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Arms for Armenia

Original illustration by Ziwei Chen '25, an Illustration major at RISD

For much of its existence, Armenia has been tossed between its larger, stronger neighbors—first Rome and Parthia, then Byzantium and the Abbasids, and later the Safavids and Ottomans. This pattern shows no signs of stopping. On September 11, 2023, the United States began holding its first military exercises with Armenian forces. Eight short days later, Azerbaijan launched an offensive against the Republic of Artsakh, an unrecognized Armenian enclave in the historically contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. Within a day, the fighting was over, Artsakh ceased to exist, and tens of thousands of civilians from Nagorno-Karabakh began streaming into Armenia proper. 

Azerbaijan’s most recent conquest capped a 30-year mission to recapture Nagorno-Karabakh, prompted by a successful Armenian incursion in 1994. For Armenia, the events of September represent a catastrophic institutional failure. They lay bare not only the rot in an aging military obsessed with past glories but also complacency in a diplomatic policy that relied on ancient allies (principally Russia) to the exclusion of all others. The fact that many observers believe Azerbaijan actually gained Russian permission for the invasion demonstrates just how badly Armenia erred. Russia’s reaction seems to confirm the speculation: An official government statement blithely called for a ceasefire, though former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev invited readers of his Telegram channel to “guess the fate” of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for deciding to “play with NATO.” 

Russia’s sudden about-face has upended a Caucasian balance of power that, only a decade ago, seemed entrenched. With a humanitarian crisis brewing, the United States has a rare opportunity to exploit the vacuum by signaling its readiness to uphold lapsed Russian security obligations. In doing so, it could win an ally in Armenia and humiliate an adversary in Russia.

Some history may be in order. Since the Russo-Persian War of 1826–28, Armenia has been Russia’s natural southern ally against Muslim influence inside the Caucasus. Outside the Caucasus, however, common cultural heritage has stimulated robust ties between Armenia and Iran. Armenians are one of Iran’s largest recognized minorities, and Iran has served as a vital conduit for trade since Türkiye closed its border with Armenia in 1993

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has historically been under Türkiye’s patronage due to the countries’ common religious and ethnic identities. Israel has also forged strong bonds with Azerbaijan, which it perceives as a potential ally in an Irano-Israeli war. The two nations’ arrangement allows Azerbaijan to import Israeli drones; in exchange, Israel receives tacit authority to use Azeri airfields in potential anti-Iran strikes. 

These tripartite alliances––between Russia, Armenia, and Iran on the one hand and Azerbaijan, Türkiye, and Israel on the other––have remained largely stable since the fall of the USSR. 

Recently, however, one has begun to fracture. In 2018, Pashinyan swept to power in the so-called “Velvet Revolution,” which grew out of street protests against corruption and a perceived lack of economic opportunity. Yet underlying the movement’s explicit motives was a clear subtext: deep concern that Armenia was being ossified by Russian influence. This fear largely stemmed from former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan’s 2013 rejection of an offer to develop closer ties to the EU in favor of increasing Armenia’s economic reliance on Russia. 

After the Velvet Revolution, Russian President Vladimir Putin began treating Armenia with considerable suspicion. When Azerbaijan marched on Artsakh in 2020, previewing its 2023 takeover, Russia saw an opportunity to cut its rebellious client down to size. It stepped aside, acting only to safeguard the Lachin Corridor, an extremely narrow lifeline from Armenia to Artsakh.

Armenia learned a lesson from its humiliating defeat in 2020—but not the one Russia intended. In early September of this year, Pashinyan claimed that relying on Russia as a sole security guarantor was “a strategic mistake.” Rather than crawl on all fours to beg Moscow for forgiveness, Armenia stood upright and shopped for allies elsewhere. Sure enough, it found a promising candidate––hence the fateful military exercises that likely provoked the Azeri invasion. 

In making overtures to the United States, Armenia has taken a crucial first step out of Russia’s oppressive orbit, but in doing so, it has also made itself incredibly vulnerable to attack. It is thus equally crucial that, for both geopolitical and humanitarian reasons, the United States meet Armenia halfway. 

The United States should begin by exploiting the fact that Azerbaijan’s allies—and therefore Armenia’s foes—are also American allies. Türkiye and Israel are core American partners: Türkiye is a NATO member, and Israel is a trusted friend. Both of these nations need America more than they need Azerbaijan. The United States could leverage its moral and material support for Israel’s anti-Hamas campaign to convince Jerusalem to go without Azeri airfields. Türkiye would be a tougher sell, but it could be induced to decrease financial support to Azerbaijan in return for an ebbing of US support for Syrian Kurds (whom Türkiye identifies as terrorists). 

If US pressure works and both Türkiye and Israel halt shipments of offensive weaponry to Azerbaijan, the Armenian position would already be far more secure. Should the Azeris nonetheless not stop at Artsakh, the United States should explore shipping weapons to Armenia, which still uses outdated Soviet arms that cannot meaningfully stand up to Azerbaijan’s modern imports. 

Original illustration by Ziwei Chen ’25, an Illustration major at RISD

Further Azeri aggression is not merely theoretical. Azerbaijan has been vocal regarding its desire to create the Zangezur Corridor, a narrow transport route between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhichevan that would pass through the Armenian province of Syunik. Azeri President Ilhan Aliyev has said that the corridor is a “historical necessity” that will be built “whether Armenia wants it or not.”

Armenia is likely to refuse to allow the corridor’s establishment during peace talks, reasoning that it amounts to ceding sovereign territory. If the countries are unable to compromise, the war over Nagorno-Karabakh could lead to an even more brutal conflict on internationally recognized Armenian land. Moreover, even if the issue of the Zangezur Corridor is resolved, Aliyev has previously claimed that all of Armenia is truly Azerbaijan. Without clear mechanisms to prevent the Azeris from acting on such a claim, another severe humanitarian crisis is possibly imminent. 

If concerns over a potential repetition of the Armenian Genocide do not move American policymakers, then more pragmatic reasons should. Armenia is still a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a post-Soviet security alliance composed of six nations firmly ensconced in the Russian sphere of influence. Flipping the allegiance of a CSTO signatory would be a considerable diplomatic coup and signal to the remaining five that the United States stands ready to fill Russia’s abandoned security guarantees. In the longer term, a firmly US-aligned Armenia could be a burr in Russia’s southern flank, tempering aggression of the sort that Georgia faced in 2008. An alliance could even hold benefits for US-Iran relations, which are historically poor, by providing a third-party mediator friendly to both countries.

Opportunities to simultaneously win allies, embarrass foes, and make positive humanitarian impacts are rare. For them to be relatively cheap is even rarer. Yet in Armenia’s case, the United States can accomplish all three objectives by merely pressuring allies and, if necessary, sending a few caches of outdated arms. With the Caucasus’s close proximity to global flashpoints, the United States cannot afford continued instability in the region. It must not delay.