BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
Prompted by the New York Times reporting that North Korea may have gotten some of its best missile technology from a factory in Ukraine, I realized there was a long-standing gap in my understanding of where that country fell in the Armenian scheme of things. So, I did a bit of reading, by no means exhaustive, which, combined with the snippets floating around in my head, resulted in what follows.
Historically, the Armenian-Ukrainian connection goes back to the times of Turkic invasions of our homeland. Not only did that trigger movement westward, resulting in the Cilician kingdom, but also northward across the Black Sea to Crimea, Ukraine, and Poland. Unfortunately, these communities ultimately assimilated and were largely lost. Of course, that wasn’t the end of Armenian migration to Ukraine. It must have continued, since today, there are anywhere between 100,000 and 350,000 Armenians in Ukraine. The lower number is from a 2001 census and includes only official residents, not temporary, migrant workers or those otherwise present. The higher figure is more recent and based on an Armenian organization’s estimate. How these figures are to be divided, with Crimea now separated from Ukraine is yet another question. Another more recent historical aspect was the cooperation between Armenians and Ukrainians in anti-Soviet efforts through the 1970s.
The upshot of so many Armenians living there is that at least two of them hold fairly high-ranking positions in government. This suggests that there’s not a strong anti-Armenian sentiment among Ukrainians. Naturally, these two are acting in the best interests of Ukraine. Yet, at least one Azeri columnist suggests writing Ukraine off as an ally of Azerbaijan because of their presence – a fine example of the anti-Armenian sentiments regularly inflamed by Baku clouding judgment so much as to hurt its own interests.
This begs the question – what/how are relations between Azerbaijan and Ukraine? We hear niceties being exchanged between Yerevan and Kiev, but there seems to be an underlying tension. It seems to me that a big part of the problem rises because of the relationship between Ukraine and Russia. There’s a pretty long history of conquest and antipathy between them. Thus, my guess is Kiev views much of the rest of its relationships through that prism, quite understandably – you know the mindset that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and “the friend of my enemy is my enemy”.
Couple this approach with Ukraine’s loss of Crimea and potential for losing more territory to Russia, and you can see why Kiev supports Azerbaijan’s “territorial integrity” argument when it comes to Artsakh. Unfortunately, this support predates Russia’s annexation, so there must be more to it. Ukraine has been and is Azerbaijan’s second (perhaps now third with all the Israeli sales) largest arms supplier after Turkey. Even if this is more attributable to Ukraine’s economic needs, trade and so on, obviously, it cannot be ignored by Yerevan.
Hence, it should have come as no surprise to Ukraine when Yerevan’s position regarding Russia’s annexation of Crimea was less than supportive of Kiev. This naturally led to cooling of relations, but there does seem to be a thaw. Bilateral trade between Ukraine on one side and Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey on the other seems to be steady, which is a sign of good relations. Once again, Russia is a big factor and Ukraine wants to get energy from other sources to reduce its dependence, hence its need for Azerbaijani supplies. In fact, Ukraine was advising Turkey, in the aftermath of the latter’s shoot-down of a Russian jet (Fall 2015), to reduce its reliance on Russian natural gas to below 25% as a “safe” level. It seemed like Ukraine was trying to take advantage of the heightened tension between Russia and Turkey. Plus, Turkey-Ukraine relations are good enough to enable shipment of Ukrainian arms, courtesy of Turkish secret services and trains they chartered, to Daesh/ISIS in 2014, based on a recent report. This, too, runs counter to Armenian interests, both for the closeness demonstrated with Turkey and the damage inflicted on our compatriots in Syria.
Finally, there’s GUAM – Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova, later renamed ODED-GUAM (Organization for Democracy and Economic Development). It briefly became GUUAM when Uzbekistan joined, but later dropped out. This 1990s vintage grouping is currently quiescent, though I also encountered some commentary that it should be reinvigorated. It was clearly formed as a way to push back against Russia. These are all countries in which Russia supports “separatist” movements. Of course if all those movements are like our Artzakh liberation struggle, then it behooves GUAM to start treating its citizens better and not persecuting, even massacring (think Baku, Gandzak/Cantsag [Kirovabad, Ganja], Sumgait), them. This grouping did not become much of a military alliance. Ironically, had it done so, it might have elicited strong pushback from Russia, which would have run counter to its raison d’etre.
The upshot seems to be that Armenian-Ukrainian relations will, for the foreseeable future, remain hostage to/heavily impacted by the Russian factor.
I hope some good comes of this article. If you notice errors of fact or interpretation, please write.