By Emil Danielyan
Troops from 19 nations ended on Friday the first-ever NATO-led military exercises in Armenia portrayed by Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian as an example of Yerevan’s intensifying links with the expanding Western alliance.
A top NATO general who presided over the closing ceremony together with Sarkisian praised the Armenian military for its “extraordinary cooperation” in the preparation and conduct of the drills held under NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program for former members of the Soviet bloc.
Lieutenant-General Antonio Quintana of Italy, the commander of NATO’s Verona-based Joint Command South, said: “I think the fact that we are operating here is already a success. But it’s a further success to have operated well, and I am very proud of this.”
“This success would not have been possible without the extraordinary cooperation of the Armenian armed forces,” Quintana told reporters. “For us it has been a very pleasant surprise to see such efficiency.”
“I think that the most important thing about these exercises is that armed detachments from various countries have tried to jointly carry out a peace-keeping task with success,” Sarkisian said for his part.
Sarkisian added the maneuvers, codenamed Cooperative Best Effort 2003, also proved useful for the Armenian army. “We believe that the Republic of Armenia and its armed forces have gained certain experience from these exercises,” he said.
The nearly 400 soldiers and officers who converged on the vast compound of a military academy in Yerevan, formed a single battalion to practice routine peace-keeping tasks such as convoy escort, ambush defense and riot control during 11 days of intense training. Among the countries that contributed troops were Armenia, Britain, Georgia, Russia, the United States and Turkey.
Turkey was represented by several officers. It was the first time that it took part in a military activity inside Armenia, one of its traditional foes. Ankara's participation resulted in the first-ever official rendition of the Turkish national anthem on Armenian territory.
“The efficiency of the units, even low-level units, made it impossible for me to recognize which nations the soldiers belong to,” Quintana said. “And that is the message [of the exercises]. It’s a peace message.”
The PfP event also saw the first-ever participation of Russian troops in NATO-led drills. Armenian leaders use this fact to underline that Yerevan’s close military alliance with Moscow is not at odds with its plans for greater involvement in the PfP and other NATO programs. This
“complementary” policy was reaffirmed by Sarkisian.
But Sarkisian also reiterated that Armenia, unlike neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia, will not be seeking to join NATO in the foreseeable future. “In order to cooperate with NATO, one does not necessarily have to be a member of NATO,” he explained. “Especially because entering NATO is not that easy.”