By Sargis Harutyunyan
(RFE/RL) – The Armenian president may have gone “too far, too fast” in giving “blanket endorsement” to Russia in Syria, but he did not commit Armenia to any direct support for Moscow’s campaign in this Middle East country, says a Yerevan-based analyst, assessing Serzh Sargsyan’s latest talks with his Russian counterpart.
Meeting Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday, the Armenian leader reiterated his country’s “firm support” for Russia’s position on the Syrian issue, adding: “Of course, we welcome the agreement that you have reached with the United States on the cessation of hostilities [in Syria], which may become a key to the political resolution of the problem.”
Russia, which has a military base in Armenia, near the border with Turkey, has been involved militarily in the Syrian war since last September, declaring its primary objective to be fighting Islamic militants in the country but also controversially supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in its fight against opposition forces.
Largely with the support of Russian air strikes pro-Assad forces managed to regain control of a number of strategic locations in the country in the weeks leading to internationally mediated negotiations that produced a fragile ceasefire effective since February 27.
In the midst of the Syrian crisis, Russia also fell out with Turkey over its controversial presence and operations in northern Syrian regions populated by Turkmens. The Russo-Turkish standoff took a dangerous turn in November when Turkish air forces downed a Russian bomber at the Syrian border. Since then, Russia has reportedly been beefing up its military presence in Armenia amid concerns in the South Caucasus country over a possible direct military confrontation between Moscow and Ankara.
Richard Giragosian, who heads the Regional Studies Center, says in this regard that what’s important about the Moscow meeting is “what the Armenian president didn’t say.”
“In other words, there was no promise or expectation of any Armenian direct support for the Russian campaign in Syria. This is very important in terms of keeping a degree of neutrality in the war going on in Syria,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, Azatutyun.am.
During the Moscow meeting, Sarygsyan and Putin also reportedly discussed issues concerning the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.
Giragosian considers “interesting” what the Armenian president stated face-to-face to Putin, reminding the Russian president of what he said at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) meeting in Moscow in December. “The fact that the dangerous, reckless escalation of attacks from Azerbaijan is a threat not to Armenia or Karabakh alone, but to the credibility of the CSTO as a security alliance,” he said.
In the analyst’s opinion, in a general sense the Putin-Sargsyan meeting was significant especially in terms of timing. “Because at the same time Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian was in Brussels for a very important meeting with NATO officials. This shows that Armenia strategically is regaining a sense of balance. This also comes in the wake of the European Union’s High Representative [for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission] Federica Mogherini’s visit to Armenia. What this shows is that Armenia strategically is playing a game, is trying to actually gain more room to maneuver,” Giragosian said.
Another Yerevan-based analyst, Manvel Sargsian, however, thinks that the Armenian leader did not get what many in Armenia would expect in exchange for supporting Russia, that is, Moscow’s explicit backing of its political and military ally in its dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh.
While in a recent interview with the Russian daily, Kommersant, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian expressed Yerevan’s disliking of Russian arms deliveries to Azerbaijan, during his meeting with Putin, President Sargsyan thanked the Russian leader for his efforts on seeking a solution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Sargsyan also spoke about “full mutual understanding in the political, economic, military-technical and humanitarian spheres.”
“It shows that questions are not yet raised clearly at the presidential level,” commented Sargsian, who heads the Armenian Center for National and International Studies in Yerevan.
According to the analyst, the Armenian society had expected Sargsyan first of all to raise the issue of Russia’s supplying offensive weapons to Azerbaijan. “This is the problem, there is no more urgent problem than that for Armenia today. If this problem is not raised, then it is meaningless to talk about any relations with Russia in security matters,” Sargsian concluded.
Interestingly, visiting Armenia on Friday to attend a meeting of the Council of the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly, Chairman of the Russian State Duma Sergey Naryshkin in his public remarks made no reference to the Nagorno Karabakh issue. Instead, he spoke a lot about the Middle East and the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups. He accused Turkey of shelling Syrian territory and “destabilizing the situation in the explosive region,” pointing out Armenia’s important role in ensuring peace.
Photo Caption 1 (L-R): Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan during a signing ceremony in Yerevan on December 2, 2013.
Photo Caption 2: A helicopter flies near a radar at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria on December 16, 2015
Photo Caption 3: Regional Studies Center Director Richard Giragosian
Photo Caption 4: Armenian Center for National and International Studies Director Manvel Sargsian