NATO Kicks off Armenia Drills

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenia hosted on Monday the first NATO-led military exercises in the South Caucasus since the recent Russian-Georgian war, underlining its intention to continue exercising its longstanding policy of balance relations between East and West, despite the recent chill in relations between Russia and the US over Georgia.

About one thousand troops from 17 nations, eight of them NATO members, will practice in the next three weeks joint military and humanitarian operations at the training ground of Armenia’s main military academy located on the northern outskirts of Yerevan. An opening ceremony there was led by Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian and Lieutenant General John Gardner, the U.S. deputy commander of NATO’s Land Component Command in Heidelberg, Germany.

The drills, codenamed “Cooperative Longbow / Lancer -2008,” will follow a NATO-drawn scenario involving the evacuation of non-combatant civilians, counter-terrorist activities and stabilization operations. “This cooperative exercise provides Alliance and Partner Nations with the opportunity to build relationships, share experiences and techniques, and enhance the professionalism of all our forces,” Gardner said in a speech at the opening ceremony.

“The exercises will include a command post exercise employing a multinational brigade headquarters and a field exercise involving a multinational battalion,” read a separate statement issued by NATO. “Over the past year the Government and Armed Forces of Armenia have done a superb job in preparing to serve as this year’s host, and NATO looks forward to a great exercise.”

Addressing the participants, Ohanian portrayed the drills as further proof of Yerevan’s readiness to “fulfill our commitmen’s to ensure international security.” He regretted the fact that Turkey and other neighboring states involved in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program are not participating. “Unfortunately, this once again demonstrates that security in the South Caucasus is shaky,” said Ohanian.

Turkey had taken part in NATO’s first-ever military exercise held on Armenian soil in 2003, as had Russia, Armenia’s closest military ally. The Russian absence from the latest drills is a measure of its strained relations with the U.S.-led alliance in the wake of its military campaign against NATO aspirant Georgia.

The Armenian military has made clear that it will not halt growing cooperation with NATO despite the Russia-West tensions that have made it harder for Yerevan to stick to its “complementary” foreign and security policies. In particular, it said Armenian peace-keeping troops will continue to serve in Kosovo and Iraq as part of multinational forces led by NATO and the United States respectively. Armenia is also considering joining the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.

Still, Armenian leaders have repeatedly stated that they are not seeking NATO membership and will remain part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-dominated alliance of six ex-Soviet states. As recently as this summer Armenia played host to a CSTO military exercise. It assumed the alliance’s rotating presidency during a CSTO summit in Moscow earlier this month.

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