A dispute over the efficacy of Russian-made Iskander missiles is being blamed for a dangerous rift between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and the country’s military leadership.
This is the Iskander missile system, photographed during a drill in Russia’s Kasputin Yar rocket testing site in 2018. Iskander missiles were developed by Russia and first entered service in that country’s military in 2006.
The missiles weigh 3.8 tons each and can fly at a speed of around 2.1 kilometers per second -- nearly three times the velocity of a bullet from an AK-47 assault rifle.
The Iskander is capable of firing several different missiles, including a cruise variant.
Moscow claims the maximum range across all Russian-used Iskander missiles is 500 kilometers -- the maximum permissible under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Washington that was in effect until 2019.
In early 2016, Armenia became the first country to buy Iskanders from Russia, purchasing at least four of the missile systems at an estimated cost of some $70 million-$100 million.
Export versions of the Iskander have a claimed range of 280 kilometers, putting nearly any target in Azerbaijan within reach of the Armenian-owned missiles, though notably, the launchers would seemingly need to enter the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh to be able to strike Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.
Both Russian and Azerbaijani officials have claimed there is no evidence that Armenia used Iskander missiles during the 2020 conflict. That appeared to have been contradicted by statements from Armenian military officials and a widely shared video in which Armenian soldiers cheer what they suggest is a missile fired toward Azerbaijan in the closing days of that escalation of the conflict.
After widespread criticism of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s handling of the war, ex-President Serzh Sarkisian (pictured above) told an interviewer that Pashinian did not make effective use of Armenia’s powerful Iskander systems.
Pashinian (pictured) responded on February 23 by telling an interviewer, “Let [Sarkisian] ask why the fired Iskander did not explode or why it exploded by, say, 10 percent.” Then in an unusual barb apparently referencing 2016 comments made by Sarkisian about outdated military equipment, Pashinian added, “Perhaps [the Iskander] is a weapon from the 1980s.”
The cryptic remarks contributed to a political firestorm in Armenia that escalated when senior defense official Tiran Khachatrian (pictured) reportedly “laughed for a long time” at Pashinian’s Iskander comments, calling them “not serious.” Pashinian responded by relieving Khachatrian, who had recently been awarded the title of Hero Of Armenia for his role in the 2020 fighting, of his command.
In apparent response to that firing, more than 40 of the Armenian military’s top officers on February 25 called on Pashinian to resign. The embattled prime minister called the move an “attempted coup” and rallied thousands of his supporters in Yerevan as a smaller group of counterprotesters gathered nearby. Protests in the Armenian capital continued on February 26.