By Hrach Melkumian in Gyumri and Emil Danielyan
An anti-aircraft missile regiment of Russian troops in Armenia was formally put on permanent combat duty near the Turkish border on Wednesday to strengthen the southern flank of an integrated air defense system of Russian and five other former Soviet states.
The Russian unit, located near the northern city of Gyumri, is equipped with sophisticated S-300 air defense systems that were deployed in Armenia two years ago. Several of the surface-to-air missiles were put in a combat-ready vertical position in the presence of the top brass of the Russian and Armenian armed forces. Several Armenian warplanes roared overhead in the meantime.
The S-300 systems are capable of hitting any high-flying target within a 75-kilometer radius.
The joint Russian-Armenian air defense force, which is formally part of the six-nation CIS defense grouping, also includes some two dozen Russian MiG-29 fighters. They went on joint duty with the Armenian air force in May.
The ceremony was attended by the visiting chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, General Anatoly Kvashnin, and his Armenian counterpart, General Mikael Harutiunian. The two men told reporters in Yerevan later on Wednesday that they discussed a “broad range of issues” related to bilateral military cooperation during two days of talks.
Harutiunian said Kvashnin’s trip was a “continuation” of last month’s visit to Armenia by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. The visits have demonstrated the “firmness and stability” of the Russian-Armenian relationship, he said. According to Kvashnin, the two countries have a “common understanding of the situation” in the region.
The Russian general arrived in Armenia only days after official Yerevan opened its airspace to the United States for any possible military action against Afghanistan in retaliation for the September 11 terror attacks. The US military has already made use of that permission, according to official Armenian sources.
Harutiunian declined to give any details of the US use of Armenian territory, saying only that every American overflight is agreed with the authorities in Yerevan beforehand. “This doesn’t mean that they can fly the way they want and anywhere they want without Armenia’s consent,” he said.
Neighboring Georgia and the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia have expressed their willingness to allow the US-led coalition to use their airspace or bases for the retaliatory strikes. Kvashnin said such decisions is their “internal affair.”
He at the same time ruled out use of Russian military facilities in Tajikistan by US forces, saying that it would “make no sense.” Russia maintains a strong military presence in the former Soviet republic, its main ally in Central Asia.
Kvashnin said Moscow’s cooperation with Washington has so far taken the form of an “exchange of information on terrorist bases in Afghanistan.” He also cast doubt on reports that a first contingent of American troops has already arrived in another Central Asian state, Uzbekistan.