Border Battles: Armenia’s Quest for Sovereignty – Removing Russians?

May 2024

Guus Rotink

THRI Fellow

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, so did the Armenian SSR and an independent Armenian state emerged for the first time since 1920. However, the newly established Republic of Armenia maintained close ties with its former Soviet overlords in virtually all layers of society. Up until now, political, economic and cultural integration with the Russian Federation remained significant. Effectively, the Armenian regimes under Ter-Petrosyan, Kocharyan and Sargsyan prior to the Velvet Revolution of 2018 were legitimised through their political affiliation towards Moscow. The Kremlin in turn was happy to provide its political, economic and military support to keep its allies in the driving seat in Yerevan.

One of the areas of close cooperation between Armenia and Russia became Armenian border control. In a document signed in 1992, the Armenian authorities gave up the responsibility of protecting its borders with Turkey and Iran to the Border Guard Directorate of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) (Nazaretyan, 2021). Additionally, the Russians took control of the border guard service at the Zvartnots International Airport, even though an agreement on control over the airport never appeared in the 1992 agreement. The agreement only mentions that the FSB border guards may use the airport for transportation purposes, not to exert border control (Leven, 2024b). Armenian authorities complied anyway, citing it as a move “intended to support Armenian independence” (Leven, 2024b).

In 2024 Armenia remains a country that does not have sovereign control over two of its four land borders as well as its most important international airport. This lack of sovereignty perhaps would not be problematic were the relations with Russia better.

Already in a negative trend since the Velvet Revolution, ever since the Second Karabakh War of 2020, relations with the Kremlin have continuously deteriorated further (Harazim, 2023). Yerevan feels Moscow did not provide the support that was promised, not in the context of the CSTO, nor in the context of the Russia-brokered 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement.

Aside from the often-discussed Nagorno-Karabakh question, there are multiple reasons for the crumbling Armenian-Russian partnership that originate in Armenia itself. In December 2023, Dmitry Setrakov, a Russian conscript soldier who fled to Armenia was arrested in Gyumri by Russian security personnel who posed as Armenian law enforcement and taken to the Russian military base in Gyumri after which he was deported to Russia (Kaghzvantsyan, 2023).

The move constituted an unprecedented and gross violation of Armenian legal sovereignty and is not the only case of Russian extrajudicial meddling in Armenian affairs. Despite the abovementioned 1992 agreement on the conjunction between the FSB and Armenian border guards limits Russian involvement to the borders with Turkey and Iran, following the 2020 ceasefire, Russian border guards have expanded their presence in Armenia to positions along the frontier with Azerbaijan, such as in Yeraskh and Paruyr Sevak on the Nakhichevan border and in various locations in the southern Syunik province, such as in Kapan, Vorotan and Tegh (Nazaretyan, 2021). This expansion coincides with the fact that the Armenian border guards, which effectively fall under FSB control, have been behested with the control of some parts of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in which the Armenian army is not present, in particular in the southern Syunik region. It also illustrates the complex dynamic that exists between the Armenian army and the Armenian border guard, since their affiliations do not always seem to align.

This situation, in which the FSB is operating far from its designated area of operation within Armenia, generated new questions of Armenian sovereignty over its own borders and territory. In February 2024, news broke that patrols of the European Union Mission in Armenia (EUMA) were denied access to the Nerkin Hand village in Armenia’s southern Syunik region by Russian troops who operate in the area in close cooperation with the Armenian border guards (Barseghyan, 2024).

Impediment of EUMA’s operation is unacceptable for the Pashinyan government, as the mission has received full support from Yerevan and has repeatedly been applauded for its deescalating value. It is the same area that saw the death of four Armenian servicemen last February (Light & Bagirova, 2024).

These incidents have increasingly caused irritations in the Armenian government. Back in 2021, PM Nikol Pashinyan still called for Russian border guards to be present along the entirety of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, now the position towards Russia has turned 180 degrees (Kucera, 2021). Armenian authorities have already requested the Russian border guards to vacate the Zvartnots International Airport by the 1st of August, stating Armenia “now has the institutional capacity to independently implement border guard services at the airport” (Leven, 2024).

This move is relatively uncomplicated for Yerevan since, as mentioned before, the presence of Russian border guards at the airport had never even been regulated. It should be viewed as yet another element of deteriorating relations between Armenia and Russia, part of the fallout of Russia’s inaction following Armenia’s loss of the Second Karabakh War.

