Yerevan: Armenia and Russia signed a deal Friday extending the presence of Russian forces in the ex-Soviet republic by decades, bolstering Moscow’s military clout in the strategic South Caucasus region.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian oversaw the signing of the deal in Yerevan during a visit by the Russian leader.
The agreement will see Moscow extend its lease on a military base in Armenia from 2020 to 2044 and upgrade the mission of the estimated 3,000 Russian troops stationed there to include providing for Armenia’s security.
It also calls for Russia to assist Armenia in securing arms and modern military equipment.
Medvedev used the signing of the deal to signal that Russia still considers itself the leading power in the region.
“Russia’s task as the largest and most powerful state in the region… consists of maintaining peace and order,” he said.
Asked if Russia would intervene in a conflict involving Armenia, Medvedev said: “Russia takes its obligations to its allies very seriously.”
Sarkisian said the new agreement boosted Russia’s military role in the South Caucasus, a volatile region wedged between Russia, Iran and NATO member Turkey.
“Russia has taken on the obligation to jointly guarantee the military security of the republic of Armenia and to accordingly equip our armed forces with modern weaponry,” Sarkisian said.
The deal “not only prolongs the presence of the Russian base in Armenia, but also expands the sphere of its geographic and strategic responsibility,” Sarkisian said.
The agreement is likely to raise alarm bells in neighbouring Azerbaijan, which is locked in a long-simmering conflict with Yerevan over the breakaway Nagorny Karabakh region, and in Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia two years ago.
Armenian officials have said the deal will deter Azerbaijan from launching a new conflict over Karabakh. But analysts have said it is unclear whether Russia would intervene in a new war in the region, since the conflict would likely unfold in Karabakh and surrounding territories that are not part of Armenia.
Tensions remain high over Karabakh, where ethnic Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan broke from Baku’s control during a war in the early 1990s that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives.
At least 10 Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers have been killed in skirmishes over the region this year.
Azerbaijan has repeatedly threatened to retake the region by force and in recent years has more than doubled its defence spending.
Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Elkhan Polukhov said that despite the new deal Baku expected Moscow to stick by previous commitments that Russian forces in Armenia would not be used against Azerbaijan.
He said Russia had made such commitments when it transferred forces from Georgian bases in Akhalkalaki and Batumi to the base in Armenia between 2005 and 2007.
“We hope that Moscow will continue to adhere to these obligations,” he told AFP.
As well as infantry and artillery units, the Russian base, in the Armenian city of Gyumri near the border with Turkey, hosts S-300 missile defence systems and MiG-29 fighter jets.
Medvedev was in Armenia for a two-day bilateral visit and was to stay in the country over the weekend for an informal summit of leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a Moscow-led regional security group.