By Hrach Melkumian
General Joseph Ralston, NATO’s chief military commander in Europe, met with Armenian leaders on Monday on a one-day visit reflecting Yerevan’s desire to deepen its ties with the U.S.-led military alliance.
His talks with President Robert Kocharian, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and other top officials centered on Armenia’s growing participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. Kocharian said he hopes that the American general’s visit will mark a “new step towards developing” his country’s partnership with NATO.
“I am very pleased with the NATO-Armenian PfP relationship,” Ralston told reporters afterwards. “It has increased in terms of quantity by many-fold over the last several years and it is increasing in terms of quality.”
“Our relations with NATO are steadily developing,” Sarkisian agreed.
While welcoming the “tremendous progress” in recent years’ contacts with Armenia, Ralston was understood to imply that NATO will not seek replace Russia as the Caucasus state’s main military ally. “This is something that needs to go at a pace that the citizens of Armenia are comfortable with,” he said. “NATO is not here to expedite that process beyond what Armenia is comfortable in doing.”
Officials said future joint activities within the PfP framework, notably Armenia’s plans to host first-ever NATO-led military exercises on its territory next June, topped the agenda of Ralston’s talks in Yerevan. “We have to convince NATO that we can cooperate with its forces,” Ambassador Vigen Chitechian, who represents Armenia the NATO headquarters in Brussels, told RFE/RL.
Chitechian said the two sides discussed in particular possible participation of Armenia’s peace-keeping battalion in NATO-led operations. The battalion was formed recently with the financial and technical support of NATO member Greece.
Sarkisian announced late last month that one of its platoons will soon be included in a Greek army contingent to carry out humanitarian missions abroad under the UN mandate. He gave no further details though.