By Emil Danielyan
A senior British diplomat publicly questioned on Thursday the need for continued Russian military presence in Armenia, suggesting that it would be particularly unjustified after a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“We understand that [Russian troops] are there with the agreement of the host country, so that problem does not arise,” Brian Fall, Britain’s “special representative” for the South Caucasus, said in a speech in Yerevan. “But the agreement of the host country may be largely determined by their perception of a military threat from Azerbaijan. If the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh were resolved, and frontiers at present closed were opened up to peaceful traffic, that perception of threat would rapidly diminish, and perhaps sooner or later disappear.
“Would Armenia in those conditions want a substantial Russian military presence on its territory? And would Russia want to retain one in circumstances which could not plausibly be explained in terms of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh?”
Armenia’s successive governments have not cited the unresolved Karabakh conflict as the main reason for their close military ties with Russia or asked for Russian protection against Azerbaijan. They have said all along that the presence of the Russian military base primarily serves as a deterrent against a perceived threat from Turkey, Armenia’s much more powerful neighbor.
That perception is in turn derived from the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and modern-day Turkey’s refusal to recognize and apologize for it. A Karabakh settlement alone is unlikely to eliminate it.
For its part, Moscow considers its troops, mainly deployed along the closed Armenian-Turkish border, to be essential for its efforts to maintain a strong influence in the South Caucasus. That also explains its reluctance to close two other Russian bases remaining in neighboring Georgia.
Still, Fall claimed that the Russians themselves might feel after Karabakh peace that their military presence is useless. “Looking at the same picture through Russian eyes, we might find that, post-conflict, there was no very strong reason for keeping Russian troops in Armenia and plenty of other things that could be done with the human and financial resources that might become available for redeployment,” he said.
The British envoy spoke at the start of a three-day seminar on security in the South Caucasus which was organized by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, of which Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are members. It is attended by representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international organizations.
The Karabakh dispute was a major theme of the first day of discussions. It also reportedly topped the agenda of Fall’s meeting later in the day with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. A brief statement by the Armenian Foreign Ministry said the two men “exchanged thoughts” on the subject, but gave no details.
In his speech, Fall, whose country now holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, stressed that concerted efforts by Russia and the United States are a “necessary condition” for ending the Karabakh conflict. He complained that “cold warriors” in the two nations have hampered such cooperation.
“It is true that there have been voices in Washington unduly dismissive of the need to build peace and security in the South Caucasus with rather than against or despite Russia,” Fall said. “And that there have been voices in Moscow seemingly unable to distinguish the natural influence which geography and history, culture and commerce, will give to Russia among its next-door neighbors, from a neo-imperialist striving for a backyard fenced off against the outside world.”