What do you call a country whose prime minister chairs Russia’s six-nation military alliance, hosts a permanent Russian military base, holds a bilateral mutual defense pact with Russia, and whose customs and tariff policy is subsumed within Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union trade zone?
The answer is, surely, “Russia’s ally.”
Today, Armenia, the nation in question, is more under the control of the Kremlin than at any point since the collapse of the Soviet Union to which it once belonged. But it’s not what Armenians want. Who would?
Still, the United States allowed this to happen to a Christian nation whose people want to face west but remain trapped in Russia’s cold embrace. That’s a disgrace.
America has a duty to put it right.
But there’s not much time. Exactly one year this week from a short but brutal war with their neighbor Azerbaijan the situation is not better for Armenia – but worse. To mark last year’s ceasefire – which they, not America, brokered – Russia is hosting the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan for “peace talks.” What we can be sure of is that whatever is agreed is intended to make both these former Soviet satellite states more dependent on today’s Russia – and further apart from each other.
We can already see Russia’s cynical opportunism in the way it has used Armenia’s defeat to turn the screw on its supposed “ally”: in the lands Armenia seized in a conflict from Azerbaijan 30 years ago and lost back to them last year, access to the only town they clung on to is today guarded, and access policed, by Russian so-called “peacekeepers.”
At the same time Putin’s little green men have succeeded in creating another frozen conflict in the Caucasus, his business associates have swooped in like vultures to pick at what remains of Armenia’s economy. The country’s collapsing, dangerous, Chernobyl-design nuclear power plant that supplies almost all their electricity looks set to be decommissioned – and replaced with Russian gas pipelines – making Armenia even more vulnerable to the whims of the Kremlin.
While Russia has been making almost all the running, there is one intervention the U.S. has staged which is at least a preview for how Armenia could be coaxed from Putin’s embrace.
Over the summer the State Department brokered an exchange of prisoners for mine-maps. For fifteen Armenian POWs, Azerbaijan received ordnance surveys pinpointing where Armenia had - after victory in their 1990s war - laid millions of landmines across a quarter of their neighbor’s country. Clearance of the most intensely land-mined territory in the world per square mile means Azerbaijan can return close to a million of its internally displaced citizens to the places and homes they were forced to flee a generation ago.
This agreement – which Russia could have delivered but didn’t – shows how only the U.S. can be the broker between these two long-term adversaries. Russia wants perpetual destabilization. America must strive for stability.
America must use its influence and bring Armenia and Azerbaijan closer together. Just as only the U.S. could reconcile European nations – victors with the vanquished – in the aftermath of the Second World War, only the U.S. has the ability to be the indispensable peacemaker between these two countries.
Prisoner-for-maps exchanges are a start - but not nearly enough. The U.S. must go much further. America once facilitated the pooling of resources and the reconciliation of peoples between France and Germany – so they would not fight again. Today the way to guide Armenia off Russian energy dependency is to link the country in trade and transport to its energy rich neighbor Azerbaijan. The U.S. should go further still, by encouraging the two to allow travel of peoples and capital between them, and to build economic prosperity together.
The post-war European model shows this is in no way fanciful, even between nations which have been at daggers drawn for generations. But what it takes is long-term and intensive American diplomatic engagement – along with both technical and reconstruction assistance.
It shouldn’t be Russia hosting the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan this week: it should be America. It shouldn’t be Russian companies pressing down on the remains of Armenia’s economy and energy independence: it should be American enterprises raising them up. It shouldn’t be Russian troops acting as gatekeepers to an ethnic-Armenian-but-Azerbaijani-owned territory in the southern Caucasus. It should be American power and influence that brings these two neighbors together so they can work out their differences and begin to live in peace and security side by side.
Twelve months ago – by our own inaction - the U.S. set the stage for Putin’s “peace talks” in Moscow this week. We can see across the world time and again that few countries can withstand a Russian brokered “peace.”
We can’t afford to stand aside. The United States must – and should - save Armenia from Russia.