The U.S. Can't Guarantee Armenia's Security, Despite Azerbaijan's Threats, but It Can Help


Mar 14, 2024

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov during peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Berlin, February 28, 2024, photo by Annegret Hilse/Reuters

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov during peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Berlin, February 28, 2024

Photo by Annegret Hilse/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Just Security on March 14, 2024.

Faced with a hostile neighbor in Azerbaijan and a feckless ally in Russia, Armenia is undergoing a major shake-up in its foreign policy. Following its crushing defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023 and more recent border skirmishes that left four Armenian soldiers dead, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has frozen participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Moscow's half-baked answer to NATO.

Amid this potential geopolitical shift, Washington may be tempted to move in and play the role that Russia failed to fulfill. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators last fall called on the Biden administration to take action that “reassures” Armenians “of our unwavering support,” although that call provided no concrete proposals. Rather than unwavering support, however, the United States should pursue a more cautious strategy, for both its own interests and those of Armenia. It should provide Armenia with the capabilities to defend itself, while setting clear expectations about the limits of its commitments. It can help support Armenian security, but for a number of reasons, it cannot play the role of security guarantor, especially as even Armenia's leaders are cautious on that score.

Since the final days of the Soviet Union, Armenian-Azerbaijani relations have been defined by Nagorno-Karabakh, a historically Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan's international borders. After a war that stretched from 1988 to 1994, the region, known as Artsakh in Armenian, established itself as a de facto independent state closely aligned with Yerevan. While the situation remained relatively stable from 1994 to 2020, Azerbaijan's authoritarian regime found purpose in its decades-long quest to reconquer the territory, fomenting anti-Armenian resentment while building up its military capabilities. After an Azerbaijani victory in the 2020 Second Karabakh War, Russia agreed to send peacekeepers, who failed to prevent another war three years later.

The United States should provide Armenia with the capabilities to defend itself, while setting clear expectations about the limits of its commitments.

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In September 2023, even after several of its soldiers were killed—including the deputy head of its peacekeeping mission—Moscow stood by as Baku seized control of the enclave and more than 100,000 Armenians were displaced. Left to fend for itself against a more powerful adversary, Armenia's leadership made the prudent but painful decision not to fight back, allowing Azerbaijan to reestablish its sovereignty and end the Republic of Artsakh.

Armenia has grown increasingly frustrated with Moscow as a result. Russia's peacekeeping role had never been clear or particularly credible, and its forces stood idly by during Baku's offensives since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. By allowing the attacks to proceed, including a 2022 assault on Armenian territory proper, Russia has discredited itself as a peacekeeper and as a CSTO treaty ally obliged to defend Armenia. In fact, Russian inaction has only further emboldened Baku, which has not been a CSTO member since 1999. Since its 2023 victory, Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan's authoritarian ruler, has publicly referred to Armenian territory as “Western Azerbaijan,” ostensibly laying the groundwork for future military interventions.

U.S. Interests

Should the United States even care what happens in the South Caucasus? A narrow view of national interests might suggest that the region, while of understandably great concern to the sizable Armenian diaspora living in the United States, lacks strategic significance. Yet an invasion of Armenia by Azerbaijan would run counter to America's interest. Armed aggression would delegitimize the principles undergirding U.S. support to Ukraine—that international borders are inviolable and that democracies should be defended. An invasion also could further destabilize the region and upend critical energy flows that America's NATO allies are increasingly dependent on as they wean themselves off Russian supplies. Finally, the United States should take into account the humanitarian consequences of another war, which would destroy lives and displace many civilians, including many of the approximately 120,000 civilians who were already forced to relocate to Armenia after fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh last year.

Other countries have started taking up the call to support Armenia's defensive capabilities, but their efforts are insufficient without the United States. France and India are currently the most involved—the two countries have signed a contract to sell military equipment including radars, binoculars, and sensors to Armenia, and signed a letter of intent for Armenia to purchase air defense systems capable of repelling Azerbaijani drones. Meanwhile, Armenia has recently become the first foreign buyer of India's Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers and has purchased its Zen anti-drone systems. Commentators have also begun calling on the European Union to provide military aid to Armenia through its European Peace Facility mechanism for financing military aid, though it is unlikely to muster significant new resources on top of current commitments to Ukraine.

While these recent security agreements are positive developments for Armenia's defensive capabilities, they are not enough to fully counter a hypothetical Azerbaijani offensive. Considering the real possibility of an invasion by a wealthier, more populous, and technologically superior military adversary, Armenia's primary concern should be defense and deterrence. As in the case of Taiwan vis-à-vis China, Armenia's best chance for survival is a porcupine strategy of fortifying itself to withstand a potential invasion, i.e., deterrence by denial. As suggested by Armenian analyst Nerses Kopalyan, such a strategy would prioritize mobility and operational flexibility, tailor procurement to countering Azerbaijan's specific offensive capabilities, and finally, ensure resilience and survivability of military resources and infrastructure.

