The Russian military base in Armenia has been put on combat alert as part of its involvement in large-scale war games across southwestern Russia initiated by President Vladimir Putin amid continuing tensions with Turkey.
Acting on an order issued by Putin, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu announced on Monday a “sudden inspection of the combat readiness of troops in the southwestern strategic direction.” One of Shoygu’s deputies, Anatoly Antonov, said up to 8,500 troops, 900 ground weapons, 200 warplanes and about 50 warships will participate in the resulting drills.
The vast majority of the participating forces are deployed in Russia’s Southern Military District encompassing the North Caucasus and southwestern Russian regions near the border with Ukraine. The Russian base headquartered in Gyumri is also part of the district.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the district command said Russian soldiers in Armenia backed up by tanks, artillery systems and warplanes are holding exercises at two shooting ranges in the country’s northwest as well as the Erebuni airbase in Yerevan. It said they are passing tests on shooting and tactical skills that will be used for evaluating their “readiness to successfully accomplish combat tasks in difficult conditions of mountainous terrain.”
The Russian military has reinforced the base with more advanced weapons and other hardware in recent years. It deployed 13 helicopters at Erebuni as recently as in December.
The helicopter deployment, agreed with Armenia in 2013, coincided with Russia’s bitter row with Turkey sparked by the latter’s downing of a Russian warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border.
Russian-Turkish tensions deepened further in the last few weeks as Russian airstrikes in Syria helped Syrian President Bashar Assad's military win a series of victories over Turkish-backed rebel forces. The Russian Defense Ministry claimed last week that Turkey may be planning to invade northern Syria.
Some analysts have therefore suggested that the massive Russian drills are a warning primarily addressed to Ankara.
Even before the latest twist in the Syrian conflict, the Russian-Turkish standoff raised fears in Yerevan that Armenia could be drawn into a potential military confrontation between the two regional powers.
A perceived security threat from Turkey has long been the main official rationale for Armenia’s reliance on Russian military presence on its soil.