The India-Armenia Alliance: A Stabilizing Factor In West Asia – Analysis

Recently, Armenian President Vahagn Khachaturyan congratulated his Indian counterpart Droupadi Murmu on an important national holiday, the Republic Day of India, which is celebrated on January 26 every year as a reminder of the entry into force of India’s first constitution on January 26, 1950.

“Despite several challenges of history, the development of the republic and constitutionalism best embodied the ideas of the Indian people about unity and solidarity based on civilizational values… I am happy to note that relations based on historical and friendly ties between Armenia and India are entering a practical phase. I am sure that in today’s multipolar world, we will continue to contribute to the development of mutually beneficial cooperation both on the bilateral and multilateral level with joint efforts”, President Khachaturyan wrote in a letter to President Murmu. It was another occasion where the friendship between the two countries, which is increasingly taking on the characteristics of a strategic partnership, was demonstrated. Each country is important to the other, considering that India and Armenia are not surrounded by overly friendly countries in the neighborhood.

Historical development of relations

Indian-Armenian relations have a thousand-year history. Indian settlements in Armenia were founded by two Indian princes (Krishna and Ganesh who fled from Kannauj). Together with their families and a large entourage, they arrived in Armenia in 149 BC. The rulers of the Armenian Empire granted them land in the Taron region (modern Turkey). Armenian merchant-diplomat Thomas Cana was the first Armenian to reach the Malabar Coast (southwest coast of India) in 780 by land. The first guidebook for traveling through Indian cities in the Armenian language was written in the 12th century. By the Middle Ages, the Armenian cities of Artashat, Metsbin and Dvin became important centers for exchange with India, which exported precious stones, herbs and stones to Armenia, and on the other hand imported Armenian leather and dyes. Several Armenian traders came to Agra during the Mughal Empire. Emperor Akbar the Great, who is believed to have had an Armenian wife, Mariam Zamani Begum, highly valued the mercantile talents and honesty of the Armenians and therefore granted them numerous privileges and religious freedom as well as the opportunity to serve in his empire.

In the 16th century, Armenian communities appeared in Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai and Agra, where the first Armenian church was built in 1562. Armenians arrived in India before the British. They were engaged in the resale of silk, textiles, spices, salt, fertilizers, precious stones and other materials. Armenian writer, philosopher and merchant in Madras (today’s Chennai), Shahamir Shahamirian, 1787-88 published the book Vorogayt Parats (“The Trap of Glory”), which contained a proposal for a constitution for the future independent Armenian republic. Therefore, Shahamirian is considered the author of the first Armenian constitution. The Armenian language magazine “Azdarar”, published in Madras in 1794, was the first Armenian magazine ever. The Armenian Church of Holy Nazareth in Kolkata was built in 1688, repaired and decorated in 1724. It is the largest Armenian church in India. An Indian classical singer, Gohar Jaan, first recorded the song in 1902 on an Armenian gramophone.

Modern times

During the Soviet era, Indian President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Armenia in September 1964 and June 1976. Modern relations began on 26 December 1991 when the Republic of India recognized the newly proclaimed Republic of Armenia which had declared secession from the Soviet Union five days earlier. The protocol on the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Armenia was signed on August 31, 1992 in Moscow. India opened its embassy on 1 March 1999 in Yerevan, while Armenia opened an embassy in New Delhi in October of the same year. Visits by high officials are frequent. Armenian Presidents Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan visited India in 1995, 2003 and 2017. Indian Vice Presidents visited Armenia: Bhairon Singh Shekhawat (October 2005) and Hamid Ansari (April 2017). In 2019, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that Armenia supports India in the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan.

In 2018, Armenia and India jointly issued postage stamps illustrating the cultural heritage of the two nations (Indian Manipuri classical dance, Armenian Hov Arek dance). The year 2022 marked the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Official New Delhi has still not recognized the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in the First World War, although the course of events shows that this could happen. In 2021, the Indian Embassy in Yerevan commemorated the genocide and Indian Ambassador Kishan Dan Dewal paid tribute to the victims. The modern Armenian community in India is now mainly settled in Kolkata and numbers about a hundred people. There are currently seven Armenian churches and two schools in India: three in Greater Kolkata and one each in Chinsurah, Saidabad, Chennai and Mumbai.

