Nikol Pashinyan cold after Azerbaijan’s victory over Nagorno Karabakh

  • 2020’s Nagorno Karabakh war and the recent flare up has challenged Pashinian’s leadership within Armenia.
  • The ongoing war in Ukraine is testing Russia’s commitment to Armenia.
  • U.S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Armenia opens a new diplomatic opportunity for Pashinyan.
Nikol Pashinyan
World Economic Forum

Why is Pashinyan cold?

Answer: The recent flare up with Azerbaijan and Moscow’s disengagement has again questioned Pashinyan’s leadership.

Amid Soviet dissolution in 1991, just as Armenia and Azerbaijan achieved statehood, war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Historically, ​​Russia frames itself as a security guarantor in post-Soviet states and has been keen for Armenia to deter Azerbaijan of any further incursion over Nagorno Karabakh.

Nevertheless, in late September 2020, following a summer of cross-border attacks, heavy fighting broke out along the Azerbaijan-Nagorno-Karabakh border. During this clash, ​​Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to quickly discuss possible security aid to Armenia, which Putin did not provide. 

This lack of Russian commitment over Armenia’s security was repeated recently. On September 13-14, 2022, Azerbaijan attacked, for the first time, Armenia’s internationally recognized borders. It is important to highlight that both Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to clash over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. While Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence, that independent status has not been recognized by any other country, including Armenia. Over the last decades, the question has been over who controls this region: whether it would be controlled by Armenians or Azerbaijanis. 

Pashinyan asked the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military, led by Moscow and operating under its auspices, for help. However, this help was declined and has put Pashinyan under heavy internal pressure.

Amid this lack of commitment from Putin in two separate instances, the leader has sped up his search for new diplomatic ties with third actors, such as the US, EU and even Turkey to deter Azerbaijan.

Consequently, in September 2022, US. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Armenia and accused Azerbaijan of “illegal and deadly” attacks and made a promise over Armenia’s security. This shift will push Pashinyan to deepen his ties with both the US and the EU and could potentially diminish Russia’s leadership on Armenia’s internal affairs and security.

Thus, as Moscow is losing influence and commitment over security obligations within the post-soviet space, Pashinyan is reducing and diminishing Russia’s sphere of influence by deepening his ties with both the US, the EU and Turkey. Given Putin’s disengagement over Armenia’s security, Pashinyan’s temperature has changed towards keeping a delicate balance with Russia and broadening Armenia’s diplomatic clout. 

What is changing Pashinyan’s temperature?

Answer: Keeping a tight balance between Armenia and Russia becoming closer with the US, EU and Turkey is pivotal.

Pashinyan came to power following Armenia’s first free and fair election in 2018, after the spearheaded peaceful protests dubbed the Velvet Revolution. Armenians, led by Nikol Pashinyan, protested and overthrew the ex Armenian Prime Minister, Serj Sargsian, who was close to Moscow politically and economically. Since his election, Pashinyan has promised reforms to tackle corruption, which has been one outstanding problem before Pashinyan’s leadership. For instance, according to the Corruption Index, in 2016, Armenia got 33 points out of 100.

Two years ago, Pashinyan led moves to get closer to both the US and the EU. Due to his goal of warming up ties with both Western actors, Putin refused to provide military support to Armenia during the 2020 war, resulting in a loss for Pashinyan.  

Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war over Nagorno Karabakh put Pashinyan under heavy domestic pressure. To cool down this political crisis, Pashinyan called for early elections in 2021, in which the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh has a key point. Pashinyan ‘s main rival was Kocharyan, a native of Nagorno-Karabakh pledged to start negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh borders. Despite Pashinyan’s domestic pressure, he managed to conquer a disastrous defeat in the previous year’s war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and remain in power.

This lack of commitment has pushed Pashinyan to freeze his ties with Putin, moving towards warming up his ties with the US and even Turkey. Although the sentiment in Armenia is changing regarding Russian inaction, Pashinyan has been keeping its close ties with Putin. For instance, in 2021, Armenia agreed to upgrade Russia’s military base in Gyumri, which helps Putin to deploy a group of troops in the Trans-Caucasus. Pashinyan stressed that there is no need for a second Russian military base in Armenia.

Pashinyan has been keeping a delicate equilibrium with Russia, while leveling up its ties with the US, EU and Turkey. Pashinyan has managed to leverage this balance after Western nations enacted severe sanctions on Moscow. Russian companies are moving to Armenia. For instance,, Armenia’s largest employment platform, reported receiving enquiries about relocation from about 300 individuals and over 20 companies in recent days. Most applicants were from Russia, mainly from the IT sector.

In consequence, dozens of international companies have abandoned or scaled back their operations in Russia. Armenia has managed to leverage this situation and become an alternative for companies to relocate their operations from Russia.

