The last two weeks’ events in world politics have indicated a new deterioration of relations between Russia and the West. The poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, UK has led to yet another diplomatic war. The United States has expelled 60 Russian diplomats and closed the consulate in Seattle, the European countries (including UK) have declared over 70 Russian citizens personas non grata.
Canada, Australia and the North Atlantic Alliance have all voiced their support for the British side, with NATO expelling seven diplomats. The official Moscow has branded it a hostile action and promised to mirror the treatment. This overload in the Washington-Brussels-London-Moscow relations can lead to long-term, negative consequences for Russia’s closes allies in EAEU and CSTO.
In the context of the West-Russia relations, Armenia could come to face a number of challenges and threats as a member of EAEU and associated partner to EU.
The first challenge is the decline of economy and drastic increase of migration. The fall of prices on energy resources and the sanctions have weakened Russian economy. Currently, Russia’s nominal GDP makes USD 1.33 trillion, which is only slightly higher than the same index in Chinese province of Guangdong (USD 1.16 trillion). Over USD 200bn has been moved out of Russia in the last three years, and GDP growth stopped at 1.8% last year. Moreover, Russian GDP in 2016 was even lower than in 2008, expressed in dollars.
For Yerevan, this means two things: a) retention of negative exponents of direct Russian investments, and b) notable decrease of transfers from Russia that make up a large share of Armenia’s GDP.
The pure flow of transfers from Russia to Armenia has reduced by almost threefold and the economic activity index has dropped to 0.5%. Meanwhile, direct Azerbaijani investments in EAEU countries and Georgia are growing substantially, with Russian and Belarusian directions as the most active. This enables official Baku to convert financial and economic success into real political influence, which threatens Armenia’s national interests in medium term. Azerbaijan is strengthening and expanding the economic dialogue with UK, US, Germany, and Canada in the background of insignificant economic growth. The last five years have seen a curious tendency – Azerbaijani funds in US allocate substantial donations to large scientific projects in American universities and think tanks. Big donations also flow to the funds of the Republican and Democratic parties, and systematic work with NGOs of different kinds is ongoing. With the support of partners – Israeli and Turkish special interest groups – Azerbaijan has managed to create a system of semi-professional lobby in a short period of time. Once the transition to formation of professional networks (a period of 5-10 years) is over, pro-Azerbaijani powers will have a chance to record significant success in the West.
Another problem is the perspective of military and technical cooperation between Yerevan and Moscow. The laws on sanctions provide for restrictions against countries that purchase large batches of Russian weapons. US Ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills has noted in an interview that Yerevan might become a target of these restrictions as well. We need to take that statement seriously, as the world is dealing with one of the most hawkish administrations in the history of US. For the White House Armenia has long stopped being the country that President H. W. Bush and his team considered America’s main strategic ally in the region. The formula is quite simple and pragmatic: no exceptions and selectivity towards the partners and allies of Russia.
Unfortunately, we cannot count on the Armenian lobby. It is in crisis. Large pro-Armenian organizations are unable to play the role of mediators that can get an indulgence for Armenia and influence the position of party elites in Congress. This is proved by the possibility that Armenia might lose completely the gratuitous financial aid from American state programs for the first time in 17 years. Surely, many countries have fallen under funding cuts, but this is the kind of situation that reveals real and feigned lobbyists. Following the “all agenesis assignations” formula, Israel not only kept the previous volume of funding, but also got additional USD 200 million. As for the Armenian lobby, just 30 congressmen stated the need to increase assistance to Armenia. The number of supporters is very modest, considering the significance of demand. It is worth reminding that the Congressional Armenian Caucus consists of 105 lawmakers, including Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives. Such a resource could get the lobbying party at least USD 150 million, if it isn’t just on paper. Actually, the Armenian lobby is fighting to keep the symbolic assistance of USD 6 million (less than what is allocated to Tajikistan – USD 21m, Uzbekistan – USD 10m, and Kyrgyzstan – USD 17m).
Armenian media often hypothesize that sanctions on arms will concern not only Armenia, but also Azerbaijan, the country spending billions of dollars on Russian weapons. Theoretically, there is chance that might be true, but it is not without reserve. Current US administration is determined to solve the “Iranian issue”, which holds one of the central positions in Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda. Multiple statements and drastic personnel reshuffles are the evidence of that. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, supporters of a balanced approach to Iran, have been fired and replaced by hawkish veterans Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, who consider the Islamic regime in Teheran to be absolute evil. Pompeo and Bolton are convinced that Azerbaijan is an important piece of American policy in the region, which could play a considerable role in elimination of the “Iranian threat”.
This perception along with support from Israeli and Turkish lobbyists might help Baku get an exception from the US sanctions policy. Through informal lobby allies, partners in leading think tanks (Heritage, Atlantic Council, RAND, Brookings) and influential senators Azerbaijan will signal to Washington that their purchases of Russian weapons are no threat to American interests. Moreover, Azerbaijani authorities will create all necessary conditions to convince US in their determined support in both Iranian and Russian directions. This policy is already ongoing in various channels and will only build up. Armenia and pro-Armenian lobbyists will have to take fundamental actions that could at least soften the coming blows if not devaluate the negative consequences altogether.
Firstly, Armenia has to start forming state lobbying. Current pro-Armenian NGOs consisting of American citizens are objectively unable to promote Armenian interests in Washington. The White House and party leaders in Congress want to hear the clear voice of Armenian statehood, not try to realize a hundred-year-old dreams of their citizens with Armenian roots. New lobbyists must not sit in Washington and Los Angeles. They need to actively work with America’s Protestant south – the engine of Republican Party that controls the White House and both houses of the Congress. It is no coincidence that Israeli, Turkish and Azerbaijani funds operate large offices in Texas. The Armenian side has strong trump cards to work in that area, where they can easily turn the thousand-year-old Christian heritage into a lobbying tool. With correct, consistent work Armenia can form a lobbying group in the US, which will be able to push the interests of any significance and complexity.
Secondly, the Armenian Embassy in Washington has to establish a dialogue with the centers providing analytical support for foreign policy decisions. The work with think tanks is a mandatory condition for getting our stance to the White House and Capitol Hill. Before the operation in Afrin, Turkey had actively worked with RAND experts, who reported to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that Ankara was acting correctly and the operation against the Kurds did not run counter of the national interests of USA. It is difficult to find a large think tank without staffers of Armenian descent, but this human capital is abandoned, which is a big failure of community work that is focused on resolution of a local issue, which holds little significance in terms of Armenia’s national interests - recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Thirdly, Armenia needs to secure its information and political rear in Russia. As a member of EAEU and CSTO, Armenia has legal, extensive possibilities to get its concerns and ideas across to the persons responsible for political decisions. Strengthening of Azerbaijan’s economic, military and technical relations with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan (members of EAEU and CSTO) cannot help but cause concern. In the vast majority of cases Armenia is in the position of passive respondent, which is a strategic defeat of itself. Armenia must become an active creator to make Baku allocate resources to pointless but expensive “reactions” to our real achievements. This task requires careful reshuffle of personnel in the Armenian Embassy in Moscow and a complete review of the goals of diplomatic missions to the countries of the Eurasian bloc.
Areg Galstyan - PhD, regular contributor to The National Interest, Forbes, The Hill and The American Thinker. These views are his own.