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Caucasus: Russia Boosts Alliance With Armenia As U.S. Gains Foothold In Georgia

Russia is deepening its close military alliance with Armenia by signaling plans to supply more weapons to Yerevan. The move comes as a small contingent of U.S. troops has been deployed to neighboring Georgia, a step Moscow views as a challenge to its regional interests. Analysts say the U.S. presence in Georgia has heightened Russia's interest in Armenia.

Yerevan, 6 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A top Russian security official last week announced that Armenia is seeking fresh arms deliveries from Russia in a bid to boost its defense capabilities.

Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, on an official visit to Yerevan, suggested that Russia would likely agree to the request. Speaking at a joint news conferences with Armenian Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, Rushailo said: "We are now looking into the request of our Armenian colleagues. Experts from our Defense Ministry and Foreign Affairs Ministry are now working on that. Our own [Security Council] experts are also involved in that."

In the meantime, Rushailo said Armenia is due to submit a detailed list of the defense items it hopes to acquire for its armed forces. Sarkisian confirmed the information but would not say what kind of new weaponry the Armenian military is looking to procure.

Last week's meeting marked the first time senior officials from the two allied countries publicly discussed an impending weapons deal. But some analysts say the development is not a surprise, as it is timed to the arrival of U.S. troops in neighboring Georgia, which Russia considers within its traditional sphere of influence. The troops are officially there to train Georgian security forces in antiterrorism tactics and to develop a local rapid-reaction force.

Such analysts say the move -- the first-ever U.S. military presence in the South Caucasus -- has unnerved Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite public assurances he is not opposed to what Washington is describing as part of its global antiterrorism campaign.

According to Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, in holding open arms talks with Yerevan, the Kremlin is trying to "scare away" the United States by "publicly doing things that were previously done discreetly or secretly. From Russia's point of view, what happens now in Georgia has certainly added to the importance of the Moscow-Yerevan axis because Georgia is increasingly pursuing what many in Moscow believe is an anti-Russian policy," Felgenhauer said.

Sergei Shakariants is an expert on ex-Soviet affairs at the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS), a private Yerevan think tank. He likewise noted that Russia is trying to counter the decline of its influence in the region. "Russia is emphasizing that it has an ally in the Caucasus, that that ally must necessarily receive Russian assistance and that Russia will not stop asserting its interests by helping those countries that accept those interests," Shakariants said.

Faced with the weakening of its positions in pro-Western Georgia and Azerbaijan, Moscow is thus trying to remain a key regional player by strengthening its ties in Armenia, its sole Caucasian ally. Armenia's dependence on Russia for security -- necessitated by its unresolved disputes with Azerbaijan and Turkey -- bodes well for the success of that strategy.

Russian military support was essential for the Armenian victory in the 1991-94 war over Nagorno-Karabakh. It has enabled Armenia to build what its leaders say is the strongest army in the South Caucasus. With renewed fighting in Karabakh remaining a serious possibility, Yerevan is bound to seize on any opportunity to reinforce its army. It would also welcome Russian efforts to contain Turkey, which too is expanding military cooperation with Georgia and Azerbaijan.

However, the government of President Robert Kocharian is unlikely to be drawn into a possible new round of the Russia-U.S. rivalry in the region just as it is trying to develop military cooperation with the United States and NATO in general.

Armenian officials have indicated recently that global geopolitical changes since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S. emphasize the need for greater reliance on the West for defense and security. They are keen to stress that such an arrangement will complement, not contradict, the Russian-Armenian military alliance, pointing to warming ties between Russia and major Western powers.

But analysts say the U.S.-Russia rivalry is not necessarily over as far as the South Caucasus is concerned. Russia's initial anger over the U.S. announcement in February that it planned to dispatch up to 200 military instructors to Georgia highlighted the depth of Russian unease over growing American involvement in the region.

"Officially, Russia is not against the presence of American troops in Georgia. Putin has repeatedly reaffirmed Russia's commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity and independence. Nevertheless, I am well aware that people close to the Kremlin call Georgia and [President] Eduard Shevardnadze the most anti-Russian regime in the world," Felgenhauer said.

The stated goal of the U.S. deployment is to train and equip Georgia's weak military for antiterrorism operations in the lawless Pankisi Gorge. The mountainous area bordering Chechnya is not controlled by the government in Tbilisi. Washington claims that Islamic militants affiliated with the Al-Qaeda terrorism network may have found refuge there following the start of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.

But with Georgian officials ruling out military action in Pankisi in the near future, many observers believe that the Americans are simply trying to prop up Shevardnadze and even gain a foothold in the region. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has begun to provide military aid to Armenia and Azerbaijan as well, as part of its war against terrorism.

Moscow cannot fail to take notice of that. Shakariants of ACNIS said Moscow's close relationship with Armenia, especially its military component, will continue to be the bedrock of Russian policy on the Caucasus.

Felgenhauer agreed, saying recent shifts have not translated into major changes in Moscow's Caucasus strategy. "There have been no big changes there, and [the strengthening of Russian-Armenian military ties] is a kind of reaffirmation of our previous, traditional policy on the Transcaucasus," Felgenhauer said.