Since the beginning of anti-government protests in Armenia in April, international observers have fixated, often with perplexity, on Moscow’s reaction to the events in Yerevan. Considering the Russian government’s general stance on mass protests, especially in its “near abroad,” it was only natural to expect a negative reaction from the world’s leading opponent of “color revolutions.” Moreover, if one looks at the nature of the protests in Armenia—centered on an opposition figure who had built his reputation on anti-corruption and anti-oligarchy rhetoric, going against the head of state who had already been in power for a decade and opted for prolonging his rule—the parallels with Russia’s own political situation were eerie.
Indeed, many observers compared Nikol Pashinyan to Russia’s leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny, and Armenian mass rallies against Serzh Sargsyan’s attempt to stay in power beyond ten years to the protests against Putin’s more than 18 years in power. Some Russian observers went so far as to compare the events in Armenia to the early stages of Ukraine’s Maidan, explicitly trying to frame the protests as anti-Russian. Russian state television, in its usual manner, accused the protestors of possible “Western connections.” Combined with Pashinyan’s previous criticism of Eurasian integration, the Velvet Revolution seemed to contain all the ingredients for a harsh reaction from Moscow—even if in stylistics and intensity the criticism would lag behind that unleashed previously against the main actors of Georgia’s Rose Revolution (2003) and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004) and Euromaidan (2014).
Despite the odds, however, Moscow welcomed the peaceful transition of power in Armenia and welcomed Pashinyan as the new leader of one of Russia’s closest allies—indeed, its last ally in the strategically important South Caucasus. Russia’s foreign policy community, and by all appearances its leadership, concluded with near unanimity that the events in Yerevan did not pose a major threat to Moscow. A look at their commentary, and at Pashinyan’s careful positioning in the aftermath of the revolution, helps reveal why.
First and by far most importantly, the Russian expert community noted the impossibility of any radical pivot away from Moscow due to Yerevan’s high dependence on Russia. As Sergey Markedonov, one of Russia’s leading Caucasus experts, put it in late April, “Divergence from Russia is fraught with huge risks for the country; therefore, if successful, the supporters of the ‘Eurasian skeptic’ Pashinyan will most likely have to change his position by 180 degrees.”
Armenia is indeed highly dependent on Russia, first of all for security reasons. Russia continues to play a crucial role in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution and, most importantly, in helping Yerevan hold its ground against Ankara-backed Azerbaijani revisionism. In the sphere of economics, Russia accounts for roughly a quarter of Armenia’s trade turnover; in 2017, 26.7 percent of Armenia’s exports went to Russia. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians working in Russia have periodically sent remittances back home, with their total share amounting to nearly $900 million in 2016, a huge amount given Russia’s weakening currency and Armenia’s stagnant economy. According to some estimates, around two-thirds of Armenian industry is controlled by Russian capital; the country is almost totally dependent on imports of Russian energy.* Armenia also hosts Russian military bases on its soil, which many in Armenia consider their only warranty against prospective Turkish invasion. Thus, even the theoretical possibility of an anti-Russian policy being implemented was dismissed as highly unlikely.
Part of Moscow’s calmness can be explained by Armenia’s recent adoption of the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with the European Union, which it signed in November 2017. In political terms, this agreement compensated for Armenia’s refusal to sign the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the European Union back in 2013 and its reversion to joining the Eurasian Economic Union with Moscow. Symbolically speaking, CEPA allowed Yerevan to accomplish its promise to diversify Armenia’s foreign policy, having direct engagement (if not integration) with both Moscow and the European Union. But practically speaking, CEPA is viewed as a rather shallow agreement by Western-leaning experts in Armenia, due to its lack of a free trade clause as a result of restraints that participation in the EEU had put on Armenia. CEPA is thus a symbolic move that Moscow has officially allowed, depriving any Eurasian skeptics of arguments against “Moscow’s rigid stance.” Thus, in the eyes of the Russian government, Armenia was pre-emptively pacified in terms of a potential pro-European pivot.
The second factor affecting Pashinyan’s reception in Moscow was his carefully crafted messaging about future relations. He went to great lengths to signal both internally and externally his plans to continue Armenia’s strategic ally relations with Russia. That message was heard loud and clear. In his analysis for Valdai Club, Alexander Markarov writes: “Over the past few days Pashinyan has repeatedly stated and stressed, both at rallies and during meetings with State Duma deputies who arrived in Yerevan, that Armenia will not change its foreign policy course within his premiership, withdrawing from the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Union.” After repeating this message consistently in various venues throughout late April and early May, all Russian think tanks from the rather moderate Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) to the conservative Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) concluded that Pashinyan was safe for Russia.
Any final doubts that Moscow might have harbored were cast away after Pashinyan’s talks with President Putin in Sochi, where he reaffirmed his commitment to strengthening Armenia-Russia relations. Despite satisfaction with how Pashinyan is handling the transition for now, though, a few cautious voices from Moscow have pointed out that Russia must watch closely how the West approaches Armenia’s new leader. As Markarov writes: “From the Russian point of view, it is important to ensure that, in the context of a deepening conflict with the West, the latter does not seize the initiative in relations with Armenia, which signed an agreement with the EU this past November.”
Some Armenian experts conclude that Russia had learned its lessons with Ukraine and thus acted much more calmly with Armenia. The logic behind this explanation is that in the case of a more assertive Russian stance toward the protestors, the Sargsyan regime would have been involved in violent clashes that might have left dozens killed and injured. And this might have compromised Sargsyan’s friendly regime and made Russia’s involvement, and Armenia’s unequivocal orientation toward Moscow, problematic.
But although the Ukrainian experience may have played some role in Moscow’s calculation, the key factor was Armenia’s cornered position: its continued dependence on Russia in terms of security, economy, and energy. Moscow, knowing all too well how dependent Yerevan remains, swiftly concluded that no considerable pivot away from Russia was feasible—even before Pashinyan went all out to prove that he seeks only domestic transformation and not to change Armenia’s foreign policy orientation.
Even if Pashinyan himself, or his liberal pro-Western support base, wanted to navigate the country closer to Western standards of democracy, a major foreign policy change would remain highly unlikely. And given how marginal the South Caucasus is for EU and U.S. policymakers, they are unlikely to make courting Armenia a priority any time soon. For all the changes at the top in Yerevan, Putin is still sitting pretty.
* Correction: An earlier version of this article here suggested that Armenia and Russia were geographic neighbors. We regret the error.