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Russian FM Downplays Importance Of Armenian Defense Pact

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stopped short of denying reports that Moscow has sold S-300 antiaircraft systems to Azerbaijan.
YEREVAN -- Russia has denied that amendments to its defense agreement with Armenia imply a change in the functions of its military base in the South Caucasus country, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on August 18 that no change should be expected in the base's actions in Armenian territory after the August 20 signing of the new document during Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's two-day visit to Yerevan.

A 1995 bilateral treaty regulates the presence of the Russian military base in Armenia. The new amendments will extend Russia's basing rights by 24 years and upgrade the mission of its troops in Gyumri, which is Armenia's second-largest city and near the Turkish border.

The document also commits Russia to supplying Armenia with modern and compatible weaponry and special military hardware.

Besides defending Russian interests, it is stated that the military base at Gyumri will -- with Armenian armed forces -- also ensure the security of Armenia.

The new agreement is likely to cause concern in neighboring Azerbaijan, which has an unresolved conflict with Armenia over the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Lavrov's August 18 statement on the Armenian TV program "Realpolitik" contrasts with the view held by many people in Armenia that the document introduces changes in the functions of the Russian base and will thus discourage Azerbaijan from attempting to resolve the conflict by force.

Lavrov also stopped short of denying reports that Moscow has sold S-300 antiaircraft systems to Azerbaijan. And he downplayed the impact such a deal would have on the situation in the region.

"Let's not forget what S-300 antiaircraft systems are," he said. "They are defensive weapons designed to protect a territory from external missiles. We never supply arms to regions where such supplies may destabilize the situation. Defensive weapons may cause problems with those who plan to use force. I believe that no state in the region plans to launch new military operations, because it would be catastrophic."

Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesman for President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party (HHK), told RFE/RL that Lavrov was making a "diplomatic statement" about the Russian military base in Armenia, trying to "maintain regional balance" and "to show that this military base is not directed against anyone in the region."

Sharmazanov added that Lavrov "neither confirmed nor denied the information" about the sale of S-300 antiaircraft systems to Azerbaijan. He said what was important was that Lavrov ruled out the possibility of renewed hostilities in the region.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Karapetian, the foreign-policy spokesman for the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), told RFE/RL today that by selling the defensive weapons to Azerbaijan, Russia disturbed the military balance of forces in the region and, most importantly, deprived Armenia of an opportunity to provide "an adequate response" should tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh escalate into war.

He added that Lavrov's statement about no changes with regard to the Russian military base only showed that "official comments in Armenia do not correspond to reality."

Politicians and analysts in Yerevan have been uneasy about the amendment due to Baku's increased war rhetoric and statements by Azerbaijani leaders in which they do not rule out military action to reestablish control over Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding territories.

Azerbaijan lost control of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994 after six years of hostilities with Armenian forces.