The unfolding civic movement that has toppled Armenia’s prime minister and given young Armenians real hopes for a democratic future has also caught Russian and Western policymakers off guard. The Kremlin failed to foresee the fall of Armenian leader Serzh Sargsyan. However, Moscow will not intervene in the Armenian political crisis, which forced the prime minister to step down after a decade of slow economic rejuvenation and a staid political climate.
Observers from Los Angeles to London have gazed at the rapid, sometimes theatrical, developments on the streets of Yerevan with equal parts apprehension and appreciation. Few people in the West expected the citizens of a former Soviet republic with an entrenched regime to expel its political leader in an exercise of truly peaceful civil disobedience. For many onlookers, however, the biggest puzzle is sorting out the role Moscow could play in the ongoing turmoil from the restraint it has so far shown in a country that Russia claims to be within its sphere of influence.
This is a logical concern given Putin’s foreign policy record. In recent years, Moscow’s assertive actions in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere have made it clear that the Kremlin scrutinizes all coerced leadership changes in post-Soviet states — changes orchestrated by populist forces and sometimes aimed at strengthening those countries’ ties with the West. According to some Westerners’ thinking, Russia, desperate to maintain its geopolitical and economic grip on the progenies of a lost empire, is likely to intervene in the events unfolding in Armenia.
Yet there are few scenarios in which the political crisis in Armenia would draw a noticeable Russian response. To be sure, Russians and Armenians are bound by deep ties of culture, geopolitics and economics. From the era of Peter the Great in the 18th Century through the tenure of Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s half-Armenian, half-Russian foreign minister, the Russian leadership has closely engaged with Armenians for centuries. While the situation in Yerevan remains uncertain, the prospect of a Russian intervention is low for several reasons.
First, opposition leader Nikol Pashinian, who has emerged at the revolution’s vanguard, has emphasized that Armenia will maintain its partnerships with Russia. Pashinian hails from the minority Yelk political bloc – the name translates to “Way Out” – and this political alliance takes its name in part from its platform of withdrawing Armenia from the Eurasian Economic Union, which is Putin’s answer to the single-market might of the European Union. Since his recent ascent to the top of the protest movement, Pashinian has adopted a more cautious stance, insisting that any final decision about Armenia’s future international economic agreements must be made through a public referendum. Polls show that most Armenians value close ties to Russia, and the next prime minister is unlikely to antagonize constituents by moving against this sentiment.
Second, the Kremlin knows that Armenia remains beholden to Russia for security. As Nikolai Platoshkin, the former chief of the Armenia Bureau at the Russian Foreign Ministry, made clear days ago, the Kremlin has few reasons to regret Sargsyan’s overthrow or the arrival of a new Cabinet. Armenia’s former leader had cordial, though not especially warm, relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Away from the cameras, the two presidents privately disagreed about the extent of Russia’s strategic assistance to Armenia and, more worrisome for Sargsyan, Russia’s sale of advanced weapons to Azerbaijan, Armenia’s neighbor and adversary. For now, Russian analysts see no reasons to suspect that Pashinian or another successor to Sargsyan will sour the Russo-Armenian strategic alliance because, crudely stated, Armenia has no viable alternatives. Unlike the ostensible precedents in Ukraine and Georgia, there is no prospect that Armenia will join NATO in the near future.
Third, Kremlin inaction can double as a conspicuous action of its own. Moscow is not likely to see the revolution in Armenia as a threat to its geopolitical prerogatives, but rather as an opportunity to make an adroit move amidst a global panic over Russian belligerence. In the crowds of what has been dubbed the Velvet Revolution, Kremlin propagandists thus far have detected no CIA or MI6 agitators. Satisfied that this is genuinely an internal Armenian coup directed at an ineffective government, Russia’s political machine may portray its muted response to Armenia’s color revolution as proof of its embrace of non-interventionism. The Kremlin, fearful of Western interference in Russia’s domestic politics, is not likely to provide ammunition to foreign “Russophobes,” or to antagonize a friendly Armenian population by propping up unpopular apparatchiks.
There is no doubt that Russia will continue to pay careful attention to the developments in Armenia. The Kremlin will hope, and to a limited degree will try to ensure, that whoever emerges at the apex of the Armenian political system will maintain the geopolitical partnership between the two sides that has endured since the days of the tsars.