In the heart of Armenia's capital there is a monument to the 19th-century Russian writer and diplomat Alexander Griboyedov. The statue honors Griboyedov's efforts to annex Eastern Armenia to the Russian Empire.
Armenians knew that the Russian Empire wasn't a paradise, but linking to it was a matter of survival.
Since the 17th century, all Armenian diplomatic missions had repeatedly appealed to Russian monarchs to free Armenians from the Muslim yoke and to protect "Christian people of the same faith."
Across different periods, Russian tsars attempted to act on that request, but it was not achieved until the Treaty of Turkmenchay was signed in 1828 by Griboyedov.
Western Armenia remained within the borders of Ottoman Turkey and would years later suffer the Armenian Genocide.
And so it is that a Yerevan statue still standing today has the inscription: "From grateful Armenian people."
Old friends, new partners
Despite the centuries-long history of Armenian-Russian contacts, official relations between the two countries are recent, going back only 18 years, established in spring of 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Ties were strengthened even more recently, when, in January of 2007, the Republic of Armenia's National Security Council approved a significant document: "RA National Security Strategy."
Several days later, based on the presidential decree, that document acquired official force.
In part it says: "The nature and potential of the relations with Russia, including part of the Caucasus, are not limited to their regional status. They are of strategic character, conditioned by Russia's important role in ensuring Armenia's security . . .
"Russia's military presence in the Caucasus has particular importance for Armenia's security also as a factor ensuring military-political balance in the region. The Republic of Armenia and the Russian Federation carry out joint combat duty for the security of borders as well as anti-aircraft defense."
The State document in effect legitimized a more poetic article that long before expressed a national sentiment. In 1840 Armenian writer Khachatur Abovian wrote: "Take arms and armor, noble sons of Armenia, hit, eliminate the hordes of your enemies… May Russia's mighty hand support you. To sacrifice yourselves for her sake – may that be your unwavering desire… Open your brow, rejoice incessantly, from now on my sweet sister Volga will always take care of you… This inseverable bond, this sacred love will stay between us forever."
Historic distance between these two paragraphs is about 170 years. Many generations came and passed and the world changed beyond measure. But one thing remained: Armenia's perception of Russia as the guarantor of its security.
Call for help
In 1992 Armenia's fraternity with Russia would be called upon. In the early part of that year, fighting in Nagorno Karabakh threatened to turn in favor of Azerbaijan, as Turkey stepped up its engagement by deploying 1,500 tanks, 2,500 heavy weapons, and more than 1,100 armored vehicles to the Armenian-Turkish border
Bolstered by the show of might, Azeri President Abulfaz Elbichey made it clear that one of the goals pursued by Azerbaijan was liquidation of the Armenian statehood. "Azerbaijan will be celebrating the 1993 New Year on the shores of Lake Sevan," the Azeri president boasted.
Turkey was threatening war against Armenia, and the Azeri army made significant advances all along the war's frontline. The fate of Armenian statehood was on a razor's edge.
At the peak of despair Armenia's President Levon Ter-Petrosian made an urgent visit to Moscow, to see his old friend President Boris Yeltsin. The blusterous Russian chief had once told Ter-Petrosian: "Levon Akopovich (Levon, son of Hakob), I will make all Turks kneel before you!" (Of course, later Yeltsin made a long and mostly unintelligible retraction of what he actually meant.)
On August 21, 1992, Russia and Armenia signed a treaty outlining the status of the Russian army in Armenia, portending its continued presence in Armenia and signaling to Armenia's adversaries the mighty country's intended military support. By September, Armenia and Azerbaijan had signed a two-month cease-fire and Turkish and Azeri troops retreated.
By late September, more agreements were reached, by which the Russian army would maintain its presence in Armenia indefinitely.
Significantly, the demonstrative documents had been signed based mostly on negotiations of friendships between comrades-in-arms.
With Russia out-bullying the Turks on Armenia's behalf, Armenia focused its efforts on military strategy in Karabakh, and 1993 became the turning point of the war.
A grateful Armenia was also an obligated Armenia, and her future would be shaped by Moscow from that point on.
Internal and external threats
Armenia's success in the Karabakh war was met by Turkey placing a solid military contingent at the Armenian-Turkish border.
In September 1993 armored equipment and artillery of Turkey's Sarikamish Division 9 were placed in the village of Bairaktaran on the border between Turkey and Armenia. Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, concerned over the success of the Armenian troops in Nagorno Karabakh, threatened that in case of the Armenians' further advancement, "Turkey is not going to stand by and do nothing." Turkey's boldness was conditioned by a crisis in Russia, where on October 4-5, Moscow's White House came under fire in an attempted coup. Armenia feared that Russia would recall its 10,000-stong troop (border guard) force in Armenia, to help resist the attempted revolution in Russia. Without the Russian presence, Turkish forces would have an open door to Armenia.
(As reported then by French intelligence services and later confirmed by the United States Ambassador to Armenia, there existed an oral agreement between chairman of the Russian Parliament Ruslan Khasbulatov and Turkish Prime Minister Çiller that in case of success of anti-Yeltsin forces in Moscow, Turkish armed forces would be free to launch a limited attack against Armenia.)
One can easily imagine the consequences if Turkey did attack Armenia in case of Yeltsin's defeat. Thus, Yeltsin's victory over his domestic opponents became the token of Armenia's regional security.
Ever since, Armenian-Russian relations in Armenia's public mind returned to their natural course of traditional bilateral friendship, somewhat shaken during 1988-1992, when all newly independent states were in turmoil.
Russia was once more perceived as the only guarantee of Armenia's security.
