Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 74

Russia and Armenia yesterday commissioned the command post of their joint air defense system, a step which signified that the system is operational. Russia’s Air Force commander-in-chief, Colonel-General Anatoly Kornukov, and Armenia’s chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant-General Mikael Harutiunian, presided over the ceremonial commissioning of the command post, which is situated in a bunker on the Russian base at Karachoban, southwest of Yerevan. The command post will, on a permanent basis, supply operational information to a command center in the Russian city of Rostov-na-Donu, whence the information will be relayed to the headquarters of Russia’s Air Force in Moscow. As of yesterday, Kornukov proclaimed, “Russia and Armenia jointly guard Armenia’s airspace.”

Composed of Russian and Armenian interceptor aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and their radars, the “joint” system relies mainly on Russian-owned, Russian- operated MiG-29 aircraft and S-300 missiles, deployment of which began recently in Armenia (see the Monitor, February 22, March 4) and is set to continue. The number of MiG-29s already sited was believed until yesterday to be five. Officials hinted yesterday, though, that the current number might possibly be twice that, and Kornukov announced that a further eight MiGs are soon due to arrive from Russia. Those already in Armenia are scheduled to begin regular patrol duty on April 22 in Kornukov’s presence.

In a speech to the Russian base staff and Armenian officers, Kornukov emphasized that the development of this air defense system in Armenia had been planned for some time and does not constitute a response to NATO’s actions in the Balkans. Purporting to address Azerbaijan’s concerns over Russia’s military presence in Armenia, Kornukov publicly “invited” Azerbaijan to join the Russian-Armenian air defense system (Snark, Azg, Noyan-Tapan, April 14, 15).

That offer is consistent with the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry proposals to Azerbaijan to enter into military cooperation arrangements with Russia, in order–as Moscow implies–to balance the Russian-Armenian cooperation. Azerbaijan, however, has thrown in its lot with the West.

Russian officials punctiliously refer to the Russian-Armenian air defense system as a “joint” one. The claim is misleading because Armenia’s role is essentially that of host country to a Russian system. Moscow itself concedes that point occasionally by way of assuring Azerbaijan that the system would not and could not be used by Armenian forces in the event of Armenian-Azerbaijani hostilities. The Russian side, moreover, depicts the “joint” Russian-Armenian air defense system as mandated by CIS documents and governed by CIS decisions. In practice, however, the system looks like a forward-based component of Russia’s armed forces sited in Armenia, whose bilateral aspect is essentially limited to the arrangements on basing rights. Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are parties to the CIS joint air defense system. Once a year, units of those countries hold a joint exercise of modest scope at the Ashuluk training range in Russia’s Astrakhan region.