A senior U.S. diplomat praised the Armenian military on Friday for participating in the latest NATO-led military exercises held in neighboring Georgia, calling that a “great example of Armenia’s ability to balance its interests.”
“Armenia should be very proud,” Richard Mills, the U.S. ambassador in Yerevan, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “It was the only [Collective Security Treaty Organization] member in this exercise.”
“And it contributed a very important component to this military exercise with the medical units that supported all the other nations that participated,” he said. “That helped the Armenian military, that helped this exercise and, I think, it helped security in Europe overall.”
The two-week drills, which began in late July, involved about 2,800 soldiers from the United States, Georgia, Britain, Germany, Turkey, Ukraine, Slovenia and Armenia. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the participating troops during an August 1 trip to Georgia.
The participation of around 30 Armenian soldiers in the drills codenamed “Noble Partner” underscored Armenia’s policy of complementing a military alliance with Russia with closer security ties to the West.
“Armenia does a good job of balancing its relationships with all its neighbors,” said Mills. “That includes Russia, that includes Iran, and that includes the United States and the European Union.”
“The goal for our Armenian friends, for the Armenian government is to make sure that Armenia can make its own sovereign decisions about what path it should choose, what economic and political models it follows,” Mills went on. “And we want to help give Armenia the tools to continue making sovereign choices and to make sure that it’s not overly influenced or forced by others to follow certain paths that perhaps Armenia doesn’t want to follow.”
Armenia has deepened defense cooperation with the U.S. and other NATO member states since the early 2000s. It currently contributes more than 100 troops to NATO-led missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan and regularly participates in multinational exercises organized by the U.S. military.
Those troops are part of the Armenian army’s Peacekeeping Brigade that has received considerable U.S. assistance. A U.S.-funded renovation of the brigade’s main training center began as recently as in March.
Mills stressed that U.S.-Armenian military has had a “much broader” scope. In his words, the United States has provided almost $50 million worth of military equipment and trained over 200 Armenian military personnel since 2002.
The envoy also revealed that the U.S. offered to help Armenia last year to “learn lessons” from the April 2016 fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. The four-day hostilities left at least 190 Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers dead and nearly escalated into an all-out war. They were halted by a Russian-mediated agreement.
“After the tragic fighting in April  we approached our friends in the [Armenian] Ministry of Defense to talk to them about the lessons learned from that in terms of the military structure, mission command, communication … whether we could provide some assistance and how the U.S. military does its after-action reports.
“The answer was that the ministry would be very interested in that. That was a program we had in place. But I think that it became a little bit of higher priority after the April events.”
Mills added that the commander of U.S. Army Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, personally discussed the issue with Armenia’s top military officials when he visited Yerevan in May 2016.
The diplomat further made clear that while Washington is committed to Armenia’s security it will continue to avoid selling offensive weapons to any of the parties to the Karabakh conflict. “I think that is one area where we differ from Russia,” he said.
The U.S., Russia and France have long been jointly spearheading international efforts to end the Karabakh conflict.