Underscoring their close security ties, Russia and Armenia on Wednesday agreed to reinforce a joint Russian-Armenian military force that was created more than a decade ago.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and his Armenian counterpart Vigen Sargsian signed an agreement on “the united group of troops of the two countries” after talks held in Moscow.
Neither man made public statements immediately after signing the unpublicized deal that was formally approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month.
Russia’s Defense Ministry cited a November 14 statement by the Kremlin saying that the deal will ensure “adequate reaction to armed attacks and other challenges and threats to the security of the parties.” The joint force will protect Armenia’s and Russia’s borders, the ministry added without elaborating.
The contingent set up in 2000 comprises troops from the Russian military base in Armenia and the Armenian army’s Fifth Corps. They have held exercises on an annual basis, most recently in October, typically simulating joint military operations against an invading enemy.
It is not yet clear whether the Russian-Armenian force will be enlarged as a result of the agreement negotiated by the two sides for the past several months.
In an interview with the Moscow newspaper “Izvestia” published on Monday, Sargsian said the agreement will upgrade the status of the joint force headed by an Armenian army general. He said it will also clarify the military unit’s mission, composition, command-and-control structure and details of its possible deployments.
“The main task of the United Group of Troops is to identify preparation of military aggression against Armenia and Russia in a timely manner and to repel it jointly with the armed forces of Armenia and Russia,” added Sargsian.
The Armenian defense minister arrived in Moscow from the Russian city of Rostov where he visited on Monday the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District, which oversees the Russian troops in Armenia. According to the Armenian Defense Ministry, Sargsian discussed with the district’s commanders ways of “strengthening interaction within the framework of the joint force.”
President Serzh Sarkisian stressed the importance of the upcoming defense agreement but declined to divulge its details when he spoke to the state-run Russia Today news agency two weeks ago. “There are some details there which I wouldn’t like to discuss,” he said.
Some Armenian politicians, media commentators and other pundits have criticized the planned deal in recent weeks, calling it a threat to Armenia’s sovereignty and even security. The Armenian government and its loyalists have rejected the criticism.
The government’s pro-Western critics voiced similar concerns after the Armenian parliament ratified in June a controversial Russian-Armenian agreement on the creation of a new system of joint air defense. The Defense Ministry in Yerevan sought to allay those concerns, saying that an Armenian army general will command all Russian and Armenia air-defense forces deployed within Armenia. Those include MiG-29 fighter jets of the Russian military base headquartered in Gyumri.
The base is tasked with helping Armenia protect its internationally recognized territory, which does not include Nagorno-Karabakh. Its troops therefore have no formal obligation to intervene in a possible Armenian-Azerbaijani war for the disputed region.
Nevertheless, some Azerbaijani observers and even pro-government lawmakers have already denounced the new Russian-Armenian defense accord as further proof of Russian support for Armenia in the Karabakh conflict.
Incidentally, Shoygu met with Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov earlier on Wednesday. A Russian Defense Ministry statement quoted him as saying at the meeting that Russia and Azerbaijan will step up their military cooperation. The Russian defense minister pointed to their joint fight against “international terrorism” and training of Azerbaijani military personnel at Russian military academies.
The statement did not say whether Shoygu and Hasanov discussed the Russian-Armenian deal signed right after their talks.