Home / Articles / The Eagle in the South Caucasus: Armenia Tests Alternative Geopolitical Waters
The US-Armenia “Eagle Partner” joint military exercise from September 11–20 may signal the beginning of a shift in the foreign policy direction of Armenia, historically a close ally to Russia.
Armenia has been growing frustrated at the lackluster response of the Collective Security Treaty Organization to its appeals for assistance in the deepening conflict with Azerbaijan.
However, it would be difficult to imagine a wholesale change in the geopolitical orientation in Yerevan, given the strong military, economic, energy, and cultural ties between Armenia and Russia.
On September 11, US and Armenian troops kicked off the “Eagle Partner” joint military exercise at the Zar and Armavir training sites near Yerevan. The exercise is set to run for ten days and is relatively low-key, involving only 175 Armenian troops and eighty-five US soldiers—that is about the size of a very small US Army company. According to the US Army Europe and Africa, the command responsible for overseeing Army operations there, the soldiers are from the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division and the Kansas Army National Guard. The latter has had a bilateral partnership with Armenia under the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program since 2003. The stated goal of the exercise is to enhance US-Armenian interoperability and prepare Armenian troops for possible future peacekeeping operations.
Despite Eagle Partner’s modest size and aims, it may signal the beginning of an adjustment in Armenia’s foreign policy direction. US and Armenian forces have participated in international exercises together before and visits by the Kansas Army National Guard have been regular to the country. But this will be the first such purely bilateral engagement hosted by Armenia. Yerevan has traditionally looked to Moscow as its strategic ally. Armenia hosts a Russian military base at Gyumri as well as an air force facility in Yerevan and is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance whose charter contains a mutual defense provision like NATO. Russia is also Armenia’s top export market and both countries belong to the Eurasian Economic Union. Although billed as the less institutionalized post-Soviet counterweight to the European Union, in practice, it mainly buttresses the Russian market.
Geopolitical and Historical Context
The timing of the exercise is crucial as it is taking place amidst a serious humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, also referred to as Artsakh by Armenians. It is also occurring in the context of substantial public disagreements between Moscow and Yerevan.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh—an Armenian-populated enclave that had been a part of Soviet Azerbaijan—dates back to the late 1980s. Armenian forces had the upper hand after the ceasefire of the First Karabakh War in 1994, controlling Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas for over two decades. The Second Karabakh War in September–November 2020 turned the tide in favor of Azerbaijan. The Russian-brokered ceasefire to that war had among its provisions a single land connection between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh via the Berdzor or Lachin Corridor, overseen by Russian peacekeepers.
The ceasefire may have put a stop to large-scale fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, but it did not result in an end of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Since May 2021, Azerbaijani forces have carried out a number of incursions beyond Nagorno-Karabakh and into Armenia proper, occupying some fifty square miles of territory. Major attacks took place on November 16, 2021, and September 12–14, 2022. Incidents ranging from cattle raids to kidnappings to the blocking of roads and highways have also featured over the past two and a half years. The most far-reaching development began on December 12, 2022—the at times partial, at times whole blockade of the Lachin Corridor by Azerbaijan, resulting in an effective violation of the 2020 ceasefire and substantial limitations or outright lack of food, fuel, medicines, and other essential supplies for the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, liberally estimated at 120,000. Government-sponsored environmental activists began the blockade, later replaced by Azerbaijani armed forces and a customs check-point meant to avert alleged contraband activities and cement assertions of sovereignty.
An Armenia-Russia Rift?
Armenia has repeatedly been disappointed in the lackluster response from the CSTO in general and Russia in particular to these immediate security concerns. Officials in Moscow have downplayed the incidents or suggested fact-finding missions. Yerevan has instead sought and received support from the European Union in the form of a civilian mission monitoring its border with Azerbaijan.
There have been a number of indicators recently that tensions between Yerevan and Moscow have increased. Armenia has refused to participate in CSTO exercises in the recent past. It recalled its representative to the CSTO on September 5 without appointing another official. The announcement of the exercises with the United States came rather unexpectedly the very next day, scheduled for the following week. Armenia is also considering acceding to the International Criminal Court—which would mean, in principle, that Vladimir Putin would face arrest on his next visit to Yerevan. In terms of the war in Ukraine, Armenia has largely remained neutral. But the wife of the country’s prime minister visited Kyiv last week to participate in the Summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen spearheaded by Olena Zelenska. The Armenian delegation brought humanitarian aid to the country for the first time on the occasion—laptops, tablets, and smartphones meant for children in war-struck areas. Most notably, the prime minister of Armenia said in an interview with an Italian publication that relying too much on one source for security needs is “a strategic mistake.” The reaction from Moscow to all of the above has been harsh, culminating in a rare, perhaps unprecedented summons of the Armenian ambassador to protest.
Implications for the United States and NATO
From a US perspective, Eagle Partner is an example of “defense diplomacy,” the nonviolent use of military forces through activities like exercises and training to spread influence abroad.
US Army Europe and Africa says the exercise will help Armenia’s 12th Peacekeeping Brigade “meet NATO standards” ahead of an operational capabilities evaluation under NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, scheduled for later this year. “Meeting NATO standards,” however, is a covering term, as the alliance maintains thousands of standards in everything, from standardized rifle ammunition to English- and French-language proficiency levels, to a common grid of military ranks to establish a multinational hierarchy of authority. Equally, the exercise is also meant to wave the US flag in a neighborhood that Russia has asserted “privileged interests” and has perceived as its backyard or sphere of influence, all while the Kremlin is distracted by the war in Ukraine. Indeed, some scholars argue that pursuing multinational interoperability through exercises like Eagle Partner can help to shape the strategic environment by tangibly demonstrating commitment.
For its part, the Ministry of Defense of Armenia has said Eagle Partner is aimed to increase the level of interoperability with US forces. This, by extension, can help Armenia reach the goal of meeting NATO standards, as the United States has historically devoted a number of resources to standardize operations within the alliance. In this manner, US action reinforces the further integration of Armenia into Western structures. The country joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and is a member of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, which provides a forum for dialogue for all NATO allies and partner countries in the Euro-Atlantic area. Armenia has also contributed to NATO-led missions, deploying small contingents to both Afghanistan and Kosovo. For much of the late 1990s and 2000s, Armenia’s foreign policy orientation was pointedly balanced and framed around the buzzword “complementarity.” Armenia was the only member of the CSTO to pursue such substantial engagements with NATO—a strategic choice which has become less viable since disagreements between Moscow and the West have come to a head over the past decade.
While it is probably too early to tell whether Eagle Partner signals the start of a US-Armenia strategic partnership, it is evident that through defense diplomacy the United States is seeking opportunities to strengthen relationships in the region while simultaneously undermining Russian influence. At the same time, Armenia’s participation in Eagle Partner may simply be an attempt at a return to “complementarity” to whatever extent possible in order to pursue a more multivector foreign policy in light of Russia’s attention elsewhere.
It would be difficult to imagine a wholesale shift in geopolitical orientation in Yerevan, especially given the deep military, economic, energy, and cultural ties between Armenia and Russia. Indeed, the public pronouncements by the two governments remain couched in terms of long-standing alliances.
Armenia has also recently pursued deeper security arrangements with India and Iran. While these may signal a shift away from Russia, they do not signal a shift toward the West. At the end of the day, the only powerful actor with boots on the ground in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh is Russia. Attempts by the United States to weaken the hold of the Kremlin over what it perceives as its sphere of influence can only have substantial impact if Washington offers a viable, robust alternative to Armenia’s security architecture.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. The opinions reflected here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.