By Karine Kalantarian
Armenia and Russia finished on Friday annual joint exercises of their armed forces involving hundreds of troops, tanks, artillery systems, helicopter gunships and military aircraft.
An Armenian army regiment and a battalion of Russian troops stationed in Armenia fought back a simulated enemy assault at a training ground 40 kilometers west of Yerevan in the presence of uniform-wearing President Robert Kocharian and his entire cabinet of ministers. The five-day wargames ended with a symbolic hoisting of Armenian and Russian flags on the starting point of the imaginary invasion.
“The supreme commander [Kocharian] has concluded that the exercises have taken place successfully,” Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, also clad in a khaki uniform, told reporters afterwards. “We will strive to further improve the combat readiness of the other units of our armed forces.”
“We succeeded in confusing the enemy,” the commander of the exercises, General Mikael Grigorian, declared after a hillside opposite his command point was heavily pounded by the artillery and airforce and overrun by the infantry. Grigorian said the troops used the occasion to test some of their new military hardware.
Asked about reasons for the unusual presence of virtually all government ministers, including Culture Minister Tamara Poghosian, Sarkisian said: “The ministers must feel the spirit of our armed forces.”
The maneuvers were also watched by the governors of all Armenian provinces. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said they were invited “so that they know how we spend our [defense] money and see our troops not only during military parades.”
The event highlighted close military ties forged by Russia and Armenia shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The military alliance with Moscow has since been the cornerstone of Yerevan’s security doctrine.
In recent years, though, the Kocharian administration has sought to complement it with growing military cooperation with NATO. That policy led to the holding of first-ever NATO-led military exercises in Armenia in June. Armenian leaders say they will continue to deepen their involvement in the Partnership for Peace program of the U.S.-led alliance.
Sarkisian, meanwhile, sounded particularly satisfied with the results of last month’s air defense drills of Russian and several other ex-Soviet forces held in southern Russia. The influential minister personally followed them and praised the “incredibly good” performance of an Armenian anti-aircraft unit. “You can shoot like that only with a very high success rate,” he said.
Several S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, the bedrock of the air defense system of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, were put on display at the site of the Russian-Armenian exercises. The missiles are capable of detecting and shooting down air targets hundreds of kilometers away from Armenian territory. They were deployed in Armenia by the Russian military in 1999 along with two dozen MiG-29 fighter jets.