Simultaneously, Pashinyan is trying to balance Armenia’s diplomatic alliances and look for alternatives that could secure Armenia’s security. 

One example is on March 15th, Armenia has stated it is ready to establish diplomatic ties with Turkey. For nearly a century, Turkey and Armenia have had almost no relationship due to the first half of the XXth century, the cold war, and the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. A potential warmup is in both Armenia and Turkey’s interest to promote trade and to balance against Russian influence in the region.  In July 2022, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had a telephone conversation with the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both leaders expressed their willingness to warm up their ties and historic bitterness.

On September 17th and 18th, US. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Armenia where she committed US support towards Armenia’s security. Aside from this security commitment from the US. The EU has also expressed interest over Armenia ‘s affairs. For instance, on October 6th, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan participated in the 1st European Political Community Summit in Prague.

What is driving Pashinian?

Answer: Prime Minister Pashinyan attempts to protect Armenia’s interests from Azerbaijan’s hold, while bolstering new diplomatic alliances.

Since Russia launched its offensive on Ukraine, this situation is extremely fragile for Pashinyan. Putin remains a key ally and is supposed to help against security threats, but Pashinyan is getting some diplomatic distance from Putin after Moscow’s lack of commitment in both the 2020 war and in the recent Azerbaijan’s attack against Armenia’s border with the contested region.

At the early 2021 parliamentary elections held in October 2021, Pashinyan Civil Contract party won 53.9% of the vote, far ahead of his main opponent, former president Robert Kocharyan bloc. Thus, Nikol Pashinyan managed to win a parliamentary majority, despite 2020 ‘s war over Nagorno Karabakh. This win heated up Pashinyan’s temperature after a period of contested leadership after the 2020’s war in Nagorno Karabakh.

The destruction of this war led the European Union to allocate 1.6 billion euros in financial assistance to Armenia. The EU is ready to provide 600 million euros to Armenia for the construction of the most difficult sections of the North-South transport corridor. The North-South corridor is facilitated for the transit of goods from Iran, passing to Georgia towards the EU and enabling Armenia to become a key regional transit hub.

Pashinyan’s executive released a statement announcing that “Recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk is not in our agenda.” This move has managed to deepen Armenia’s ties with the US. For instance, on September 29th 2022, Armenia’s Security Council secretary Armen Grigoryan and the Foreign Policy Advisor to the President of Azerbaijan, Hikmey Hajiyev, met at the White House. They reportedly discussed the peaceful settlement of long-term disputes as well as the establishment of peace in the South Caucasus. This was further discussed 3 days later in Switzerland.

During this event, Pashinyan and Aliyev agreed that a European Union led mission would be deployed on the Armenian side. At the same time, under EU and US mediation, both Armenia and Azerbaijan recognized each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. This move could minimize internal criticism over Pashinyan’s leadership. At the same time, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan suggested that Moscow is an unreliable ally and could speed up Putin’s eroded leadership over the Caucasus and help the US and the EU to gain more influence in this region.

In order to downgrade Russia’s leadership and influence within Armenia, Pashinyan has also been trying to enhance ties with Turkey. In October 2022,  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan met to hold the first talks since 2009 between the leaders of the two countries amid a push to establish diplomatic relations.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Pashinyan´s decisions regarding developing new diplomatic ties with the US and the EU can have a deep impact on the balance of power in Caucasus and former Soviet areas.

During the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s leverage and commitment with Pashinyan has been tested. On September 13-14, 2022, Azerbaijan attacked for the first time in history Armenia’s internationally recognized borders. Pashinian asked the CSTO military, led by Moscow, operating under its auspices for help. Nevertheless, Putin refused to help Pashinian during these clashes.

Putin’s denial to protect Pashinian has shown how Moscow could ignore CSTO members’ (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) security needs and thus, erode Moscow’s security and geopolitical grip in the Caucasus and post-soviet space. 

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has lamented Russia’s inability to back Armenia and get involved in its defense, suggesting that Moscow is an unreliable ally. Some protesters have even called for Armenia to leave the CSTO. Putin’s lack of commitment over Armenia has pushed Pashinyan to bolster its ties with the US and the EU.

Recently, under U.S mediation, Pashinyan and Aliyev have reached an agreement to set a delimitation of the borders between these two states, as well as a peace treaty that could start by the end of 2022. These moves reveal how Armenia, a traditional ally of Putin and a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), is distancing itself from Putin and leaning towards the US and the EU. 

In the near future, we could witness how Russia could see its sphere of influence even more contracted over the Caucasus region, in favor of the US and the EU among other actors. Additionally, this change in the status quo could lead to other former Soviet states warming up their ties with the US and the EU. On the other hand, Moscow’s leadership and influence in the post-soviet region is still strong around the Caucasus for now, such as Moscow’s control over the breakaway non-recognized regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.