Why is Russia behind Armenia military coup plot?

In the wake of Armenia’s political crisis, there are indications that the forces Armenia’s prime minister accused of plotting a “military coup” are directed by the Kremlin. 

Armenia’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan announced on Thursday the country’s top military officers are plotting a “coup,” and called his supporters to the streets in the capital Yerevan.  The opposition staged a rival rally.

He has rejected calls to resign, saying he needs to ensure the post-war security and economic recovery of the impoverished former Soviet republic of less than 3 million.

Pashinyan has faced some protests after losing last year’s war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh but the opposition failed to rally sufficient public support to topple him exhausting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s patience.

Nikol Pashinyan vs Russia

Pashinyan emerged as the leader of a wave of anti-government street protests that rocked Armenia in the spring of 2018, bringing an end to 10 years of rule by Serzh Sargsyan who had close ties to Russia.

Pashinyan, who led what has become known as Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution”, swept Russian-backed elites out of power, promised human rights would be protected, and that corruption and election-rigging would end.

For many Armenians this was the first time since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 that they were able to believe in a better future, loosen ties with Russia and turn to the west and improve relations with neighbouring countries.

During the revolution, Russia recognized its own limitations and refrained from open involvement to not to lose its key foothold for Russia in the South Caucasus.

Although underground activities to rock the boat and end what Russia calls “George Soros project” , Russia mostly adopted a wait-and-see approach.

Russia has accused the billionaire investor George Soros of  masterminding “color revolutions”  that toppled authoritarians in several countries of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, Vladimir Putin has grown obsessed with the color revolutions that have brought down other strongmen regimes, including next door in Ukraine. He reportedly views them as covers for Western-backed coups, worrying that he could be next.

During the street protests, Pashinyan rode anti-Russian sentiment, corruption and poverty, criticized Armenia’s dependence on Russia and the advantage that Russia took of Armenia’s weakness and isolation.

Putin and the Russian media under his control have not always treated Pashinyan kindly, have tried to portray every failure as the failure and consequences of the velvet revolution.

44-day War and Russia

The current crisis has its roots in Armenia’s humiliating defeat in heavy fighting with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh that erupted in late September and lasted 44 days.

Nagorno Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but was captured along with several adjacent regions by Armenia and was in control of ethnic Armenians from 1994 to 2020.

Russia had long sought to place its “peacekeepers” in the region and had offered a peaceful solution package under which Armenia would return most of lands it had captured from Azerbaijan in 1990s and let Russia deploy its military to the areas where ethnic Armenians live.

Russia covertly supported Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan, but more or less kept a show of political balance and refrained from extending open political and military support to Armenia as it also needed warm relations with Azerbaijan and its green-light for the peacekeeping mission.

By playing strategically to earn some points with Azerbaijan, Russia also sought to increase its influence and “peacemaker role” in what it calls its “near abroad” where Azerbaijan is the largest, most populous and most resources-rich country which it hopes to attract to its Eurasian Economic Union (Armenia is already a member) to one day re-create the Soviet Union.

During the war, Putin deliberately waited for Azerbaijan to achieve certain territorial gains to weaken Pashinyan in Armenia so that he can use its own influence in Yerevan to oust him and install another Armenian leader more pliable to Russia’s wishes.

Eventually on the midnight of November 10, 2020, the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia signed the Russian-brokered deal to end the 44-day war in which the Azerbaijani army routed Armenian forces.

Under the deal, as Russia had long sought, Russian peacekeepers were deployed in the areas of Nagorno Karabakh where ethnic Armenians live, Azerbaijan got back part of Nagorno Karabakh plus 7 adjacent regions, including 3 from which Armenia withdrew without a fight.

Pashinyan has defended the peace deal as a painful but necessary move to prevent Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno Karabakh region, and to ensure the peace in the South Caucasus region to move forward.

Timing and Trigger

This week Nikol Pashinyan  questioned the effectiveness and quality of Russian weapons, especially Russia’s most boasted-about Iskander ballistic missile (NATO name SS-26 Stone) used by his country during the recent conflict against Azerbaijan.

He said Iskander missiles the army fired “didn’t explode on impact or rather only 10% did”, drawing harsh reactions from top Russian officials and the Kremlin-controlled media.

He had also previously criticized the accuracy of Russian missiles as many of them during the war fell kilometres away from their intended targets, killing civilians and outraging the international community.

Some top military officers, including the deputy chief of the General Staff rushed to criticize the PM for publicly discussing sensitive military matters.

Pashinyan fired the deputy chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Tiran Khachatryan.

Meanwhile, in addition to multiple harsh statements from Russia, Armenian media reported about a phone call from Russia’s General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov to his Armenian counterpart to ask “to get rid of Pashinyan”.

The General Staff issued a statement signed by dozens of top generals to demand Pashinyan’s resignation  over his alleged inability “to make reasonable decisions in the post-war crisis”.

Pashinyan responded by firing the General Staff chief Colonel General Onik Gasparyan (President Armen Sarkisian, whose role is largely symbolic after the 2018 revolution, has so far refused to approve the dismissal), and later took to the streets of the capital, Yerevan, in a bid to rally supporters behind him. Thousands came out in support of Pashinyan.

Talking to his backers on Republic Square in the heart of Yerevan, Pashinyan said  any change in power must take place “only through elections”.

“The army is not a political institution and attempts to involve it in political processes are unacceptable,” he said.

The army “must obey the people and elected authorities,” Pashinyan said.

He told his supporters he had mulled over his resignation during the past months.

“But then I said that I did not become prime minister out of my own free will, the people decided so. And the people must decide my departure. Let the people demand my resignation, let them shoot me in the square, ” he said at the rally.

He also threatened those behind the coup and demonstrations attempt with arrests if they cross the read line, hinting at the old elite (referring to two former presidents Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan who have close ties to the Kremlin and Putin personally).

“Those who robbed people will not return”.

“If somebody goes beyond the line of political statements, they will be arrested”.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was following the situation in Armenia with “concern”.