Why India must help Armenia defend itself
India’s balanced diplomacy makes it the only major country that can productively engage multiple powers, bridging the chasm between US and Russia, Israel and Iran — all of whom have interests at play that can be significantly harmed if violence escalates here
An explosive uptick in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict this month focused world powers on the urgent, strategic issues shaping this region. Two countries in particular — the United States (US) and India — took a leading position, condemning the violence and exercising restraint. India’s ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Ruchira Kamboj, eloquently called on the aggressor side “to immediately cease hostilities and exercise restraint.”
Critical geopolitical dynamics are now in play. First, Azerbaijan’s decision to launch a major offensive less than two weeks after peace talks in Brussels demonstrated Baku’s intention to take what it wants by force. This sparked clear consternation from the US, European Union and other actors; dozens of foreign diplomats made a delegation visit to Jermuk, one of the cities most heavily targeted by Azerbaijan. The statement by Kamboj highlighted India’s consistent role, both principled and practical, in standing for peace.
Relations between India and Armenia have been a strategic focus for both countries, sealed by the visit of foreign minister S Jaishankar to Yerevan last year. The two democracies are ancient civilisations that share many moments in history, culture and language. In Yerevan, you can buy a paneer sandwich for less than a hazar dram. My family was part of the community of Armenians in India that built a church in Chennai, a history we have treasured since.
A deepening relationship with Armenia will help India economically and be an important geostrategic counterbalance to current trends. In the competition over global supply chains, Armenia is a potential foothold for India in the Eurasian corridor, a pathway from the Persian Gulf to Russia and Europe. It can be a vibrant economic development partner for India in fields from agriculture to pharmaceuticals, manufacturing to high-tech. As the two countries partner on economic development, the Indian-Armenian partnership can offer a shining alternative to the China model of debt-based development of small countries by an Asian superpower. In strategic security, Armenia has purchased Indian defence equipment to help secure its borders, with an initial $40-million deal in 2020.
Armenia and India are also on the same side of the fight against terrorism and military aggression. Pakistan is an ally of Azerbaijan, sending men and military assets to help fight its wars. In return, Baku has offered geopolitical, geo-economic and geostrategic benefits to its partners in Islamabad. In 2021 the “Three Brothers” military exercises between Pakistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan advanced the interoperability of the countries, leveraging their collective strength to help each partner achieve its respective national goals.
If Azerbaijan gets what it wants in Armenia, it will be a huge boost to Pakistan, with dangerous consequences. By attacking and then carving up Armenian territory, Azerbaijan wants a direct, sovereign passageway through Armenia, with no customs duties, security clearance or access by the Armenian side. It would be an unchecked, unfettered route that connects Turkey, Azerbaijan, Pakistan and the entire bloc of Turkic-aligned countries, all the way to China. Weapons, materials and cargo could pass through, to the gates of Kashmir. China is investing heavily, as a partner to Turkey and Azerbaijan, to develop this route.
India should do everything in its power to prevent that from happening. The US vowed to stand against any territorial takeover or attempts to redraw the map by Azerbaijan, with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi making a landmark visit to Yerevan just after the Azeri attacks. The EU is doing what it can through diplomatic efforts to support peace and security. India is in a unique position to help support a return to order. Its know-how and defensive resources can help Armenia secure itself; Azerbaijan’s vastly well-armed military, paid for by oil and gas wealth, is incentivising aggression over diplomacy. A stronger, defensively prepared Armenia could incentivise Baku to back down.
India’s balanced diplomacy makes it the only major country that can productively engage multiple powers, bridging the chasm between US and Russia, Israel and Iran — all of whom have interests at play that can be significantly harmed if violence escalates here. In the past, coordinated diplomacy across the EU, US and Russia was enough to broker peace in the south Caucasus. Now that system has broken down. India has a vital role in restoring the balance, a duty and calling that matches its stature in the new world order.
Lara Setrakian is an Armenian American journalist working in Yerevan to set up a think-tankaThe views expressed are personal.