Armenian and French defense cooperation has heated up in the past year. Last October, France appointed a permanent defense attaché to Yerevan tasked with increasing French-Armenian military cooperation. This May, Paris supplied Yerevan with 50 armored personnel carriers. Three weeks ago, 170 French parliamentarians and other elected officials called on the government to provide more military support to Armenia. And just last week, the Armenian Defense Minister was in Paris meeting with his French counterpart.
These developments worry Ukraine and Israel, who are concerned that French-supplied military technology could make its way to Russia or Iran given Armenia’s close ties to the two countries. Both Kyiv and Jerusalem have been silent publicly but have expressed their private concerns as noted by French military experts.
It wouldn’t be the first time that Russia’s military has profited from its alliance with Armenia. Since the start of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine in February of last year, senior U.S. trade and tax officials reported a surge of western electronic components sold to Russia through Armenia. This included electronic devices and chips crucial to the development of Russian cruise missiles and other weapons. Yerevan has also served as a transit hub for the Iranian drones headed to Russia. These are the drones that are often used to target civilian infrastructure.
Another cause for concern is the potential for French military technology to be reverse engineered. This March, CNN reported that Russia was capturing NATO and U.S.-supplied weapons like Javelin and Stinger missiles and sending them to Iran to be dismantled and analyzed to see if the Iranian military could make their own versions of the weapons. Iran has previously managed to reverse-engineer anti-tank guided missiles and drones from intercepted U.S. stockpiles.
The APCs that France already delivered to Armenia are the nearly 50-year-old VAB MK3s. This type of antiquated technology falling into Russian or Iranian hands would not be likely to cause too many issues. However, the French are considering supplying the Armenians with modern Sherpa and Bastion APCs. This has caused French defense experts to express their concern given Yerevan’s close ties to Moscow. And considering that Paris has supplied Kyiv with Bastion APCs, if Russia were able to get their hands on one, it would be able to better counter them on the battlefield.
France is aware of these risks but has prioritized its own influence in the South Caucasus. The weapons sale is not a matter of economics or profit, but a purely political calculation. Since their defeat in the 2020 Second Karabakh War, when Azerbaijan reclaimed a large swath of Armenian-occupied territory in the separatist territory of Karabakh, many in the Armenian government including Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, understood that Russia is not a reliable guarantor of their security. The realization made Yerevan search for a new patron – France.
Pashinyan has taken real steps to move westward, including distancing itself from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization – or CSTO — defense pact. He also declared three weeks ago that Armenia would not act as a Russian ally in the war against Ukraine, leading to a retaliatory Russian ban on Armenian dairy products.
But Armenian politics are complicated. While Pashinyan appears to sincerely want to pivot Armenia westward, he can only do so much. Many Armenian elites and politicians have close ties to Russia and Armenia is still very dependent on Russia economically and militarily. Russia is Armenia’s largest trading partner in both imports and exports and has two military bases in the country. This makes reorienting extremely difficult. Additionally, Pashinyan must deal with domestic hardliners, often backed by Russia that have sabotaged attempts at making peace with Azerbaijan, a necessary step if the country aims to wean itself from Russian dependence.
That is why despite Pashinyan’s moves West, Yerevan has become one of Russia’s go-to partners in avoiding sanctions and has served as a transit hub for Western electronics used in the Russian war effort.
Armenia’s relationship with Russia is not the only cause for concern. Yerevan has also become closer to Iran as the latter seeks to contain Turkish and Azerbaijani influence on its borders. As Armenia attempts to rely less on Moscow, it has increased cooperation with Tehran.
When it comes to containing Turkey, French and Iranian interests overlap. Paris and Ankara have long competed for influence in the Eastern Mediterranean region and North Africa. Through Armenia, France feels it could counterbalance the Turkish-Azerbaijani tandem in the South Caucasus.
In addition to the perceived foreign policy benefits, increased military support to Armenia would be domestically popular for Paris. France is home to an estimated 650,000 Armenians, the largest Armenian diaspora outside the United States and Russia. This population is politically active and organized and French politicians know that military support for Yerevan and Karabakh is extremely popular.
Support from the Armenian diaspora has proven more important to France than Armenia’s actual welfare and finding a peaceful solution to the thirty-year conflict over Karabakh that has ravished the region. This was proven by French President Emmanuel Macron last week, when he told representatives of the local Armenian community that he was taking a stronger stance against his Azerbaijani counterpart than Pashinyan himself.
France should reconsider supplying Armenia with modern military technology. Russian expansionism is the real threat to Europe. And given the strong defense cooperation between Russia and Armenia, there is a high risk of French military technology giving Russia an advantage while it commits war crimes on European soil. France should also consider that meddling in the South Caucasus could jeopardize Azerbaijani energy exports to the Europe Union. These exports have been crucial as the European Union seeks to become independent from Russian energy. European officials have already expressed their concerns that Moscow is trying to use the separatists in the Karabakh region to create a conflict to disrupt this supply. Given the Armenian military’s historic close collaboration with the separatists in Karabakh, much like Russia’s relationship with Ukrainian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, French military technology supplied to Armenia could easily become part of this conflict.
If France truly wants to support Armenia, it should focus on helping the Pashinyan administration root out Russian influence. Now that Moscow is overloaded with its invasion of Ukraine and dealing with domestic challenges to Putin’s authority, it has less capacity to deal with maintaining its authority in the South Caucasus. Armenia is trying to take advantage of this trend, and hopefully it does, but it has a long way to go.