Russia, Armenia Cultivate Alliance

Joint military exercises are "a continuation of politics by other means".

Russia, Armenia Cultivate Alliance

Joint military exercises are "a continuation of politics by other means".

Thursday, 2 September, 2004

The last phase in the ninth of a series of Armenian-Russian joint military exercises took place from August 24 to 27. The final part of the war games, which included live firing, was held at a training ground close to Armenia's border with Turkey.

The exercises are evidence of Russia's continuing strong military alliance with Armenia, even as other players such as NATO are building up a new relationship with the Yerevan government.

In the latest exercises, which began on August 18. an imaginary enemy simulated an invasion of Armenia from the north-west, occupying part of the country for five days.

It was clear that the invented enemy could be only Turkey: the "aggressor" attacked the positions of Armenian-Russian forces from the cities of Kars and Igdir, moving forward towards the cities of Gyumri and Vanadzor.

The exercises ended with a counter-attack by about 3,000 Russian and Armenian forces, who eventually forced the "enemy" out of the country across the River Araxes.

When it was all over, both Armenian defence minister Serzh Sarkisian and the commander of the Russian forces in the South Caucasus, Lieutenant-General Alexander Studenikin, said they were pleased with the results and with the fact that the exercises had been accident-free.

Russia maintains its largest military base in the South Caucasus at Gyumri in Armenia, and under a deal ratified in 1998 it will remain there for 25 years. The base is home to a powerful array of artillery and aircraft and is manned by 3,500 men, the majority of whom are ethnic Armenians with Russian citizenship.

The recent exercises suggest that Russia still sees the Caucasus as a strategic priority.

Whereas all previous eight joint manoeuvres of the series took place in September, these latest exercises were organised a fortnight earlier. The earlier date seems to reflect Russian strategy in the wider Caucasus. There have been a number of military exercises involving live firing across the North Caucasus in places ranging from Khasavyurt, Buinaksk and Botlikh in Dagestan, Mozdok in North Ossetia, and in Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria.

Russian forces also held exercises in Georgia and in Abkhazia, in the latter case involving Russian peacekeepers. Meanwhile, the armed forces of the unrecognised republics of Abkhazia and Nagorny Karabakh have also been holding manoeuvres.

General Studenikin summed up the situation by paraphrasing a famous remark by Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, "Manoeuvres are a continuation of politics by other means, and I am quite satisfied with the results".

At the same time, Russia's geopolitical rivals have become more active in Armenia.

Within the framework of its Partnership for Peace programme, NATO organised naval exercises "Blackseafor-2004" near the coast of Ajaria, Georgia. A day before the final phase of the Armenian-Russian exercises, a military exercise codenamed "Eternity 2004" began in Baku involving units from Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The exercise was designed to train servicemen to defend the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. A further NATO exercise, "Cooperative Best Effort 2004", will take place in Azerbaijan in September.

Meanwhile, a real conflict situation has developed in South Ossetia. Even though Georgia pulled back some of its soldiers in late August, large numbers of armed men and heavy weapons remain. In a time of continuing instability it appears likely that a foreign military presence will increase in the region over the coming year. At the end of the Armenian manoeuvres, Sarkisian commented, "Next year we will be staging our tenth-anniversary joint exercises, with far larger contingents and resources involved."

At the same time, the defence minister has also made it clear that despite increased tensions between Armenia's ally Russia and Georgia, Yerevan has no quarrel with the latter.

Sarkisian also refused to comment on the possible deployment of American troops in Azerbaijan, but said Armenia was ready to host NATO military exercises in 2006.

This signals that although Armenia remains Russia's strategic partner in the region, it is trying to keep the door open for dialogue with Moscow's geopolitical rivals in the region, so that Armenia's foreign policy of "complementarity" - striving to stay on good terms with both Moscow and Washington - extends to the military sphere.

Fundamentally, however, the Armenian-Russian military alliance remains the keystone of the country's security policy. The co-operation is deeply rooted in the history of both countries. This was underlined by celebrations that took place in August at a military memorial near the city of Spitak to commemorate Russian soldiers and Armenian irregular troops who died in a battle with Persian forces 200 years ago.

The historical, spiritual and cultural bonds between Armenia and Russia are very firm, and although a number of experts are calling on Armenia to set its sights on joining NATO, the Yerevan elite will find it hard to change course.

Yet there is also a growing perception that Russia now has a great deal at stake in the future of Armenia's main regional enemy, Azerbaijan.

David Petrosian is a commentator with Noyan Tapan news agency in Yerevan.

Support our journalists