On September 10-13, Russia and Armenia conducted a tactical military exercise at the Marshal Bagramian training grounds, close to the Armenian-Turkish border. President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian officials attended the final, live-fire stage of the joint exercise. Each side committed a motor-rifle regiment, artillery, and tank company, for a total of 1,300 ground troops, to the four-day exercise. In addition, four Su-25 and four MiG-24 planes from the Armenian side, S-300 air defense systems, and four MiG-29 planes from the Russian side, and combat helicopters from both sides took part.
Armenia’s Deputy Defense Minister, Lt.-General Mikael Grigorian, acted as coordinator of the exercise in the presence of Maj.-General Andrei Popov, commander of Russia’s Group of Forces in the Transcaucasus (GRVZ), to which the Russian forces stationed in Armenia are subordinated. The GRVZ command headquarters has yet to be moved out of Tbilisi by Russia’s Defense Ministry, presumably to the Russian base at Gyumri in Armenia. Russia stations an estimated 5,000 troops of all types in Armenia, including 3,000 officially reported to be based at Gyumri.
The exercise aimed to test the interoperability of Russian and Armenian forces. It rehearsed a defensive battle against “aggressor forces from the direction of Turkey” that attacked on the ground and in the air, advancing into Armenia during the first stage of the battle. In the follow-up stages, Russian and Armenian forces counterattacked and destroyed the invader’s forward elements, then encircled and attacked the main invasion grouping, forcing it to surrender. This type of scenario is traditional at Armenian-Russian annual tactical exercises, but it now seems out of step with the bilateral rapprochement between Russia and Turkey on all levels, including that of regional security. This year’s exercise scenario added for the first time an “anti-terrorist operation” to suppress a diversionary terror attack by the invading force.
Armenia’s Su-25 planes made their first public appearance in the country on this occasion. Armenia took delivery of 10 planes of that obsolescent type from Slovakia’s air force last year. They are co-located with the Russian base in Gyumri.
Addressing all troops in Russian after the exercise, Kocharian characterized Armenia-Russia relations overall as “brotherhood…thanks to which the Russian military base exists and we conduct joint exercises to ensure our countries’ security.” If viewed in those terms, however, the exercise scenario of battling Turkey seems anachronistic and unrealistic. For his part, Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian cited Azerbaijan as a source of threats to Armenia’s security; he expressed confidence in the Armenian army’s readiness to face that challenge.
While Yerevan portrayed the exercise accurately as a bilateral event, Moscow billed it as an undertaking of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha, also attending the event, listed the Russia-Armenia “group of forces” as a CSTO component, together with a Russia-Belarus group of forces and the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces in Central Asia. However, those two “groups of forces” exist only virtually, in Russian planning for wartime operations, and remain at any time a matter of Russia’s bilateral relations with Armenia or Belarus. Armenia’s participation in CSTO exercises remains confined to the annual air defense practice.
Moscow traditionally relies on bilateral relations for alliance management. However, Russia is interested in advertising the CSTO in order to enhance Russia’s own status vis-à-vis NATO. Attending the NATO-Russia meeting of Defense Ministers on September 13 in Berlin, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov cited the Russian-Armenian exercise as part of ongoing CSTO activities. He sought to portray the CSTO as an operational reality and urged NATO to establish cooperation with this Russian-led organization. Armenia, however, is interested in developing its own ties with NATO through an Individual Partnership Action Plan.
(Interfax, Regnum, Arminfo, Armenian Public Television, September 12-14; Air Force Monthly, August 2005)