Russia will double this year the number of its soldiers serving at its military base in Armenia on a contractual basis, a Russian military official said on Wednesday.
“This is connected with the modernization of our armed forces,” Colonel Igor Gorbul, a spokesman for Russia’s Southern Military District, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Gorbul said the traditionally conscription-based Russian military has been gradually increasing the share of volunteer personnel within its ranks and its troops stationed in Armenia will also be affected by this transition. This will only boost the combat-readiness of the military base headquartered in the country’s second largest city of Gyumri.
Gorbul added that the first group of 160 contractual servicemen will arrive in Armenia soon. But he refused to specify the current total number of Russian contractual soldiers at the base.
The Russian base is believed to have between 4,000 and 5,000 troops. It is equipped with hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles and artillery systems as well as sophisticated S-300 surface-to-air missiles and a squadron of MiG-29 fighter jets.
A Russian-Armenian agreement signed in 2010 extended the Russian military presence in the South Caucasus nation by 24 years, until 2044, and upgraded its security mission. It also committed the Russians to helping the Armenian military obtain “modern and compatible weaponry and (special) military hardware.”
The military accord highlighted the continuing importance of close military ties with Russia for the Armenian leadership. The latter has been using them to counter an ongoing massive military build-up in arch-foe Azerbaijan.
Gorbul confirmed news reports that quoted him as saying last week that the Russian warplanes in Armenia have increased the number of training flights by 20 percent this year. But he insisted that neither this nor the planned dispatch of more Russian volunteer servicemen has anything to do with the latest upsurge in deadly skirmishes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces.
Some military analysts in Yerevan do see a possible connection between the two developments. One of them, Artsrun Hovannisian, suggested that Moscow may thus be warning Azerbaijan and Turkey against heightening military pressure on the Armenians. Still, Hovannisian asserted that the personnel changes at the Gyumri base primarily stem from the ongoing strengthening of the Russian military’s southern flank.