YEREVAN -- Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian has played down the significance of a possible sale of sophisticated Russian antiaircraft missiles to Azerbaijan, saying that it will not give Baku a "strategic advantage" in the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The enclave, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians, erupted in ethnic clashes beginning in the late 1980s, prompting a war that left some 30,000 dead. The territory, which declared independence in 1991, remains in dispute despite years of failed efforts by international mediators and an Armenian-Azerbaijani cease-fire has not prevented occasional military skirmishes.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Ohanian also said that he had "no doubts" that under an agreement signed with Russia last week, Russia would openly support Armenia in the event of a new conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh that "became a threat to the Republic of Armenia."
The agreement extended Russia's lease on its military base in northern Armenia until 2044 and gave it a greater role in ensuring Armenia's security. It also commits the Russians to supplying the Armenian military with modern weaponry.
"The agreement reaffirms the long-term character of the strategic alliance of the Republic of Armenia and the Russian Federation in accordance with requirements stemming from the security environment and the military-political situation in the region," Ohanian said.
Ohanian declined to specify what types of arms Moscow has pledged to supply to Yerevan within the framework of the new pact.
Pro-government politicians and some analysts in Yerevan believe that this will discourage Azerbaijan from acting on its frequent threats to resolve the dispute by force.
The deal was signed on August 20 during Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Yerevan following reports that Moscow plans to sell S-300 air-defense systems to Azerbaijan. The reports, not denied by Russian officials, have raised concerns in Armenia and Karabakh.
Opposition groups there say the long-range surface-to-air missiles would seriously limit the Armenian military's ability to hit strategic targets in Azerbaijan, and thereby encourage Baku to try to resolve the Karabakh dispute by force.
Karabakh-born Ohanian, who played a major role in the 1988-1994 war with Azerbaijan and subsequently commanded the Karabakh-Armenian army, dismissed such concerns.
"I must point out that the acquisition of Russian S-300 air-defense systems [by Azerbaijan] cannot directly influence the correlation of forces between Armenia and Azerbaijan, because their use by Azerbaijan against the Armenian Armed Forces would be fruitless under all possible scenarios," he said. "The reason for that is simple: we are very familiar with those systems, we have been exploiting them for quite a long time, and we know the possibilities of reducing the effectiveness of such systems."
Ohanian was likely referring to at least two batteries of S-300s that were deployed by Russia at its military base in Armenia in the late 1990s.
Top Russian military officials announced in early 2007 that Moscow has further upgraded Armenia's air defenses and trained Armenian military personnel to operate the air-defense systems. The Armenian military confirmed that, saying the training began in 2005.
Ohanian added that even if Azerbaijan does acquire S-300s, it would need "quite a lot of time" to develop an integrated radio-technical system for them.
He added that the missile deal would therefore not harm the Russian-Armenian military alliance.
"We are strategic partners, we are part of the same military-political system, our cooperation is quite close, and there is readiness on both sides for mutual assistance on any security issue," he said.
The defense minister declined to specify what kind of sophisticated arms Moscow has pledged to supply to Yerevan within the framework of the new agreement, citing "military secrecy."
Ohanian also reaffirmed his government's plans, announced earlier this month, to obtain new long-range, precision-guided weapons in the coming years. He said they would be aimed at the "strategic facilities" of Armenia's hostile neighbors.
reporting from RFE/RL's Armenian Service