Armenia has been accused of facilitating large-scale sanctions evasion by funnelling Western products to Russia

Talk in Yerevan has rightfully reached the next step: that of expelling all Russians from the Armenian border guard, thus dissolving the 1992 agreement. In this, the FSB removal from Zvartnots would only be a first step. Opposition from Moscow would likely be fierce; the dismissal from Zvartnots was already described as a “first major unfriendly step” by Russian lawmakers (Radio Free Europe, 2024).

Another obstacle is the Russian military base in Gyumri, which is host to an approximate 5,000 soldiers and of which the legal status was agreed upon in 1995. According to the agreement, the base is to remain until 2044 and has been described as “the only real guarantee of Armenia’s sovereignty” by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (, 2024)

The recent geopolitical developments in the South Caucasus have served as a tipping point in Armenia and have made Pashinyan’s government realize the sovereignty of Armenia is at stake as Russia will not defend it. Claiming control of the border guard is a positive step towards improving this sovereignty and should be viewed in conjunction with other moves, such as joining the ICC Rome statute, suspending participation in the CSTO and further alignment with the EU and US.
This process will not be easy, as it moves directly against Russian interests. It has to be said that Yerevan is walking a tightrope, as the economy remains heavily integrated with Russia. Armenian products are generally not fit for export to the EU as they do not meet European standards and the country’s membership of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEAU) remains unquestioned. Additionally, Armenia has been accused of facilitating large-scale sanctions evasion by funnelling Western products to Russia, only highlighting the two countries’ interconnectedness (Ivanova & Cook, 2023).

The Kremlin showed what it is capable of in terms of economic power towards Armenia when it briefly restricted the import of Armenian food products such as cucumbers in November last year (Radio Free Europe, 2023). Armenia’s energy supply also depends on Russia for as much as 80%. Ownership of the sole nuclear power plant is in Russian hands, as well as all of the nation’s railways.

However, the Armenian government feels the recent geopolitical developments in the region leave no other choice for Armenia but to diversify its security partners and thus distance itself from Russia. This assessment is supported by the population. A recent study found that 66% of respondents viewed relations with Russia as “bad”, a staggering difference from the 6% in 2019 (International Republican Institute, 2024).

This attitude was visible on the streets of Yerevan following the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh last September. Whilst demonstrators gathered in front of the government building to protest PM Pashinyan’s policy of non-interference, protestors simultaneously gathered in front of the Russian embassy to challenge Moscow’s inaction, carrying EU and US flags and ripping Russian passports.

We thus see a steady transformation in Armenia’s national security strategy. Full control over one’s borders is a logical and necessary step in this process. Due to the still considerable integration with Moscow, Yerevan realizes that rash decisions are out of the question. Simultaneously, Pashinyan is aware of the irreversible fact that he can no longer count on Putin for security guarantees. Whether Armenia succeeds in this new policy could be heavily reliant on the outcome of the ongoing Russian war of aggression in Ukraine.

Were Russia to emerge victorious or bolstered, it may quickly shift its full attention to its former ally in the Southern Caucasus which is slipping away. For the time being, Yerevan willingly makes use of the fact that Moscow is distracted in Ukraine and is using the Kremlin’s preoccupation to intensify and accelerate the diversification of its security partners. As it should, because in Armenia the priority is peace, and the dominant school of thought has become that for peace the Armenian people cannot rely on Moscow any longer.


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Harazim, K. (2023, October 5). EU Parliament accuses Baku of “ethnic cleansing” in Nagorno-Karabakh. Euronews.

International Republican Institute. (2024, March 7). Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Armenia | December 2023 | International Republican Institute.

Ivanova, P., & Cook, C. (2023, July 18). Armenia: on the new silk road for goods to sanctions-hit Russia. Financial Times.

Kaghzvantsyan, S. (2023, December 10). Russian military police in Armenia detain deserter who refused to fight in Ukraine. RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty.

Kucera, J. (2021, July 30). Pashinyan proposes Russian border guards for entire Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Eurasianet.

Leven, D. (2024, March 7). Armenia moves to expel Russian border guards from Yerevan’s airport. POLITICO.

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Radio Free Europe. (2024, March 8). Russian lawmakers condemn Yerevan’s airport order. Radio Free Europe.

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