Russian ally ditching Putin's rival to NATO damages the image Putin wants to project of himself, experts say

Russian ally ditching Putin's rival to NATO damages the image Putin wants to project of himself, experts say
  • Armenia announced this week that it will leave the Russia-led CSTO, seen as Putin's rival to NATO.

  • Experts say Putin wants the alliance to project Russian power, meaning Armenia's decision is a blow.

  • Armenia may see this as a power play, but one expert warned it doesn't have much leverage.

Armenia's announcement that it's going to leave a Russia-led alliance that was set up to rival NATO is a blow to the image Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to project, experts told Business Insider.

Nikol Pashinyan, the prime minister of Armenia, one of six member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, said on Wednesday that his country is leaving the alliance, after growing increasingly frustrated.

The decision, particularly from a country so much smaller and weaker than Russia, is unlikely to go down well in the Kremlin.

In fact, experts say it's the opposite of what Putin hoped to achieve with the alliance.

The CSTO is important to Russia

The CSTO, established in 2002, is made up of countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. It is widely viewed as Putin's attempt to establish a NATO rival, one that it leads.

"Putin sees himself almost like this 19th-century style great statesman," Davis Ellison, an analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, told BI.

But, he said, it's difficult to reconcile the idea that you're a great power — with a sphere of influence — when a country the size of Armenia "breaks away from you very publicly over your foreign policy behavior."

"That's a circle that cannot be squared," he said.

Armenia's announcement is "ultimately pretty significant from a political sense for Russia," he added.

yrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, CSTO Secretary General Stanislav Zas, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev enter the hall during the Summit of Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) at the Grand Kremlin Palace, May, 16, 2022, in Moscow, Russia.
CSTO leaders during a summit in Moscow, Russia, in 2022. Contributor/Getty Images

Alexander Cooley, a former Soviet states expert at Columbia University, told BI last year that Russia sees leading organizations like the CSTO as part of its "self-identification as a great power."

The alliance is not very important globally, he said: "I don't think it ever struck anybody as a very effective organization." But leading it is still important to Putin as, in Putin's mind, "great powers lead alliances and organizations."

Thomas Graham, cofounder of Yale University's Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies program, said that the CSTO was created "in part so that Russia could claim that it was leading a multilateral effort."

"But it was also meant to solidify Russia's position as the ultimate guarantor of security in the former Soviet space," he told BI.

Armenia snubbing Russia

Pashinyan's announcement came after months of snubs against Putin, and criticism of the CSTO in general.

Pashinyan was visibly frustrated when Russia did not send troops to help his country last year during clashes with Azerbaijan, despite the CSTO having a NATO-like agreement where members should come to the aid of each other if attacked.

He called the response "depressing" and "hugely damaging to the CSTO's image both in our country and abroad."

Since then, Armenia has said it's "not Russia's ally" in the war in Ukraine, has bought Western weapons, and has held military exercises with the US.

FILE PHOTO: Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, February 13, 2020.  REUTERS/Annegret Hilse
Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.Reuters

But Armenia will have a tough future

Graham suggested that Armenia's latest move was a power play "to see if it can get a more favorable set of relations with Moscow," and more support in its clashes with neighboring Azerbaijan.

But he said that Armenia doesn't have enough external support to get what it wants.

"Moscow may pay a bit more attention, but I think at the end of the day, Moscow's calculation is that Armenia doesn't really have many other places to go," he told BI.

"It can flirt with the West, but it will never get the type of support out of the West that can replace what Moscow can provide," he said, adding: "Armenia is not going to get a lot of high-level attention in Washington."

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin .Getty Images

Armenia, like CSTO members Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, is also still economically dependent on Russia, Graham said.

And he said it can't expect support from the other member states, particularly as Armenia is not as close to some of them as they are with each other and Russia.

Russia may also retaliate by interfering with its domestic politics, he said.

While the situation may be embarrassing for Putin, when it comes to responding to Armenia he does have a lot of room to maneuver, Graham added, "in part because there aren't any other countries that want to intervene in a significant way."

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