YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian played down on Wednesday the significance of a possible sale of sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft missiles to Azerbaijan, saying that it will not give Baku a “strategic advantage” in the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Ohanian also asserted that as a result of a new defense agreement signed by Moscow and Yerevan last week, Russian troops could openly back Armenia in the event of renewed Armenian-Azerbaijani war.
“In case a threat unleashed against Nagorno-Karabakh [by Azerbaijan] becomes a threat to the Republic of Armenia, then I have no doubts that the Russian Federation will fulfill its contractual and allied obligations,” he said.
The agreement in question extended Russia’s lease on a military base in Armenia until 2044 and gave it a greater role in ensuring the South Caucasus nation’s security. It also commits the Russians to supplying the Armenian military with modern weaponry. Pro-government politicians and some analysts in Yerevan believe that this will discourage Azerbaijan from acting on its regular threats to forcefully take Karabakh and other Armenian-liberated territories surrounding the republic.
“The agreement reaffirms the long-term character of the strategic alliance of the Republic of Armenia and the Russian Federation in accordance with requirements stemming from the security environment and the military-political situation in the region,” said Ohanian.
The deal was signed on August 20 during Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Yerevan following reports that Moscow plans to sell S-300 air-defense systems to Azerbaijan. The reports, not denied by Russian officials, have raised concerns in Armenia and Karabakh.
Armenian opposition groups say the long-range surface-to-air missiles would seriously limit the Armenian military’s ability to hit strategic targets in Azerbaijan and thereby encourage Baku to try to resolve the Karabakh conflict by force.
Ohanian, who played a major role in the 1991-1994 independence war with Azerbaijan and subsequently commanded the Karabakh Defense army, dismissed such concerns. “I must point out that the acquisition of Russian S-300 air-defense systems can not directly influence the correlation of forces between Armenia and Azerbaijan because their use by Azerbaijan against the Armenian Armed Forces would be fruitless under all possible scenarios,” he said. “The reason for that is simple: we are very familiar with those systems, we have been using them for quite a long time, and we know the possibilities of reducing the effectiveness of such systems.”
The minister seemed to refer to at least two batteries of S-300s that were deployed by Russia at its military base in Armenia in the late 1990s. Top Russian military officials announced in early 2007 that Moscow has further upgraded Armenia’s air defenses and trained Armenian military personnel to operate the air-defense systems. The Armenian military confirmed that, saying the training process began in 2005.
“I must also point out that even in case of the acquisition of those systems, Azerbaijan will need quite a lot of time to develop an integrated radio-technical system catering to them. So I don’t think that the purchase of S-300 systems would give Azerbaijan any strategic advantage over the Republic of Armenia,” said Ohanian.
He added that the missile deal would therefore not harm the Russian-Armenian military alliance. “We are strategic partners, we are part of the same military-political system, our cooperation is quite close, and there is readiness on both sides for mutual assistance on any security issue,” he said.
Ohanian also insisted that the Armenian leadership is taking “adequate” steps to sustain the balance of forces in the Karabakh conflict zone. It is countering Azerbaijan’s ongoing massive military build-up not only by acquiring more weapons but also training the Armenian army and entering “new alliances,” he said.
Ohanian would not be drawn on what kind of sophisticated arms Moscow has pledged to supply to Yerevan within the framework of the new Russian-Armenian pact. “For reasons understandable to all of us, this direction contains a certain degree of military secrecy,” he told RFE/RL. “But the promises and provisions contained in the agreement are valid and will be put into practice.”
The defense minister further reaffirmed his government’s plans, announced earlier this month, to obtain new long-range precision-guided weapons in the coming years. They would be aimed at “strategic facilities” of Armenia’s hostile neighbors, he said without elaborating.