By Emil Danielyan
Russia is deepening its close military alliance with Armenia by signaling plans to supply more weapons to Yerevan amid the ongoing U.S. military involvement in neighboring Georgia, seen by Moscow as a challenge to its regional interests. The recent deployment of a small contingent of U.S. troops there increases Armenia's geopolitical significance in the eyes of Russia, analysts say.
A top Russian security official announced last week that the Armenian government is seeking fresh arms deliveries from Russia in a bid to boost its defense capability. The secretary of Russia's influential Security Council, Vladimir Rushaylo, implied at the end of an official visit to Yerevan last week that Moscow will likely give a positive response to the request.
"We are now looking into the request of our Armenian colleagues. Our experts, both at the defense ministry and the foreign ministry, are now working on that," Rushaylo told a joint news conference with his Armenian counterpart, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. In the meantime, he said, Armenia will submit a detailed list of defense items it hopes to acquire for its armed forces, which were already significantly beefed up by Moscow in the 1990s.
Sarkisian confirmed the information but would not say what kind of new weaponry the Armenian military needs.
It was the first time that senior officials from the two allied countries were publicly discussing and effectively announcing impending weapons supplies. The timing of the development was hardly accidental. Some analysts link it to the continuing arrival of U.S. special troops in Georgia, which Russia considers to be within its traditional zone of influence. President Vladimir Putin, they say, is alarmed at the first-ever U.S. military presence in the South Caucasus despite his public assurances
that he has nothing against what Washington portrays as part of its global fight against terrorism.
According to Pavel Felgengauer, a leading Russian defense expert, the Kremlin is trying to "scare away" the United States and its ally Turkey 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 Georgian is increasingly pursuing what many in Moscow believe is an anti-Russian policy," Felgengauer told RFE/RL in an interview.
Sergei Shakariants, an expert on CIS affairs at the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS), a private Yerevan-based think tank, likewise noted that Russia is trying to counter the decline of its influence in the region. He said: "Russia needs to emphasize that it has an ally in the Caucasus, that that ally must necessarily receive Russian assistance and that it will not stop asserting its interests by helping those countries that accept those interests."
Faced with the weakening of its positions in pro-Western Georgia and Azerbaijan, Moscow is thus trying to remain a key regional player by getting even more entrenched in Armenia, its sole Caucasian ally. Armenia's dependence on Russia for security, resulting from 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 for 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 is also 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 U.S.-Russian rivalry in the region just as it tries to develop military cooperation with the United States and NATO in general. Armenian officials have indicated recently that global
geopolitical changes since the September 11 terrorist attacks necessitate greater reliance on the West for defense and security. They are keen to stress that it will "complement," not contradict, the Russian-Armenian military alliance, pointing to warming ties between Russia and major Western powers.
"The United States and Russia have made clear their new position: we no longer regard each other as rivals," Rushaylo said in Yerevan to the delight to of Armenian leaders.
But this is not necessarily the case as far as the South Caucasus is concerned, analysts say. The initially furious reaction from Russia to the announcement last February of U.S. plans 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 there," Felgengauer said. "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."
The declared goal of the U.S. deployment is to train and equip Georgia's weak military for anti-terrorist 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 terror 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 President George W. Bush has begun to provide military aid to Armenia and Azerbaijan as well, again citing its war against terrorism. In March, it formally lifted the decade-old U.S. arms embargo against the two conflicting countries.
Moscow can not fail to take notice of that. The ACNIS's Shakariants said the close relationship between Armenia, especially its military component, will continue to be the bedrock of Russian policy toward the Caucasus.
Felgengauer agreed, saying that Putin's overtures to Azerbaijan and Georgia have not translated into major changes in the Moscow's Caucasian strategy. He said: "There have been no big changes there, and [the strengthening of Russian-Armenian military ties] is a kind of reaffirmation of our traditional policy on the Transcaucasus."