Why is New Delhi selling weapons to Armenia?

Armenia is a conflict-ridden legacy of a flawed delimitation exercise of a region that was struggling to cope with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991
Last Updated : 12 October 2022, 21:25 IST

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The Government of India’s decision to export $249 million worth of weapons, including its lethal multi-barrel rocket launcher, Pinaka, to Armenia, which is engaged in a fratricidal conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan, suggests not just the shifting sands of the global power balance, but also the way New Delhi is readjusting its foreign policy to factor regional conflicts that overlap with its security concerns.

For long, India has stayed away from taking sides in any conflict. But by choosing to provide weapons to war-torn Armenia, stressed by the alliance that resource-rich Azerbaijan has cobbled with formidable Turkey and Pakistan, with support from China, India is positioning itself as a player of sorts in this complicated regional stand-off.

Armenia is a conflict-ridden legacy of a flawed delimitation exercise of a region that was struggling to cope with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting to establish sovereignty over Nagorno Karabakh, which has an ethnic Armenian majority but is surrounded by Azerbaijanian-majority districts.

Russia has been thriving in this confrontation – playing both the main supplier of weapons to both sides as well as peace-broker between them. But the forces of history began to assert themselves in unexpected ways, neutralising Russia’s influence on these countries and giving their conflict a life of its own.

Turkey, accused of the genocide of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during the First World War, 1914-1918, aligned itself with neighbouring Azerbaijan. Turkish President Recep Erdogan has been adamant in resisting the tarring of the Ottomans as genocidal. Perhaps it was critical for Erdogan to do so as he sought to craft a different future for Turkey from the secular society envisioned by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. From this standpoint, it was important for Ankara to tie up with Azerbaijan, despite the special relationship it shares with Moscow.

Azerbaijan had other friends, too. Being an oil and gas exporter, it has the European Union wooing it aggressively. Israelis have found a steadfast friend in Baku as the Azeris, although majority Shia, resent the religious leadership of Iran and its bid to rewrite history. Azerbaijan is also a close ally of the US.

In this hodge-podge of overlapping ties between those whom India considers as friends and foes, New Delhi has chosen to side with Armenia, which is on the losing side and is backed by those who are trenchantly anti-American: Russia and Iran.

Why has Delhi chosen to back Armenia? Is it because its enemies Pakistan and Turkey are aligned with Azerbaijan? Or is it because it is a business opportunity to supply arms to a country that shares its reliance on Russian arms, at a time when Moscow is unable to keep up the supplies because its resources are caught up in fighting Ukraine?

This is significant as Armenia had come to grief at the hands of Azerbaijan’s forces in the two exchanges they have had. Armenia, armed with Russian weapons, including its tanks and multi-barrel missile launchers, had proved to be inadequate when facing Turk-supplied Bayraktar drones. As it happened in the early part of the Ukraine conflict, the drones destroyed tanks, armoured trucks, etc. For a while, the Armenians, like the Russians, did not know where the attacks came from.

Ideally, the Russian government would have liked to be the arbiter between the two former Soviet republics, but after starting the Ukraine invasion, it has begun to lose its influence on erstwhile Soviet republics. Its growing losses and the manner in which its vaunted hardware has been walloped by Turkish drones and Western hardware has hurt Moscow’s reputation. As mentioned above, the biggest blow came from the Turkish drones that destroyed the supposedly formidable Russian tanks. The Russian air force took time to figure out how to take out the low-flying drones, which were vulnerable to air-to-air missiles from Sukhoi fighters. Independent observers claim that 39 Turkish drones were shot down, compelling even Ukrainian President Zelensky to minimise the drones’ importance in the country’s fight against Russia.

It is possible to read the chatter in the Armenian media -- that it is high time that their government sought Western weapons. It is also pressuring Armenia to get out of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) of foremer Soviet states as it failed to come to its help when Azerbaijan invaded it in September. Even Russia did not condemn the attack, which was seen as a forcible attempt on the part of Azerbaijan to settle the ‘Zengezur Corridor’, which was to link Azerbaijan with the Nakhchivan enclave located within Armenia. The Armenian government, feeling the pressure of a loss, realised that agreeing to the corridor could mean loss of its land and its sovereignty.

It was in these circumstances that Yerevan sought India’s help. The issue of the “three Muslim brothers” -- Turkey, Pakistan and Azerbaijan – ganging up was raised, which seems to have struck a chord with some in New Delhi as they tried to rationalise Indian military exports to Armenia, a country that embraced Christianity. Such easy formulation of India supporting a country militarily against “three Muslim brothers” is beset with many problems as it might drag India into uncharted territory. Would we like to be a ‘neutral’ arms supplier or one that sells its hardware based on our foreign policy concerns? These are some tricky issues that New Delhi needs to resolve as India’s military manufacturing prowess grows.

(The writer is Editor, Hardnews

Published 12 October 2022, 17:15 IST

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