Defeat in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War was a rude awakening for the Republic of Armenia and for the Armenian nation. The defeat exploded several myths – such as that “the Armenian army is the strongest in the region,” “Russia would never allow Turkey’s direct involvement in a new Armenia–Azerbaijan war,” and “the West would prevent authoritarian Azerbaijan and Turkey from attacking democratic Armenia.” Armenia entered a period of domestic political instability after November 2020, only partly resolved by early parliamentary elections in June 2021.
After the electoral victory of the “Civil Contract” party, the Armenian government led by Nikol Pashinyan, elected Armenian prime minister for the third time, launched intensive negotiations with Azerbaijan, mediated by Russia, and after December 2021, also by the European Union and the United States. It appeared that in the long term deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh would provide security for Armenians living in territories outside of Azerbaijani control, and that at the same time Armenia and Azerbaijan would move forward on peace negotiations. However, the reality was different.
Azerbaijani incursions into sovereign Armenian territory in May and November 2021 and September 2022, as well as the floating of the idea of the “Zangezur corridor” and “Western Azerbaijan,” proved that Azerbaijan was not going to be satisfied with establishing control over Nagorno-Karabakh, and, by increasing pressure on Armenia, would like to transform it into a state dependent on Azerbaijan. Exploiting the increased dependence of Russia on Turkey and Azerbaijan due to the war in Ukraine and the concentration of Russian resources on the Ukrainian front, Azerbaijan took intensive steps to impose complete control over Nagorno-Karabakh. The de facto closure of the Lachin corridor by “eco activists” in December 2022, and the establishment of a checkpoint on the bridge over the Hakari river on April 23, 2023, are part of Azerbaijan’s strategy.
In the current environment, Armenia has two choices – either 1) drop demands on establishing Artsakh’s status, on securing a long-term international presence there, and on withdrawal of Azerbaijani forces from occupied Armenian territories, return so-called “enclaves” to Azerbaijan, and seek to sign a peace treaty with Azerbaijan; or 2) in parallel with peace negotiations take steps to increase its strategic potential, viewing this as the only path to reaching a peace with Azerbaijan on acceptable terms.
If Armenia chooses the second path, it must review the direction of its foreign and defense policy. Until 2020 the primary focus of this policy was Russia. However, the Second Karabakh War and subsequent events proved that Armenia needs to shift its focus.
Sharp intensification of defense-security cooperation with the West may pull Armenia into the confrontation between Russia and the West and cause further damage to Armenia–Russia relations, with unpredictable implications. Deepening of defense cooperation with Iran may have a significant negative impact on Armenia’s relations with the US, NATO, and the EU. In the current environment, India may become a primary target for diversifying Armenian foreign and defense policy.
Since 1991 Armenia and India have developed friendly relations based on their rich historical experience. However, until the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, the South Caucasus was not among the priorities of Indian foreign policy, and economic cooperation was not developed. Many in Armenia viewed India through the lens of Indian students and Indian movies or soap operas, and Indian foreign policy was focused on its own immediate surroundings, on confrontation with Pakistan, management of competition with China, and development of strategic connections with the US. Meanwhile, India has registered impressive economic growth in the last 20 years, reaching the position of fifth globally by nominal GDP. Indian industries, including the defense industry, have been on the rise. In recent years the Indian government took steps to transform India from an arms importer into an arms exporter.
The South Caucasus was not a foreign policy priority for the Indian government, but neighboring Turkey has been on the Indian radar in the last five to seven years. The primary reason was the intensive development of relations between Turkey and Pakistan, especially in defense cooperation. In June 2016, Turkey and Pakistan signed a deal for the Turkish STM company to modernize three Pakistani submarines. In recent years, the Turkish government, led by President Erdogan, pursued an anti-Indian policy, fully supporting Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir. Turkey–Pakistan defense cooperation reached new heights when the two sides signed an agreement to construct military ships for Pakistan. During the visit of Pakistan’s prime minister, Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif, to Turkey in November 2022, one of the military ships was delivered to Pakistan. The fact that Pakistan’s armed forces took part in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War and that Pakistan flags were flown during “victory celebrations” in Baku on November 10, 2020, was well noted in India. Only two months after the Nagorno-Karabakh War, in January 2021, the second trilateral meeting of Azerbaijani, Pakistani, and Turkish foreign ministers took place in Islamabad, resulting in the adoption of the Islamabad Declaration. Turkey’s anti-Indian foreign policy and efforts to bring Pakistan into the South Caucasus put the region on India’s foreign policy agenda. India views the further enlargement of Turkish and Pakistani influence in the South Caucasus negatively. In this context, the development of relations with Armenia and the strengthening of Armenia align with India’s strategic interests. It was not a coincidence that the first ever visit of the Indian foreign minister to Armenia took place in October 2021.
As Azerbaijani aggression against Armenia continued, Armenia and India signed the first agreements on defense cooperation in 2022. Given India’s strategic cooperation with the US and friendly relations with Russia, developing relations with India does not create any risks for Armenia in the context of its cooperation with its main foreign policy partners.
However, Armenia–India relations should not be based only on the coincidence of interests in countering Turkey. There is a need for a positive agenda, and there are opportunities to develop that agenda. The two states have great potential to develop relations in digital technologies, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture. If Armenia provides relevant infrastructure, India is ready to greatly increase multiply the number of Indian students in Armenia. Another area of cooperation is in sharing experience of connecting with the diaspora and the mechanisms of diaspora–motherland connections, and the Armenian experience can be helpful for India.
The launch of a new trade route connecting India to Europe avoiding the Suez Canal via India–Iran–Armenia–Georgia–the Black Sea is another area of cooperation. This route will be realistic only after Armenia finishes the construction of the new Sisian–Kajaran–Agarak highway. However, there is a possibility of involving Indian construction companies and Indian funding in this project.
Cooperation between think tanks also has significant importance for developing Armenia–India relations. In this context, it is worth mentioning the establishment of close cooperation between APRI Armenia, a think tank established by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) in 2022, and the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). In early March 2023, APRI Armenia, as a co-sponsor, participated in the Raisina Dialogue 2023 international conference organized by ORF. Negotiations are underway between the two think tanks to jointly organize an international conference, the “Yerevan Dialogue 2024.” During their visit to New Delhi, individuals from APRI Armenia met with the leadership of several Indian think tanks and discussed opportunities for cooperation.
With the transformation of global security architecture, the world is entering an era of turbulence that may last for decades. In this context, the development of Armenia–India relations and their elevation into the level of strategic partnership align with Armenian and Indian interests.
Benyamin Poghosyan is Senior Research Fellow at APRI Armenia.
These views are his own.