YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenia and Russia have formally completed the integration of their air-defense systems as their "joint command point" in Armenia went on duty on Thursday for the first time.
Military officials from both countries attending an official ceremony at a military base 30 kilometers southwest of the capital Yerevan said the event will add significantly to Armenia’s defense capabilities. With the inauguration of the joint command–Armenia is becoming part of an integrated air defense system of the Commonwealth of Independent States that also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. "From now on–Armenia and Russia bear responsibility for Armenia’s airspace," said Col.-Gen. Anatoly Kornukov–commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Forces. He said Moscow and Yerevan have finished "difficult and big work," and their military cooperation has "great potential." According to the chief of staff of the Armenian armed forces–Lt.-Gen. Mikael Harutiunian–his country has made a "huge step forward within the CIS framework."
The joint air defense has been substantially reinforced recently with the deployment in Armenia of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft systems and MiG-29 fighter jets. More than a dozen of the sophisticated warplanes are believed to have already been deployed–and Kornukov said eight more are forthcoming. S-300 is known for its precision and long fire distance. In the words of Harutiunian–the modern weaponry creates a reliable shield for Armenia’s air space.
Lined up on a parade-ground at the Choban Kara base–surrounded by spinning radar systems–a joint company of soldiers saluted as the Armenian–Russian and CIS flags were hoisted under the sound of national anthems. They then marched down to a bunker where the command point is located. The growing Armenian-Russian military ties are raising serious concerns in neighboring Azerbaijan–which is locked in a long conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku has threatened to pull out of a CIS defense pact and invite NATO or Turkish troops on its soil. But Russian and Armenian leaders have repeatedly dismissed those concerns–claiming that their cooperation is not aimed against a third country.
Kornukov told reporters that "the doors [of the joint system] are open to others," including Azerbaijan. He said NATO’s military presence in the Caucasus "would not foster stability" there. Nine of the twelve CIS states are signatories to the 1992 Collective Security Treaty–but only four of them have agreed to unite their air-defense systems. Azerbaijan–Georgia and Uzbekistan have recently voiced misgivings about what they see as the treaty’s ineffectiveness. They have threatened not to renew their participation in the pact when it expires this month.
Addressing the military personnel of the base–the Russian air force chief said strengthening air defense is particularly important in the light of NATO’s continuing air strikes on Yugoslavia–which he condemned as "barbaric slaughter." But Kornukov added that the stepping up of cooperation with Armenia is not related to the NATO military action because it was planned long before the bombardment began.
Moscow remains firmly opposed to the Alliance’s strikes–launched last month after Belgrade rejected an international peace plan to end the conflict in Kosovo. Armenia’s reaction has also been negative–albeit much softer. President Robert Kocharian has said he will take part in celebrations of NATO’s 50th anniversary expected in Washington later this month .
According to Kornukov–Yugoslavia’s example shows that in the conditions of modern hi-tech warfare "small countries" alone are unable to repel a massive air assault and should seek help from bigger ones. Harutiunian agreed–arguing that Armenia has not sufficient resources to build a sophisticated anti-aircraft system. "So this is just the beginning," he said.