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Russia tightens its grip in the South Caucasus, CU Issue 78, August 23, 2010

Last week, Russia signed a high-profile agreement to upgrade its military footprint in Armenia, and is rumoured to have offered advanced anti-aircraft missile systems to Azerbaijan.

News of the deal with Yerevan surfaced in late July when sources in both governments confirmed that the provisions currently governing Russia’s military base in northern Armenia, would be amended (RFE/RL, July 31). The amendment was signed during Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Armenia on August 20.

The mission of the 4,000 Russian troops based at Gyumri has been reaffirmed and expanded, and Russia’s tenure of the base has been extended by an additional 24 years, to 2044, with further extensions possible.

The forces at Gymuri will now be required to “protect Armenia's security together with Armenian Army units” (RFE/RL, August 15). Senior Russian officials have stressed that in practical terms this was not a significant change from the base’s current mandate (RFE/RL, August 19). Tellingly, Armenia’s President Sargsyan emphasised the base upgrade during their joint press conference, whereas President Medvedev mentioned it only briefly.

Some analysts have argued that because the new protocol only protects ‘Armenia’s security’, and because Nagorno-Karabakh is not legally part of Armenia, in the event of an Azerbaijani offensive to liberate its occupied territories “Russia will have no legal right to intervene” (RIA Novosti, August 19). This assumes that Russia has a high regard for the niceties of international law. If Moscow saw a war in the South Caucasus as a threat to its interests, it would not hesitate to intervene regardless of the text of the protocol.

In any case, according to Armenia’s President, previously the “base’s operation was limited [to] the former Soviet Union’s external borders, but this restriction has now been removed from the text of the agreement”. Also, the agreement “expands the [sphere] of [Russia’s] geographic and strategic responsibility” (Kremlin, August 20). It implies that Russia is now mandated to help protect Armenia’s borders not only with Turkey and Iran (Soviet Union’s external borders in Armenia), but with Azerbaijan and Georgia as well, removing any constraints from Moscow’s freedom of action.

Even aside from this change in mandate, it is short-sighted to view the new protocol as simply a procedural arrangement. The former lease on the Gyumri base did not expire until 2020; there was no need to extend it at the moment. The decision was political in nature, and makes more sense in the light of the other aspect of the Russia-Armenian strategic alliance.

Defence cooperation between Moscow and Yerevan is expected to advance considerably. This was apparent even before the reports on the new base agreement emerged: on July 22, Russian and Armenian officials announced plans to strengthen collaboration between their defence industries (RFE/RL, July 22). The two presidents’ agreement for the supply of “modern and compatible arms and specialized military equipment” underlines the growing cooperation.

The nature of this defence collaboration was made more explicit in early August, when Armenian Defence Minister Seyran Ohanian announced plans to acquire and develop long-range precision weapons (Stratfor, August 10). As Liz Fuller points out, “Russia is the only plausible source for such weapons” (RFE/RL, August 12). It seems as if the supply and joint manufacture of long-range missiles will form the backbone of the plans to upgrade military-technical cooperation.

By committing itself to guaranteeing Armenia’s security and supplying sophisticated hardware to it, Russia will apparently alter the balance of power in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, another piece of news indicates Moscow’s attempts to placate Azerbaijan. In late July, sources in the Russian Defence Ministry revealed that Moscow planned to sell $300 million worth of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Azerbaijan (Eurasianet, August 16). It is unclear whether the deal will go ahead but it certainly seems to be on the table.

The S-300 is an advanced defence system used to counter air attacks as well as other missile attacks. It would, in other words, be the ideal system to counter Armenia’s long-range missiles. Joshua Kucera notes that these ‘defensive’ weapons would strengthen Azerbaijan offensively by reducing its vulnerability to an Armenian attack (Eurasianet, August 19).

There are two potential explanations for the sudden upgrade in Russia’s alliance with Armenia. One, expressed by a number of Armenian analysts and oppositionists, is that Moscow is seeking to tighten its stranglehold over Yerevan (Eurasianet, August 12). Although Armenia has always relied on Russia as part of its security calculus, through both the Gyumri forces and through regular supplies of military hardware, these new developments could definitively deprive it of strategic independence.

Another explanation is that Moscow is simply attempting to increase its military exports to the region, providing the country’s flagging arms industry with a much-needed boost, and simultaneously strengthening its security presence in the region.

These recent moves make Russia’s official position as a neutral and unbiased party to the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process even less tenable. These moves indicate once again that Russia remains disinterested in any change of the current status quo in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and continues to see the conflict as its major leverage over Armenia and Azerbaijan.

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