BY SEROB ABRAHAMIAN
Special for the Armenian Weekly
As Yerevan was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the independence of the Republic, the Iskander missile was revealed. Newspapers published article upon article about its sighting, and people were noticeably excited about this new sophisticated form of weaponry. But after the show is finished and everyone goes home, what implications does this sighting really have on Armenia and the region?
It is safe to say that Russia’s relationship with the West is possibly at an all-time low. With the recent situation in Crimea and Syria, and the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, this comes as no surprise. With the fall in oil prices in the recent past, Putin and Moscow have had to rule with a heavy hand in order to keep their tight grip on power—both domestically and abroad. While it may be easier to rule one’s own people; in order to have a foreign ally, you have to give in order to receive. After April’s Four-Day War and Russia’s arms dealing with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and July’s capture of a police station by the armed “Sasna Tsrer” group, anti-Russian sentiment in Armenia was high. Although, these might not have been essential factors in the equation, they might have been catalysts for the Iskander missile to be sold to Armenia.
The introduction of the Iskander missile is significant for the region, since Armenia became the only country other than Russia to have one in its possession. With a range of 300 kilometers of precision and a deadly aftermath, it is a big upgrade to Armenia’s arsenal of weapons.
That being said, there are several questions to be asked. Why did Russia sell these missiles to Armenia? Could the aforementioned reasons be the only ones at play?
One might say that Russia feels threatened and fears losing power and influence in the world arena and this was a way to deepen the relationship with Armenia. Russia had already extended the lease on the Russian 102nd military base stationed near Gyumri—Armenia’s second largest city—until the year 2044. Though Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus was always felt, they became an even bigger player in the region with the Iskander missile in the equation, and now in possession of an ally.
Armenia should not get excited too quickly, though. As history shows, when one side of a conflict gets an upgrade, the other always counters with its own purchase—either of a similar weapon or a weapon which makes the other null. It is also not too far-fetched for Russia to exploit the geopolitical situation and sell Azerbaijan the Iskander in due time. While I do not believe Russia will do this—at least in the near future—I believe Russia can sell Azerbaijan something to make the Iskander null—if anything in the market exists—in order to capitalize on its interests in the region and for the stalemate to continue.
The losers here are both Armenia and Azerbaijan, who have to increase military budgets, decrease public spending on social services, or—as we have seen before, especially in the case of Armenia—take out loans from Russia in order to purchase weapons from them. One side, more than the other, understands that this situation is not ideal and definitely not sustainable. Considering the fact that Azerbaijan is an authoritative sate, it is difficult to imagine the Aliyev family doing what is best for their nation when sitting at the negotiating table.
At the end of the day the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) issue is another tool through which the ruling family in Azerbaijan maintains its power, and a way for Russia to keep the status quo and capitalize economically, geopolitically and militarily. Both ruling parties and political systems in the two nations have benefits from controlled conflict stemming out of the region. The Armenian ruling elite might have seen some rally-around-the-flag effects, but even that can wear-off for a political party as others promise better policies in order to keep the citizens safe.
No matter how you look at the Artsakh situation, any rational person will see that the only parties that truly want peace are the Republic of Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. A continued conflict and instability along its borders is no benefit to Armenia and Artsakh and their democratically elected governments. The conflict is of no benefit to a population that is continuously under threat. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has no benefits in the conflict when investments are put on hold and development is hindered. And when Armenian soldiers are being killed weekly—daily in some cases—it becomes clear that Armenia and Artsakh are the only states in the region that truly want peace.