Trade cooperation

From 2020, a rapid growth of trade exchange followed. In the fiscal year 2022-23 the value of the exchange amounted to $134 million without the import of weapons and military equipment from India (with weapons, the exchange of goods is about $360 million). Indians exported goods worth $61.3 million and imported $72.8 million. India mostly exported pharmaceutical products, pearls and semi-precious stones, tobacco, meat products, machinery and mechanical devices and navigational equipment.

Armenia exported mostly gold, medical equipment, precious stones, metals, leather, dyes, etc. In contrast, India’s trade volume with Azerbaijan was about five times that of Armenia – $1.9 billion in 2022. Establishing higher trade volume and dependence between Armenia and India is not only economically beneficial for Armenia, but also increases its geopolitical value. Along with Iran, India is Armenia’s most important ally in the world given the blockade and bad relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, and the deterioration of relations with Russia.

Military cooperation

Since 2020, India has been intensively selling weapons to Armenia, including rocket launchers, artillery and radar systems, anti-tank weapons. The opposition of Azerbaijan did not hinder these transactions. In November 2022, Kalyani Strategic Systems, a subsidiary of the large Indian multinational corporation Bharat Forge, signed a $155 million contract to supply artillery weapons to Armenia. In March last year, the Supreme Armenian Military Commander, Major General Edvard Asryan, visited India and met with the Chief of Defense Staff, General Anil Chauhan. Asryan also met with the National Security Council.

Nagorno-Karabakh and Indian (in)activity

Regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, India has taken a clear position in recent years. Indians sold arms to Armenian forces and condemned Azeri military actions. That’s no accident. Azerbaijan’s long-standing association with Pakistan poses a direct threat to Indian interests. In addition, the South Caucasus is a key area where India plans to establish an important transport route, the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which would allow it to connect with Europe and Russia across the Iranian plateau. It is a multimodal project that combines maritime, road and rail transport. Armenia enthusiastically supported that project.

However, India has done little for the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh after the Azeri army won a final victory and took control of the province last year. Indians hardly condemned Azeri actions. With the exception of a meeting at the UN General Assembly, little significant action has been taken by India to support the Armenian cause. It’s a bit strange since countries like USA, France and Iran have condemned Azerbaijan even though it didn’t change anything on the ground and about 100,000 Armenians fled from Nagorno-Karabakh. The Indian government said it encourages both sides to ensure long-term peace and security in the region through dialogue and diplomacy, which includes the safety and well-being of all civilians.

The insecurity of southern Armenia and the threat of the Zangezur Corridor

It is obvious that the Indians do not overly trust the Armenians as partners in the INSTC project. In order to complete this transport route, India needs to build a railway that would go from northwestern Iran through the South Caucasus to Russia or the Black Sea. In this regard, there are two possibilities: 1) a railway across the southern Armenian province of Syunik, 2) a railway across the Caspian coast through Azerbaijan. Until the latest war in the Caucasus, India seemed to have chosen the first option, but this has become questionable.

The problem is the hypothetical Zangezur Corridor, which would cut through Armenian territory. It would pass from the main part of the Azerbaijani territory through the Armenian province of Syunik (an internationally recognized part of the Republic of Armenia) to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan. The corridor was designed to be exempt from Armenian sovereignty, without Armenian checkpoints, with the aim of connecting the “Turkish world”. Both Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Erdogan have spoken publicly about the possibility of this corridor, prompting Iranian authorities to increase military forces on the border with Armenia to deter a possible Azeri offensive.

However, even if the Zangezur Corridor is not realized, it is too dangerous to force the passage of the INSTC through southern Armenia because it could very easily become the scene of an armed conflict between Iran, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. India’s largest transport and economic corridor would thus pass through a war zone, which even the politically blind can see is unwise. Indian geopoliticians prefer a safer route.

