YEREVAN, Armenia — Crowds lined the streets of Yerevan hours before Nancy Pelosi’s fleet of seven slick black cars pulled into the center of the Armenian capital on Sunday.
Waving American flags, thousands of people turned out to catch a glimpse of the speaker of the House of Representatives as she paid a historic visit to the Caucasian nation, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to do so since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Those U.S. flags carried a significant political message about the country’s political allegiances. For years, Armenia chose to be a key strategic ally of the Kremlin, but many are now increasingly questioning whether Moscow can act as guarantor of the nation’s security against the superior firepower of neighboring Azerbaijan, which launched a massive artillery bombardment on Tuesday. Since then 135 Armenians and 77 Azeris have died in a conflict that looks at risk of breaking through a fragile ceasefire.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin mired in a war that is rapidly turning against him in Ukraine, Yerevan is finding that its appeals for help from a Moscow-led security grouping, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, are falling on deaf ears. That’s a pivotal strategic problem as the enemy in Azerbaijan is lavishly supported by Turkey, a regional military heavyweight that Yerevan associates with the genocide of the Armenian people during World War I.
The thousands who took to the streets of Yerevan, close to where the U.S. delegation was holding meetings, demanded their country withdraw from that Russian-led military partnership. Billboards featuring Putin were torn down, crowds chanted Pelosi’s name, and demonstrators held up signs reading “CSTO go screw yourself.”
“All my life we have been a Russian colony,” said Anna, a protestor who brought her seven-year-old daughter to the rally. “It’s time for us to try something else.”
Another demonstrator angrily confronted a Russian journalist after spotting his nationality printed on a press card. “Why are you here? Why don’t you go back to Russia and report on what is going on there?” she demanded. “You are occupiers!”
Pelosi has established a reputation for jetting into hotspots in recent years — and has visited both Kyiv and Taipei this year.
The stakes between Armenia and Azerbaijan could hardly be higher. The clashes are the most serious escalation since the two countries fought a brief but bloody war in 2020 over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, inside Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized borders but held by Armenian separatists.
This time round, the fighting has reached within Armenia’s borders. Azeri ground troops last week moved in to take several strategic heights inside Armenia, and Yerevan says they captured 10 square kilometers of its territory before a tentative ceasefire came into force the following day. This pact appears unlikely to hold, however, and officials warn a new offensive could be imminent.
“We strongly condemn these attacks,” Pelosi declared during a speech to Armenian officials. “The fighting was initiated by the Azeris and there has to be recognition of that,” she added, arguing that “we are amidst a battle between democracy and autocracy.”
Ahead of the trip, Pelosi also likened Armenia’s situation to that in Ukraine and Taiwan, portraying the conflict as part of a global struggle against tyranny and oppression.
Armenia has consistently been ranked as one of the freest nations in the region, with higher levels of human rights and press freedoms than many other parts of the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has been governed by a father and son presidential dynasty for almost three decades, and has frequently come under fire from international organizations for cracking down on civil liberties and jailing dissenting journalists.
In terms of regional security alliances, the geopolitical situation is complex. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia has been a close ally of Moscow in the CSTO, which includes largely authoritarian former Communist states such as Belarus and Kazakhstan. Yerevan also maintains strong economic and political ties with Iran, another country locked into hostile relations with the West.
When offered the prospect of closer trade ties with the EU — a move that Ukraine seized, massively ramping up tensions with Putin — Yerevan instead decided to spurn Brussels in 2013 to put itself squarely in the Russian economic orbit.
On the defensive
Choosing the Russians has hardly paid dividends, and Armenia is now on the back foot when it comes to who holds hard power in the region.
After a string of defeats during the 2020 war, Armenia had to cede swathes of territory in Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. A Kremlin-brokered peace deal saw thousands of Russian peacekeepers deployed to the breakaway region to prevent further offensives and protect the remaining 100,000 ethnic Armenians living there.
Citing its obligation to protect its members against invasion, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has called on the CSTO to provide “military aid for restoring the territorial integrity of the country.” In 2020, the alliance refused to send support to Armenia, arguing that the fighting was only playing out on Azerbaijani territory. With the conflict now raging on both sides of the border, Pashinyan argues there is a clear-cut case for intervention.
The response from Moscow, though, has been muted. Russia has only agreed to send a factfinding mission, while Kazakhstan effectively ruled out deploying troops. What’s more, the Russian peacekeeping mission has failed to prevent Azerbaijani troops pushing forward in Nagorno-Karabakh in recent months, making many Armenians skeptical about the decision to depend on the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has forged a close partnership with NATO member Turkey, receiving large shipments of advanced weapons from Ankara that have given it a considerable edge over its neighbor, which pulled out of the CSTO itself in 1999.
Only compounding Armenia’s concerns, the EU is also courting Azerbaijan as it is looking to tap into Baku’s vast oil and gas reserves to help replace Russian fossil fuels. In July, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen signed a deal with strongman President Ilham Aliyev under which Azerbaijan should provide the bloc with an annual 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas by 2027, describing the country as a “crucial energy partner for us.”
Pelosi’s condemnation of the Azeri attack, naturally, received a less than warm welcome in Baku, which insists Azerbaijan is only responding to coming under fire from Armenian territory. “Groundless and unfair accusations against Azerbaijan are unacceptable,” Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Leyla Abdullayeva tweeted following the speech. “Such statements serve not to strengthen fragile peace in the region, but rather to escalate tension.”
While Armenia is becoming more hostile to the Kremlin, Baku seems to be drawing closer to it. Just two days before Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine in February, Aliyev met with Vladimir Putin, signing off on a comprehensive agreement that they said “brings our relations to the level of an alliance.”
As the U.S. House Speaker tours Yerevan, her Russian counterpart, parliamentary speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, is preparing to take a trip to Azerbaijan this month as part of a new diplomatic offensive.
Even more concerning for Armenians still holding out hope for Russian support in the conflict, pictures published from a summit of Eurasian leaders in Uzbekistan on Friday showed Putin relaxing and laughing in talks with Aliyev, along with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Warm words aren’t enough
Outgunned and increasingly isolated from its traditional allies, Yerevan could not have picked a better time for Pelosi to touch down in the country, so she could set out her priorities on the “territorial security and sovereignty of Armenia.”
Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone, a member of Pelosi’s delegation and the co-chairman of the Caucus on Armenian Issues, went even further. “The U.S. is very concerned about Armenia’s security, we want to do whatever we can to be more supportive of Armenia’s security and we’re going to work to see what can be done to help,” he said.
Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Centre, a Yerevan-based think tank, said the U.S.’ growing focus on the region was as much about geopolitics as about values. “This is also about Russia as much as it is Armenia,” he says. “The visit may suggest the initiation, but not necessarily the culmination, of a shift in U.S. policy.”
However, with fears of renewed fighting looming large, not everyone is convinced support is coming fast enough. “It’s important to see the U.S. finally stepping up and recognizing what is going on here,” says Paul Sookiasian, a 37-year-old Armenian-American who relocated to Yerevan from Philadelphia 10 years ago. “But warm words aren’t everything. We need tangible support to help stop those who want to wipe us off the map.”