YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenia and Russia ended on Friday four-day joint exercises of their armed forces aimed at boosting their coordination and combat-readiness. Heavy fire tore through the air as about 2,000 troops backed by tanks–military aircraft and helicopter gunships fought back a stage-managed assault on Armenia by a theoretical enemy. Presiding over the maneuvers–which were held on a vast firing range 60 kilometers west of Yerevan–was General Vladimir Andreyev–commander of Russian military bases stationed in Armenia and Georgia. The stated objective of the action–"restoration of the state border," was declared achieved when a dozen tanks followed by neat lines of infantry advanced on nearby hills–already scorched by the sun and detonations.
Senior Russian and Armenian military officials said joint exercises that have taken place regularly in the last five years make their bilateral military cooperation more effective. The presence of a Russian military base on its soil is a major element of Armenia’s national security doctrine.
The chief of staff of the Armenian armed forces–General Mikael Harutiunian–told reporters that the two armies are using the occasion to "help and learn from one another." According to Andreyev–their professional level is improving "at a very good pace" thanks to such interactions.
The two generals denied any link between the exercises and Russia’s ongoing military campaign in Chechnya. They said similar joint maneuvers are due to be held in August. Still–Harutiunian added that the Armenian military is looking into "some elemen’s" of the Russian tactics of taking on battle-hardened Chechen rebels in the conditions of a mountainous terrain.
Azerbaijan–which is locked in a territorial conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave–has repeatedly expressed concern at the close Russian-Armenian military ties–viewing them as a threat to its security. Some senior Azeri officials have even declared that Baku should consider inviting NATO troops into its territory.
But both Moscow and Yerevan insist that their bilateral ties are developing within the framework of the 1992 Collective Security Treaty binding most former Soviet republics. Russia–Armenia and several other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States are part of an integrated air defense system. Last year–Russia reinforced its military presence in Armenia–deploying sophisticated MiG-29 fighter jets and S-300 long-range air-defense systems there.
Also watching the exercises was a group of senior officers from the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army–including its commander General Seyran Ohanian. Officials said they were invited to gain more knowledge from and if necessary–give advice to their colleagues from Armenia and Russia.
The chief of the Armenian army staff said Azerbaijan should have no illusions about the recent political turmoil in Yerevan and Stepanakert and try to regain control over Karabakh by force. "I don’t think that Azerbaijan will resume the war. But if they want to solve the [Karabakh] problem by military means I’m sure that the Armenian and Karabakh armies won’t allow them to do that," he said. Some opposition politicians and former army officers in Azerbaijan have recently called for a military solution to the conflict as the only realistic way of restoring Azerbaijani sovereignty over the Armenian-populated region.
Armenian Defense Minister General Vagharshak Harutiunian–who was also at the scene–refused to comment on the recent reshuffle in the country’s armed forces. He reportedly threatened to resign after President Robert Kocharian made key appointmen’s in the army command earlier this month apparently without his prior knowledge. But Harutiunian was visibly satisfied with the course of the joint maneuvers on Friday–telling reporters that there is a continuing "growth in the quality" of his troops.