The President of Armenia: A leader well-versed in diplomatic tightroping

His Excellency Vahagn Khachaturyan says his country does ‘not have any right to take any part’ in Ukraine

His Excellency Vahagn Khachaturyan has not been the President of the Republic of Armenia for a single day without war raging in neighbouring Ukrainian territory. In fact, more than one conflict has permeated Khachaturyan’s time in office, including Armenia’s ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan, over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The Tab sat down with the President after he addressed members of the Cambridge Union Society on domestic and foreign Armenian politics. Khachaturyan has been in office since March 2022, after a controversial election where main opposition parties boycotted the parliamentary vote.

The President addresses Cambridge Union Members (Image Credits: Jakob Schoser)

Russo-Ukranian War and Armenia’s ‘unique position’

In March 2022, Armenia was one of 35 countries that abstained from the UN General Assembly resolution which condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and demanded a full withdrawal of Russian troops. On this abstention list, Armenia was in the company of China, India, South Africa, and Vietnam.

I first asked the President to explain Armenia’s rationale for abstaining in this particular vote. Interestingly, one of the first phrases his translator relayed to me described Armenia’s situation as ‘unique’. Considering there were 34 other UN member states who chose to abstain from this particular resolution, what exactly about Armenia’s situation is ‘unique’?

Khachaturyan proceeded to put forward a number of justifications for their neutrality on the war in Ukraine. One of the most convincing regarded Armenian expatriates in both Russia and Ukraine. The President described that “two million Armenians live in Russia [and] half a million live in Ukraine, therefore, we do not have a right to take any part.” This is surely a consideration most can sympathise with, especially when one considers the domestic population of Armenia is only roughly three million. The President argued that the Armenian government is “also responsible for our compatriots who live outside.”

The President had a seemingly genuine concern for Armenian citizens living in both nations involved in the war, and the possible repercussions of Armenia declaring support for either Russia or Ukraine. This, however, is not the only factor influencing the President’s ongoing diplomatic tight-roping.

Khachaturyan acknowledged Armenia’s “strategic relations” in Russia, adding that “Russia is the guarantor of our security.” Here he is referring to Armenia’s membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which has a similar mutual protection clause in its treaty to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (the founding treaty of NATO). If Armenia was ever to be attacked by another state, Russia would be obliged under the treaty to provide military support. Thus, on security matters at least, Armenia is cautious to not bite the hand that feeds her. 

The President touring Trinity College after his talk (Image Credits: Jakob Schoser)

According to the President, Armenia also has “friendly relations” with both Russia and Ukraine, which influences their position that they are “for anybody, but we are ready to help any party for the peaceful settlement and resolution of this issue.”

The President finished his answer to my question with what seemed an honest and genuine reflection of the situation Armenia finds itself in with regard to Ukraine: “Please believe me that it is not easy for us. In words, I might be presenting it smoothly, but in reality it brings a lot of problems and complications for us.”

Strained relations with Moscow

As a historical ally of Russia, Armenia’s neutrality on the war has seemed to frustrate Moscow. Russia has recently enacted a ban on a number of Armenian dairy products, citing food safety concerns. However, these regulations have been widely interpreted as a subtle condemnation of Armenia’s neutral position. The President acknowledged that “[Russia] may be using these tools for political purposes as well.”

Adding fuel to the fire, Armenia has recently edged closer to ratifying the Rome Statute, which would result in it being a fully-fledged member of the International Criminal Court (ICC). This ratification would mean Armenia could prosecute its neighbour Azerbaijan over alleged crimes committed in the ongoing conflict on the border.

However, ratifying the Rome Statute could result in an awkward situation if Putin wanted to visit Armenia in the near future. Armenian authorities would technically have an obligation to arrest Putin, after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for the Russian President. In response, the Kremlin warned of “serious consequences” if Armenia were to fully confirm their ICC membership.

There is no doubt Armenia’s relationship with Moscow has soured since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite trade with Russia becoming “a lot more active”, according to the President. Trade with Russia is yet another factor influencing Khachaturyan’s diplomatic tightroping.

The President during our interview (Image Credits: Jakob Schoser)

A desire for a closer ties to the West

The Tab spoke to the President just days before he attended King Charles III’s coronation in London, an event he saw as an opportunity to develop Armenia’s relationship with the United Kingdom.

The President acknowledged that “the UK is a high-tech developed country” and that Armenia “need[s] to make use of these opportunities.” Beyond the focus of technological development, he would like to “use more opportunities in other sectors to improve our relations”.

Khachaturyan specifically mentioned the culture sector, referencing an exhibition at the British Museum which opened the day he visited Cambridge. The exhibition focuses on Greek and Persian history, but has “exhibits from the Armenian History Museum presented there.” The President thinks it is “very important” to share Armenian culture, and that “Armenia has a great potential to the world with its culture that we are not using enough.”

The significance of Armenia’s neutrality on Russia

Ultimately, Armenia’s position on the war collapses the false dichotomy so often presented to us; that states are either wholeheartedly for or against Russia’s actions. There is no doubt we should continue to condemn Russia’s unprovoked, full-scale, illegal invasion of Ukraine, and support Ukraine to defend its sovereign territory. However, there is no harm in acknowledging the reality of the “complex situation” countries like Armenia find themselves in – a situation Khachaturyan clearly articulated to me.

In addition, we should not underestimate the symbolic power of Moscow’s traditional allies taking a neutral stance on the war. Their neutrality can play a valuable role in undermining the Kremlin’s war efforts.

Featured image credits: Jakob Schoser

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