By Ruzanna Stepanian and Astghik Bedevian
The chief of the Armenian army staff, Colonel-General Mikael Harutiunian, insisted on Thursday that Armenia has no reason to worry about Russia’s apparent intention to step up military cooperation with Azerbaijan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled it during a high-profile official visit to Baku this week. In a joint communiqué, Putin and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliev instructed their governments to improve the legal framework for bilateral military-technical cooperation” and come up with a plan of appropriate practical steps. They said it “will not be directed against third countries and will not contradict international obligations of both countries.”
“I don’t see anything dangerous there for Armenia,” Harutiunian told reporters, commenting on possible implications of closer defense ties between his country’s main military ally and arch-foe. He said the matter is Russia’s and Azerbaijan’s internal affair.
The joint statement by Putin and Aliev may have paved the way for Russian arms supplies to Azerbaijan. During a recent visit to Baku, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov indicated that Moscow would do that only on a commercial basis.
Armenia, by contrast, is entitled to buying military hardware from Russia at knock-down prices by virtue of its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russian-led military pact of six former Soviet republics. That privilege is thought to have helped to significantly boost the Armenian armed forces over the past decade.
The depth of the Russian-Armenian military alliance was highlighted on Wednesday by the participation of Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and the Armenian military’s top brass in a ceremony marking Russia’s Army Day. The military officials, joined by the commanders of Russian troops stationed in Armenia, laid wreaths at Yerevan’s memorial to the unknown soldier killed during the Second World War.
It remains to be seen whether the Russian-Armenian alliance will be affected by the ongoing rapprochement between Azerbaijan and Russia. Putin referred to relations between them as “strategic partnership” during his talks in Baku. "A positive character of our relations is a factor of geopolitical stability in the entire region," he said on Tuesday, opening the so-called "Year of Russia" in Azerbaijan that envisages a series of cultural events intended to bolster ties. For his part, Aliev noted a steady increase in bilateral trade that exceeded $1 billion last year.
According to Armen Rustamian, the chairman of the Armenian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, it would be “ridiculous” for Yerevan to object to or try to thwart a warmer Russian-Azerbaijani rapport. “We should not be jealous or suffer from any complexes,” he told RFE/RL.
“True, we have spiritual ties to Russia, but it doesn’t mean Russia must ignore its interests and deal only with Armenian issues,” agreed Galust Sahakian, another senior representative of Armenia’s governing coalition.
Sahakian said at the same time that the Russian-Armenian “spiritual proximity” is not as strong as it was in the past and will continue to weaken in the coming years. He pointed to Russia’s recent decision to double the price of natural gas for Armenia which provoked an unprecedented anti-Russian outcry in the government-controlled Armenian media.
Rustamian similarly said that relations with Russia, however close, are not Armenia’s sole foreign policy priority at present. “Armenia is not in such a miserable state as to make all of its steps contingent on strategic ties with one or another country. We should be worried only if those bilateral relations [between Russia and Azerbaijan] are directed against our country,” he said.
Rustamian, who is a leading member of the traditionally pro-Russian Armenian Revolutionary Federation party, pointedly declined to rule such a possibility, citing historical examples of perceived Russian betrayal of Armenian interests.