Russia looks set to strengthen its foothold in the South Caucasus by means of a new defense agreement with Armenia that will formally make it a guarantor of the country's security and pave the way for more Russian arms supplies to Yerevan.
The deal, which may well be sealed during Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Armenia next week, will have important repercussions for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the No. 1 threat to peace and stability in the entire region.
In what could be an effort to placate, and gain more leverage against Azerbaijan, Moscow is at the same time reportedly planning to sell sophisticated air-defense missiles to Armenia's arch-foe. The Azerbaijani government has so far been silent over this new twist in Russian-Armenian military cooperation that could further limit its ability to win back Karabakh and the Armenian-controlled territories surrounding it by force.
The deepening of Russian-Armenian military ties will take the form of amendments to a 1995 treaty regulating the presence of a Russian military base in Armenia. Armenian officials have essentially confirmed Russian media reports that Moscow will have its basing rights extended by at least 24 years, to 2044, and that the mission of some 4,000 Russian troops headquartered in the northern Armenian city of Gyumri will be upgraded.
The Interfax news agency reported on July 30 that a relevant "protocol" submitted to Medvedev by the Russian government makes clear that the troops will have not only "functions stemming from the interests of the Russian Federation," but also "protect Armenia's security together with Armenian Army units." It also commits Russia to supplying its regional ally with "modern and compatible weaponry and special military hardware."Russia Offers Arms
Less than two weeks later, an Armenian government commission on defense approved plans to modernize the country's armed forces and expand the domestic defense industry. Speaking to journalists after the commission meeting on August 10, Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian said Armenia would specifically seek to acquire and even manufacture long-range precision-guided weapons that would "allow us to thwart free enemy movements deep inside the entire theater of hostilities."
Although Ohanian gave no further details, it is obvious that Russia is the only plausible source of such weapons (presumably surface-to-surface missiles), as well as technology for their production. Their acquisition by the Armenian military could be facilitated by separate plans to forge close cooperation between the Armenian and Russian defense industries. Senior security officials from both countries announced unpublicized agreements to that effect after two-day talks in Yerevan in late July. According to Armenian National Security Council Secretary Artur Baghdasarian, those agreements include the establishment of joint defense ventures.
The military alliance with Russia has always been a crucial element of Armenia's national security strategy, allowing the landlocked country to receive Russian weaponry at knockdown prices or free of charge and precluding Turkey's direct military intervention in the Karabakh conflict. It is taking on greater significance now that oil-rich Azerbaijan is increasingly threatening the Armenians with another war. Fresh (and more sophisticated) arms supplies from Russia would put Armenia and its ethnic kin in Karabakh in a better position to offset Azerbaijan's ongoing military build-up fuelled by massive oil revenues. Some observers speculate that Moscow would use the new mandate of the Gyumri base to intervene militarily on the Armenian side in the event of a resumption of hostilities.
Nonetheless, not all politicians and pundits in Yerevan are happy with the planned changes in the 1995 treaty. Some of them say that the Kremlin could exploit its security guarantees to exert undue influence on Armenian government decisions and even limit Armenia's sovereignty. Baghdasarian on August 11 dismissed such claims as "absurd." ...But Also To Azerbaijan
Moscow is facing a stronger Armenian uproar over the possible sale of S-300 antiaircraft systems to Azerbaijan. The Russian daily "Vedomosti" reported on July 30 that the Azerbaijani military signed a deal in 2009 with the Rosoboroneksport state arms exporter to purchase two batteries of the surface-to-air missiles worth $300 million. Although the report was denied by Rosoboroneksport and not confirmed by the Russian Defense Ministry, it is considered credible by many in Armenia.
Opposition leaders and independent analysts there warn that the deal would change the balance of forces in the Karabakh conflict in Azerbaijan's favor. Some have accused the Russians of betrayal.
The S-300 systems may be purely defensive weapons, but the danger for the Armenian side is that they would enable Baku to secure its vital oil and gas infrastructure in the event of renewed war. Those facilities, which form the backbone of the Azerbaijani economy, are widely seen as a likely target of Armenian missile strikes. Ohanian may well have had them in mind when he noted Armenia's desire to obtain "super-modern weapons" that would enhance "our long-range strike capacity."
The reported sale of S-300s to Azerbaijan seems at odds with Russia's stated readiness to boost military support for Armenia, and is raising questions about its true intentions. Ashot Manucharian, a veteran politician who held security posts in the Armenian government in the early 1990s and has long been known for his pro-Russian political orientation, believes that all this is part of a cynical plan to keep Armenia anchored to Russia and discourage it from forging closer security links with the West. By strengthening Azerbaijan militarily, Moscow leaves Yerevan even more dependent on Russian military aid, Manucharian claimed in an August 4 interview with the daily "Hraparak."
Whatever the truth, Russia is clearly consolidating its presence in the South Caucasus, two years after effectively thwarting Georgia's accession to NATO with the 2008 wars in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is now digging in for the long haul in Armenia and should continue to have more influence on the Karabakh conflict than any other foreign power.
-- Emil Danielyan