By Armen Zakarian
Russian troops will take part in first-ever NATO-led military exercises in Armenia that are scheduled for next June, a top Armenian military official said on Tuesday.
General Mikael Melkonian, who heads the foreign relations department at the Armenian Defense Ministry, told reporters that Russia, which has avoided similar exercises in neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan, will join in this time because of its military presence in Armenia. He said the troops will be provided by the Russian military base headquartered in Gyumri, near the Turkish border.
Melkonian was speaking on the sidelines of an international seminar in Yerevan attended by military officials from 17 NATO member states and Eastern European nations seeking closer ties with the alliance. They held further discussions on the ongoing preparations for the NATO exercises in Armenia. Among the participants was a representative of the Russian military attaché in Yerevan.
The wargames, codenamed Cooperative Best Effort 2003, are due to take place from June 14-26 as part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. The preparatory work is being overseen by NATO’s Joint Command South based in Italy.
Russia follows with unease and suspicion the U.S.-led military bloc’s expansion towards its borders -- the main reason why it has shunned PfP wargames so far. In particular, it disapproves pro-Western foreign policies of Azerbaijan and Georgia. The latter is expected to formally apply for NATO membership at a NATO summit in Prague later this month.
Melkonian claimed that Moscow does not object to its close ally Armenia’s efforts to forge closer links with the Western alliance. “Russia can not be against any activity that strengthens the combat readiness of the Armenian armed forces,” he said. “We consider cooperation with NATO one of the components of our security,” the general added.
Armenia first participated in NATO-led exercises in June, when a small detachment of its troops joined forces from 14 others nations, including Turkey and Azerbaijan, at a military base in Vaziani, 20 kilometers south of Tbilisi. According to Melkonian, some 150 Armenian servicemen, or ten times more than at Vaziani, will take part in the June drills.
Also attending the Yerevan seminar was a group of Turkish military officer, a fact which suggests that Turkey will likely send troops to Armenia in spite of not having diplomatic relations with the latter.