consequently, Armenia cannot expect to receive Iranian gas by joining American sanction regime and closing down its border with Iran. In fact, more can be said about the importance of keeping Armenian-Iranian border open but perhaps at another time.
As history has shown Armenia cannot rely on any power to solve its economic and security problems. The interests of other states are often in contradiction to the interests of the Armenian state. They rather cut deals with Turkey than support Armenian quest for justice and simple desire to live freely and securely in their own lands. Armenian legionnaires relied on France to help them liberate Cilicia and establish the Armenian state only to be left on their own to fend off against significantly larger Turkish army that was armed and financed by the communist government in Russia. Armenia relied on United States to be taken under American protectorate according to Treaty of Sevres only to be left with a piece of paper in their hands, forcibly driven to the edges of their homeland mirroring the fate of Native Americans chained to their reservations, awaiting the doom of the last Navajo Indian and that of their kin. Armenians trusted the soviets only to be served with the Treaty of Moscow (1920) and Treaty of Kars (1921) which left Armenians with only one tenth of its homeland.
In the meantime, Nakhijevan got emptied of the last Armenians while its cultural heritage, the crosstones more than a millennium old were broken into pieces and dumped into Araxes river, churches destroyed and traces of anything Armenian erased forever. Now, its supposed allies, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are arming its archenemy and do not even hide their pro- Azerbaijani agenda. Belarus and Kazakhstan are undermining the chairmanship of Armenia in CSTO despite the fact that it doesn’t expire until 2020 and make no qualm about bringing Azerbaijan on board as a supposed “observer” and a potential member that is considering to join the organization in a near future. In all situations and throughout history when Armenia showed doubts about its own strengths and abilities it was either taken over by other countries or manipulated to achieve their own interests at the expense of Armenian people and at the expense of its statehood. The history will continue to repeat itself until Armenia begins to rely upon itself, do not expect anything from anyone, start making different decisions, think for itself and act out of its own self-interests.