Russia is reportedly holding negotiations with Armenia on supplying it with sophisticated Iskander-M missiles that would significantly boost Armenian defense capabilities in the unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan.
“A contract has not been signed yet; negotiations are still going on,” the official TASS news agency quoted an unnamed source in the Russian defense industry as saying late on Thursday.
The source gave no further details, saying that “all information about such contracts is secret.”
The Armenian Defense Ministry refused to comment on the report.
The TASS report came as the Armenian parliament formally allowed the authorities in Yerevan to receive a $200 million Russian government loan that will be used for financing more Russian arms supplies to Armenia. Deputy Defense Minister Ara Nazarian told the National Assembly that the “export credit” will enable the Armenian military to obtain new and advanced weaponry which it has not had in its arsenal until now. Nazarian refused to elaborate on those weapons.
A military source in Yerevan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that the money will be spent on various types of “offensive and defensive” weapons.
An Armenian media outlet, 1in.am, claimed on Thursday that Yerevan could specifically get hold of Iskander-M systems, one of the most potent weapons of its kind that could have important implications for the military balance in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The surface-to-surface precision-guided missiles were designed in the mid-1990s and first acquired by Russia’s Armed Forces in 2006. With a firing range of up to 500 kilometer, they are thought to be able to overcome any of the existing missile-defense shields.
Armenian leaders have repeatedly hinted at the impending acquisition of Iskander-Ms in recent years. “In one or two years, you will be able to proudly say that the Armenian army possesses weapons which other states 20, 30 or 40 times our size do not possess,” President Serzh Sarkisian told a group of soldiers in December 2013.
“We will have longer-range systems very soon,” Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian said for his part in September 2014.
The Armenian army is currently equipped with less advanced Scud-B and Tochka-U ballistic missiles that have ranges of 300 kilometers and 120 kilometers respectively, putting Azerbaijan’s vital oil and gas installations within their reach. It also reportedly purchased in 2011 Chinese AR1A multiple-launch rocket systems with a range of up to 130 kilometers.
Armenia makes no secret of its readiness to use such weapons against Azerbaijani oil facilities if Baku attempts to forcibly reconquer Karabakh and Armenian-controlled territories surrounding it.
The Azerbaijani military has dismissed such threats, implying that it can neutralize Scud-B strikes with S-300 surface-to-air missiles purchased from Russia in 2010. Some Armenian military experts claim that the Russian missiles sold to Baku can only be used for anti-aircraft purposes.
Whatever the truth, S-300s would almost certainly be unable to intercept Iskander-Ms. Hence, the significance of the missile deal reportedly discussed by Yerevan and Moscow.
News of the Russian-Armenian talks emerged amid continuing street protests in Yerevan against a controversial electricity price hike initiated by the Armenia’s Russian-owned power distribution monopoly. The nonstop protests seem to have raised fears in Moscow of the kind of Western-backed revolution that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian government last year. Observers have suggested that the Russians are now trying to placate disgruntled Armenians and shore up President Sarkisian’s positions.
The latest Russian loan disbursement might also be linked with growing Armenian criticism of Russia’s 2009-2011 defense contracts with Azerbaijan worth more than $4 billion. The resulting Russian arms deliveries to Baku have included around 100 tanks, over two dozen combat helicopters and dozens of artillery systems.
Armenian politicians, pundits and even some officials have denounced these arms deals, saying that they run counter to Russia’s military alliance with Armenia. Russian officials have denied any wrongdoing, insisting that Moscow has not disrupted the Armenian-Azerbaijani military balance.
Thanks to its massive oil revenues, Azerbaijan has increased its annual military spending by almost 30 times during President Ilham Aliyev’s more than decade-long rule. It is projected to total $3.6 billion this year, more than Armenia’s entire state budget.
By comparison, Armenia’s 2015 defense budget will be equivalent to only about $500 million. Yerevan has been trying to offset this huge spending gap with Russia weapons delivered at knock-down prices or free of charge.