An Azeri takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2023 appears at first glance to be a disaster for India’s economic interests as it potentially disrupts the INSTC, thereby favoring India’s main rivals in the neighborhood, China and Pakistan. A key advantage of the INSTC is that it would allow India to bypass Pakistan and access land routes to Russia and Central Asia that the Pakistani government does not otherwise allow. After all, that is why Islamabad supports Baku in the dispute with Yerevan. Additionally, the INSTC is India’s instrument to move Iran out of China’s orbit and potentially outpace China’s infrastructure projects in the region. But since the war in Nagorno-Karabakh has brought diplomatic condemnation from the international community, it seems that Pakistan will not stand more strongly with Azerbaijan because Islamabad already has foreign policy headaches due to its support for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Cooperation between India, Iran and Azerbaijan

India did not condemn the Azeri military action more harshly, because it does not want to burn bridges with Azerbaijan, with which it has developed relations. The route of the INSTC can pass through Azerbaijan’s territory in the Caspian region instead of Syunik province. Despite Baku’s very bad relations with Tehran, the economic benefits of the transport corridor could be a motive for the Azerbaijani authorities to agree to a railway from Iran through their territory.

At the end of the day, INSTC is a major international traffic route from which all participants would benefit. This is shown in practice. In December, it was announced that the construction of the Rasht-Astara railway will begin in 2024. It is a key part of the missing corridor to connect India with Russia. In May of last year, the governments of the Russian Federation and IR Iran agreed to jointly finance the railway in the amount of $1.6 billion. The 162 km long railway will connect the Iranian city of Rasht near the Caspian Sea with the Iranian city of Astara on the border with Azerbaijan. From there, the railway runs through Baku all the way to Russia and St. Petersburg. The Rasht-Astara railway will thus enable rail transport from the Caspian Sea to the Baltic Sea.

Cooperation between Iran and Azerbaijan is also focused on the construction of the terminal in Astara. Iran and India are working to build a railway line from the port of Chabahar in the Gulf of Oman to Zahedan, where there is a connection to the main rail network. The Chabahar-Zahedan railway will connect India and Iran with the countries of Central Asia. It is 630 km long and should be operational this year, and some sections (66%) have already been put into circulation. Of late, New Delhi has been making increased investments in the Chabahar port, which is crucial for the INSTC due to its strategic location on the edge of the Indian Ocean.

A counterbalance to neo-Ottomanism

Azerbaijan’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh could be a cause for concern in New Delhi due to the growing closeness between Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Turkey. The three countries have built close military and political relations in recent years. Turkey and Azerbaijan supported Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. These concerns could pave the way for greater Armenian-Indian security cooperation. India can continue to be an important ally of Armenia (without diplomatically going to war with Baku) as India’s foreign policy under Narendra Modi is “strategically autonomous” and is proving to be able to have good relations with both the West and East and the Global North and South. An alliance of India, Iran and Armenia as well as an alliance of India, France, Greece and Armenia can be a good counterweight to the alliances formed by Erdogan’s Turkey, which pursues a neo-Ottoman foreign policy.

As for Armenia and its transport infrastructure, Indian transport connectivity projects within the INSTC would be welcome. Armenia is an important transport and energy hub. It is home to several hydroelectric plants and serves as a transit point for gas pipelines such as the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline. Armenia is also a member of the Organization for Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), which serves to promote regional cooperation in the trade, transport and energy sectors. All this makes India interesting. The two countries continue the long-standing process of developing business ties by signing several new memoranda of understanding in the digital infrastructure sector.

Advantages of Indo-Armenian alliance

By partnering with New Delhi, Yerevan does not irritate the EU, the US or Russia as a result of Prime Minister Modi’s well-designed chameleon foreign policy. India can be a good protector and promoter of Armenian views in the world because it has developed democratic institutions and reputation in all parts of the world. The Indian word is very valuable. In the future, Indian-Armenian relations could experience a sudden upswing because the potential exists in the fields of trade, defense, technology, infrastructure, and tourism. The alliance should become strategic and comprehensive. India could provide adequate military equipment and training needed to modernize the Armenian Armed Forces. Moreover, defense cooperation should include joint exercises, military training of the Armenian army by Indian military experts, and advice on logistical and technical reforms.

Direct flights between the two countries should be established in the future. With medicines, information and communication technology and products from renewable energy sources, India can strongly help Armenia. Instead of importing goods from enemy countries (Turkish clothes, Pakistani rice), Armenians could buy them from Indians. Considering Armenia’s geographical position (between Asia and Europe) and the anti-Armenian orientation of neighboring countries (Turkey, Azerbaijan) and India’s political and economic power, New Delhi should and must become the most important Armenian partner. It is India that, along with Iran, can help Armenia the most to progress as a country and society. All things considered, India has become one of Armenia’s main allies in the world and should continue to strengthen that position.