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Armenia holds drills with US amid rift with Russia

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By Mariam HARUTYUNYAN

Yerevan, Armenia — The United States and Armenia opened military drills on Monday, the latest sign of Yerevan drifting from Moscow’s orbit as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reshapes post-Soviet relations.

The exercises come amid mounting frustration in Armenia over what it sees as Russia’s failure to act as a security guarantor amid mounting tensions with its historic rival Azerbaijan.

Exercise Eagle Partner opened with some 85 US soldiers to train around 175 Armenian soldiers through September 20, according to the US Army Europe and Africa Command.

Armenia’s defence ministry said the exercises aimed to “increase the level of interoperability” with US forces in international peacekeeping missions.

The US military said the drills would help Armenia’s 12th Peacekeeping Brigade meet NATO standards ahead of an evaluation later this year.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Armenia’s decision not to conduct drills with the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) alliance and instead work with the United States required “very deep analysis”.

“Of course, we will try to comprehend and understand all this. But in any case we will do so in close partnership dialogue with the Armenian side,” he said.

The United States brushed off the Kremlin critique and pointed to Russia’s wars with both Ukraine and Georgia.

“I think that given Russia has invaded two of its neighbours in recent years, it should refrain from lecturing countries in the region about security arrangements,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.

He said that the United States has had security cooperation with Armenia since 2003 and called the latest drill “a routine exercise that is in no way tied to any other events.”

But Moscow last week summoned Armenia’s ambassador to complain about “unfriendly steps” the country was taking.

The ministry said Armenia’s envoy was given a “tough” rebuke but insisted that the countries “remain allies.”

“It sounded more like a threat to Yerevan than a description of reality,” said Gela Vasadze, an independent political analyst.

“In fact, Russian-Armenian relations have reached a strategic impasse,” he told AFP.

‘Weakened Russia’

In Yerevan, residents expressed frustration over Russia’s lack of military and political support as tensions with Azerbaijan flared again.

Mariam Anahamyan, 27, told AFP that Armenia had made a mistake by “pinning its hopes on the Russians”.

“So now let’s try with the Americans. The consequences may be bad but not trying would be even worse,” she said.

For Arthur Khachaduryan, a 51-year-old security guard, “Russia failed to keep its commitments during the war and has even made our situation worse.”

He was referring to a brief but bloody conflict in 2020 for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist region in Azerbaijan.

Russia brokered a ceasefire and deployed 2,000 peacekeepers to the Lachin corridor, which connects Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.

But Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan recently said Moscow was either “unable or unwilling” to control the passage.

His government has accused Azerbaijan of closing the road and blockaded the mountainous region, spurring a humanitarian crisis in Armenian-populated towns.

Pashinyan also recently claimed that Armenia’s historic security reliance on Russia was a “strategic mistake”.

Bogged down in its invasion and isolated on the world stage, “weakened Russia is rapidly losing influence in its Soviet-era backyard”, said independent analyst Arkady Dubnov.

“Armenians are frustrated with Russia, which failed to help them during the Karabakh war and its aftermath,” he said, adding that Moscow “also seems to be lacking a clear plan, strategy in the Caucasus”.

‘New allies’

Nagorno-Karabakh was at the centre of two wars between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

In the 1990s, Armenia defeated Azerbaijan and took control of the region, along with seven adjacent districts of Azerbaijan.

Thirty years later, energy-rich Azerbaijan, which built a strong military and secured the backing from Turkey, took revenge.

After the 2020 war, Yerevan was forced to cede several territories it had controlled for decades.

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh remains volatile and Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of moving troops near the region recently, raising the spectre of a fresh large-scale conflict.

The European Union and United States have taken a lead role in mediating peace talks but have so far failed to bring about a breakthrough.

“The Kremlin has no resources — neither the will — to help Armenia and is letting Azerbaijan and Turkey to pursue their objectives,” Dubnov said.

“In that situation, Armenia is trying to forge strong new alliances.”

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