The United States can help strengthen Armenia's deterrence capabilities. Under the Foreign Military Sales program, the United States could provide Armenia short-range air defense such as MANPADS, as well as TROPHY countermeasure systems designed to enhance the defense of armored capabilities. Arms exports to Armenia also could include broader counter-drone systems currently in development. This technology could complement the capabilities Armenia is currently receiving from its existing deals, such as the Thales Group's GM-200 counter-drone radars that it has received from France. Additionally, the Department of Defense could help build institutional capability to foster expertise, competence, trust, and legitimacy within Armenia's security apparatus. This would help the country escape what Kopalyan has described as “institutional underdevelopment and the culture of inchoate security thinking inherited from the Soviet legacy.”

Building in Protections

U.S. policymakers may worry that Western military equipment risks falling into the hands of the Russian state. While Armenia is freezing its participation in the CSTO, it is still a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), an integrated single market through which Russia could illegally import military and dual-use technology subject to Western export controls. U.S. and European officials have already expressed some concerns that Armenia has (either wittingly or unwittingly) served as a node in the Kremlin's illicit network to evade sanctions and export controls. As required by the Arms Export Control Act, any military aid to Armenia must comply with end-use requirements and monitoring to prevent any technology from being illicitly transferred to unauthorized recipients. The United States should demand verifiable assurances that Armenia will enforce Western export controls. Kazakhstan, which is also a member of the EEU and the CSTO, has announced policies to prevent parallel imports, and could provide one model for this assurance.

U.S. security assistance would not create a military deterrent for Armenia overnight. Even after a deal is formalized, transferring military equipment and training the Armenian military to use it effectively will take time, something Yerevan can hardly afford to waste, as Baku potentially prepares another military incursion. Therefore, this military policy should be pursued in tandem with immediate political engagement to calm hostilities in the region.

For one, the United States should work alongside the European Union—whose President Ursula Von der Leyen has cultivated positive relations with Baku—to help foster dialogue in the region and mediate an eventual peace settlement. The State Department can offer diplomatic carrots for making substantive progress toward peace. For example, if a settlement included meaningful provisions to preserve Nagorno-Karabakh's Christian heritage, the United States could take Azerbaijan off its special watch list for violating religious freedom. While mostly symbolic, the offer would provide Baku an off-ramp away from the international stigma that the designation bears.

Meanwhile, the State Department could indirectly foster regional stability by encouraging better relations between Armenia and Turkey, Azerbaijan's patron state and a U.S. ally in NATO. Yerevan and Ankara have both expressed interest in normalizing relations, although progress has stalled. The United States could endorse and help jump-start the process, perhaps by offering to provide technical assistance or to host mediations. In addition to allowing movement and trade across the border, which would stimulate economic growth and provide further opportunities for diplomatic engagement, normalization would send a signal to Baku, encouraging it to follow its patron's lead and soften its own posture toward Yerevan.

Balanced Responses

The steps outlined above could bolster Armenia's security, support regional stability, and ultimately advance Western interests. But in the immediate term and with the prospect of a possible invasion, the limits of partnership should be made clear. Neither the United States nor its allies are willing to offer Armenia security guarantees, let alone a formal military alliance, given the risks that might entail if Armenia has to call on such assurances. With clarity, Armenia can take that into account in its own strategic calculations vis-à-vis both Azerbaijan and Russia.

Freezing participation in the CSTO is an understandable consequence of Armenia's growing frustrations toward Russia. The Kremlin will surely bristle at the decision, but its reaction will be more muted than if Armenia outright exited the alliance or explicitly pivoted toward a Western orientation. Given the dangers of a Russian backlash, Armenia should be wary of doing so. Russia maintains significant military presence within the country, with two garrisons and an airbase providing a permanent pressure point to use against Yerevan. Moreover, Armenia's entire air defense system, which would be critical in any fight with Azerbaijan, also has depended on Russia since they signed a joint air defense capabilities agreement in 2016. Finally, Armenia's gas, oil, and nuclear power sectors are mostly controlled by Russia. It is thus hardly feasible to fully pivot away from Moscow, which despite its current preoccupation with Ukraine could still impose disastrous costs to Armenia.

Armenia's national interests would be best served by hedging its security relationship with Russia without unduly alienating Moscow by abandoning it altogether.

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Armenia's national interests would be best served by hedging its security relationship with Russia without unduly alienating Moscow by abandoning it altogether. The leaders of the 2018 Velvet Revolution, a protest movement that peacefully toppled a corrupt leader and ushered in Pashinyan's rise, were prudent in excluding geopolitics from the scope of the political upheaval. Having seen Russian outrage at the so-called color revolutions of the previous two decades and the military backlash against Georgia's and Ukraine's explicit pivots toward the West, Armenian activists understood that avoiding clear lines in the sand would help them preserve their movement's pro-democratic gains. While Moscow's attention and resources may be stretched thin right now in Ukraine, it will be loath to lose another ally (or vassal) from its self-perceived sphere of influence. Diversifying Armenia's security relationships, as Pashinyan has himself called for, rather than moving all its eggs from one basket to another, will better serve his country and its people.

The United States and its European allies cannot be everything Armenia wants and needs from a foreign partner. Yerevan is going to maintain complex economic, social, and strategic relations with its neighbors, including both Russia and Iran, and it would be folly to pressure them to make an all-or-nothing binary choice between a Western alignment or nothing. The West should recognize and accept Armenia's multi-alignment and focus on areas where it is comparatively able and willing to deepen ties and foster stability.

Joe Haberman and Paul Cormarie are policy analysts at RAND.