In 1995, in accordance with intergovernmental agreements, Russian Army command unit Base 127 was deployed to Gyumri and has since maintained a joint regiment of about 5,000 troops in Armenia within the framework of the CIS Unified Air Defense system. It is under the order of the Group of Russian Troops in Transcaucasia of the Russian Federation's North Caucasian command and is equipped with antiaircraft missiles, C-300 airplanes and MiG-29 fighter jets.
In August of 1997 Moscow and Yerevan signed a long-term "Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Mutual Assistance," obliging the parties to support each other against threats of war. It also established patrol of Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-Iranian borders by Russian frontier soldiers. About 4,700 Russian Federation border guards currently are on call in Armenia.
Partner or "colony"?
With Armenia's security ensured, certain political forces in Armenia turned to criticism of the defense agreements, calling them examples illustrating Armenia's reality as "Russia's appendage in the Caucasus."
Change of power in Armenia in early 1998 and the 1999 assassinations in the Armenian Parliament were seen by conspiracy theorists as being masterminded by Western powers concerned that Armenian leadership was too Russia-friendly.
Russian news agencies reported such speculation as fact, and Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to Yerevan to honor the slain government leaders, where he expressed his indignation that "exceptionally pro-Russian politicians of Armenia were killed at the National Assembly."
The coming few months were days of political crisis and division between pro-Western and pro-Russian segments of the Armenian leadership.
President Robert Kocharian was, at that time, seen by certain factions as serving a pro-Western agenda, a position that did not favor those linked to the previous administration's political bodies.
Newly appointed Prime Minister Aram Sargsian went to Moscow to meet Putin, where it is believed Sargsian sought Moscow's support for unseating Kocharian. In the end, Moscow stuck with Kocharian who, in 2000, made his first official visit to Moscow.
The meeting of the presidents was reportedly tense, illustrated by one exchange when Kocharian appealed to Putin to reconsider imposing tariffs on Russian fuel supply to Armenia.
The Russian president stoically replied: "Armenia is not in need of special privileges."
Nonetheless, important agreements were signed during the visit, including the "Declaration on Allied Interaction Between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Armenia, in 21st Century Perspectives." The next day, in Sochi, the defense ministers of both countries, Armenia's Serge Sargsyan and Russia's Igor Sergeev, signed three agreements related to strengthening the Armenia-Russia military partnership.
The Moscow and Sochi agreements signaled a new stage of bilateral relations different from the Yeltsin-Ter-Petrosian stage, as the later articles were reached according to diplomatic negotiations and not over handshakes among old friends.
Since independence, each country has had three presidents and, with each change of leadership, emphasis has been placed on the need for Russia and Armenia to "make efforts in order for our economic partnership to come at least close to the level of our military partnership."
The principal declaration signed between Putin and Kocharian in 2000 defined the contours of the economic partnership. The implementation has been one-sided, favoring Russia, as Russia's military presence has favored Armenia.
In March 2002, Armenia, in order to pay back its state debt to Russia, transferred five entities to Russia's possession.
Yerevan Automated Control Systems Scientific Research Institute (YerACSSRI)
Yerevan Scientific Research Institute of Mathematical Machines (YerSRIMM)
Institute of Material Science
"Mars" Factory (electronics and robotics plant)
Hrazdan Thermo Power Plant
That deal became a subject of political speculations inside Armenia, drawing opponents' accusation that "Armenia is turning into a Russian colony once and for all."
Opponents of the "colonization of Armenia" could have held their tongues, as the coming years would produce more evidence illustrating their concerns. Since that initial turnover of significant Armenian structures, Russia has gone on to control natural gas, telecommunications, nuclear power, distribution of electrical power, railway, aluminum production...
Russian investments didn't take long to materialize, and their total amount has exceeded $1.8 billion. Investments are mostly directed to energy, construction, mining and smelting, as well as communications and Information Technology.
It is also worth noting the interests of Russian financial intermediaries in expanding their presence in Armenia's banking system. In 2004, Vneshtorgbank (currently VTB Bank) bought 70 percent of the shares of ArmSberBank (VTB Bank Armenia since 2006), and the remaining 30 percent in July of 2007. In 2007, GasPromBank acquired the controlling interest of AreximBank, and Russian investment company Troika Dialog became the owner of ArimpexBank's controlling interest.
According to Russia's Federal Customs Service, in 2005, the foreign-trade turnover between the two countries increased by more than 40 percent, and by another 70 percent in 2006, reaching $496.3 million. The tendency of stable growth of the mutual trade volumes is illustrated by the indicator for 2007, which exceeded that of 2006 by two-thirds, reaching $822.1 million.
In 2008, goods turnover reached $899.9 million, ensuring a 9.5 percent growth as compared to 2007, of which $695.8 million (6.1 percent increase) was Russian export, and $204.1 million (22.6 percent increase) import.
At the same time, the volume of private transfers from Russia to Armenia reached $1 billion per year.
While Yerevan is home to the statue of Griboyedov honoring his contribution to Armenian-Russian history, a certain statue stands, too, in Moscow. It depicts two women embracing a cross and is inscribed to "the peoples of Russia and Armenia." It is commonly known as the "friendship statue."
Naturally, there are rough edges in Armenian-Russian relations. On many issues, the sides admit that lack of a shared border has a negative impact on the tempo and logistics of the development of bilateral relations.
The republic and the federation have completely different official viewpoints concerning certain regional events. Yerevan has good neighborly relations with Georgia and even awarded the president of that country with the "Order of Honor," while Moscow considers Mikhail Saakashvili a war criminal.
Armenia has sent military contingents to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of U.S.-led forces, whereas Russia is skeptical of those campaigns.
A number of other examples can be brought, but all illustrate that the developing partnership between Yerevan and Moscow is focused on the big picture of security for the little country and opportunity for its protector.