Armenia has asked French President Emmanuel Macron to chair peace talks with Azerbaijan in a fresh challenge to Vladimir Putin’s increasingly loose grip on Russia’s regional allies in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
The snub comes from a traditional ally of Putin, who hosted an insignificant meeting of the warring nations’ leaders last month, immediately on the back of his disastrous summit with six ex-Soviet states.
During a “family” photo of leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states in Yerevan on Wednesday, Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, turned away from Putin, who was standing to his left.
Then Pashinyan refused to sign the summit declaration, in which he criticized the recent failures of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which binds Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to a mutual defense pact.
He expressed his frustration at the lack of a response to his formal request to the Collective Security Treaty Organization to intervene on behalf of Armenia after his country was subjected to a new attack across the border with Azerbaijan in September.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in an on-and-off conflict for three decades over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but largely controlled by a majority population of Armenian descent.
In the aftermath of the latest outbreak of violence in September, which claimed the lives of 207 Armenians and 80 Azerbaijani soldiers, horrific images have emerged on social media of alleged war crimes, including that of a naked Armenian female soldier with her legs cut off and her eyes gouged out. He put his finger in her mouth.
“It is sad that Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization did not deter Azerbaijan from aggressive actions,” Pashinyan said during the meeting in the Armenian capital.
On Friday, it emerged that Pashinyan had sought France’s participation in a latest attempt to build on the existing shaky ceasefire, with talks scheduled for Dec. 7 in Brussels.
In response, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said he canceled the summit because he could not accept a French role, accusing Macron of an “anti-Azerbaijan stance”.
“It is clear that under these conditions, with this position, France cannot be part of the peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia,” he said.
Asked about Aliyev’s comments, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that Moscow – which has deployed 5,000 peacekeepers to the region in 2020 – was ready to help broker further agreements.
The damaging optics of the summit for Putin highlighted the growing fragility of Russia’s influence over its immediate neighbours, with the institutions through which the Kremlin asserts its soft power, said Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe think tank who specializes in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. The failure and the true strength of its hard power being revealed in Ukraine.
“It’s part of a broader trend where the Russians still have this Soviet legacy of seeing their neighbors as kind of junior partners who are beholden to them, but who are sovereign states,” he said. “The CSTO is supposed to be a defense organization, but as far as Armenia is concerned, it’s did not fulfill its obligations.
Armenia’s criticism followed comments made by Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at the United Nations General Assembly in September, during which he implicitly criticized Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Emil Avdaliani, a professor at European University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and director of Middle East studies at Geocase Thinktank, said Armenia is trying to diversify its foreign relations in light of Russia’s weakness.
He said, “Dependence on Russia is fatal, so Yerevan seeks rapprochement with Turkey, and closer relations with the European Union, Iran and China.
“This is a consequence of Moscow’s half-hearted approach to Armenia and most of all Russia’s weakened position in the South Caucasus as a result of its increasingly unsuccessful war in Ukraine.”
Outside the Collective Security Treaty Organization summit, Armenian protesters called on Russia to leave Ukraine.
“The protests signal a shift in Armenia’s perception of Russia,” Avdaliani said. Its unreliability as an ally has become palpable. Anti-Russian sentiment has always been present among Armenia’s political elites, but has now turned to resentment.
The protests benefited Pashinyan because they allowed him to show that Armenia needed concrete guarantees, not just empty promises. This does not mean that Armenia will withdraw from the CSTO, but only that Yerevan is trying to influence the negative dynamics in the grouping.