(AP, AFP, RFE/RL) - Air force units from Russia, Armenia and two other former Soviet republics staged war games near Russia's Caspian coast on Thursday, in which they rebuffed an imaginary foe using air defense systems designed to attack planes and cruise missiles.
"The character of present-day armed conflicts is making us pay special attention to air defense," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters at the Ashuluk military training ground in the Astrakhan region, the Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies reported.
Thursday's maneuvers were the third stage of the Combat Alliance 2001 exercises, and involved Russia, Belarus, Armenia and Tajikistan. The exercises, at a site about 1,200 kilometers (800 miles) southwest of Moscow, are held under the aegis of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose alliance of 12 former Soviet states. Air forces from the four states used S-300 and S-125 missile systems against imaginary enemies, the Russian air force press service said. The allied forces worked together to stop the intrusion of jets and tactical or cruise missiles into their common air space.
Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian watched the Ashuluk maneuvers together with other high-ranking defense officials from the Commonwealth of Independent States. His Azerbaijani counterpart, General Safar Abiev, was present as an observer.
A Western military expert said the maneuvers, involving Russia's most advanced air defense system, deployed "considerable air and ground-to-air resources, but the most significant thing was the degree of coordination they set up." The exercise, dubbed Defense Commonwealth-2001, represents "a swing back of the pendulum" following the breaking off of military ties when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he said.
An independent Russian analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer, said the importance of the exercise was "more political than military." Moscow's defence strategy was based on close cooperation with three in particular of its former Soviet allies -- Belarus, Armenia and Tajikistan, he said.
"The alliance with Armenia is aimed directly at stemming the influence of Turkey," Felgenhauer said.
"These exercises are more complex than previously, and are being carried out with a greater sense of realism, with real-time decision-making," another analyst, Yuri Gladkyevich, said. "There will be no return to the Soviet Union, but for geopolitical reasons the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States need to unite," he said, referring to the loose association of former Soviet republics (minus the Baltic states) formed after the Soviet Union collapsed.
On Russia's southern flank, only Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine appear determined to go it alone.