YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian insisted on Wednesday that Azerbaijan has not gained the upper hand in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict despite its growing defense budget fueled by soaring oil revenues.
Meeting with students at Yerevan State University who will soon be drafted to the Armenian army, Ohanian said Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are successfully “neutralizing” the Azerbaijani military’s numerical superiority in weapons and personnel.
“We are maintaining the balance of forces vis-à-vis the Azerbaijani armed forces, not with quantitative data but by raising the qualitative standards of our armed forces,” he said. “We are enhancing the combat-readiness and fighting spirit of our armed forces.”
The minister added that the Armenian side is also receiving “modern weaponry.” He did not elaborate, though.
The remarks came just days after President Serzh Sarkisian warned that Azerbaijan will be dealt a “devastating and final” blow if it attempts to resolve the Karabakh conflict by force. Sarkisian issued the warning as he and Ohanian watched what Armenian officials called the biggest ever exercises held by the Karabakh Armenian army.
Armenian Public Television reported on Monday that the two-week maneuvers involved thousands of soldiers, hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles as well as heavy artillery. It said the tanks and artillery systems fired more than two thousand live rounds as the troops simulated an Armenian counteroffensive against Azerbaijan.
Sarkisian admitted that the exercises were held in response to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s frequent threats to reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh and the liberated territories.
Aliyev’s government announced recently plans for another sharp rise in Azerbaijani defense spending. It is projected to reach $3.1 billion next year, a sum exceeding Armenia’s entire state budget. The Armenian government plans to spend only about $400 million on defense in 2011.
The spending gap is somewhat offset by Armenia’s military alliance with Russia, which enables it to acquire Russian-made weapons at cut-down prices or free of charge. A new Russian-Armenian defense agreement signed in August commits Moscow to supplying Yerevan with “modern and compatible weaponry and special military hardware.”
“The existing situation allows us to say that the positions of the Republic of Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic have not weakened,” Ohanian said. “On the contrary, today we have a situation where our positions have strengthened on both the diplomatic and military fronts.”
Ohanian also downplayed a recent spate of non-combat deaths and other violent incidents in the Armenian army ranks, which sparked a public uproar and led to the sackings and arrests of several dozen servicemen.
“Of course, this is a worrisome issue,” he said, answering a question from a student. “But analyses conducted in the army and statistics lead to the conclusion that, on the whole, abuses and other extraordinary incidents in the armed forces are decreasing, rather than increasing.”
Another student wondered which military structure in the country is most corrupt. “There is no [military] area where corruption is particularly rampant,” replied Ohanian. “It all depends on the moral integrity of the commanders of a particular field. We are making appropriate efforts in that direction.”