NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hailed the Western alliance’s increased cooperation with Armenia after discussing with President Serzh Sarkisian ways of further intensifying it in Brussels on Monday.
Stoltenberg also voiced concern at a weekend upsurge in fighting near Nagorno-Karabakh and urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to “return to the negotiating table.”
“It is important to avoid escalation,” he told reporters after talks with Sarkisian held at the NATO headquarters. “Because there is no military solution to this conflict. And its persistence is holding back the region.”
The two men said the unresolved Karabakh conflict was on the agenda of their meeting which came two days after at least five Azerbaijani soldiers were killed in the no-man’s land just east of Karabakh. It was the most serious ceasefire violation in the conflict zone since the April 2016 hostilities in Karabakh that nearly degenerated into an all-out Armenian-Azerbaijani war.
Stoltenberg was careful not to blame either warring side for the fighting. By contrast, the foreign ministry of Turkey, a key NATO member state, issued a statement on Sunday that accused the Armenian side of provoking it with “heavy fire launched against Azerbaijan.”
Armenian officials say the very fact that the Azerbaijani army suffered casualties in the no-man’s land proves that it attacked Karabakh Armenian positions on “the line of contact” around the disputed territory.
Iran, another regional power, also avoided taking sides in its official reaction to the escalation. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Monday both conflicting parties should “exercise restraint” and “do their best to stabilize the situation on the ground through dialogue and negotiations.”
“I also welcome our partnership that we have developed, between NATO and Armenia, over many years,” Stoltenberg said at the joint news briefing with Sarkisian. “That is good for Armenia and it’s good for NATO.”
The NATO chief said they spoke about “how we can take that partnership further.” “I see opportunities for us to cooperate more closely on interoperability, defense reform and defense education,” he added.
Despite its close military alliance with Russia, Armenia has stepped up defense cooperation with NATO -- and the United States in particular -- since the early 2000s. It currently contributes around 130 troops to NATO-led missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan and regularly participates in multinational exercises organized by U.S. forces in Europe.
“Armenian troops are helping to bring stability to those countries and we are very grateful for your contributions,” said Stoltenberg.
In 2015, Yerevan expressed readiness to participate in more such missions abroad with specialized medical and demining units. U.S. military instructors began training Armenian military personnel for that purpose last year. As part of that effort, a U.S.-sponsored paramedic school of the Armenian army was inaugurated in October.
Both Stoltenberg and Sarkisian announced that NATO and Armenia are now working on a fresh “individual partnership action plan,” or IPAP. Sarkisian said the three-year plan will be adopted soon.
“I want to reaffirm Armenia’s commitment to continue formulating a lively and positive agenda with NATO and its member states for the purpose of bolstering international peace and security,” declared the president.