While Georgia's political crisis continues into its third week, Russian officials have praised Armenia as a chief ally in the volatile Transcaucasus region, potentially strengthening strategic ties between Moscow and Yerevan.
On Nov.14, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov met with his Armenian counterpart Vardan Oskanian in Moscow. Russia's chief diplomat hailed the bilateral alliance. Oskanian noted "complicated situation" in the region and dismissed media allegations that Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze had requested assistance from Armenian President Robert Kocharian. "It did not happen," Oskanian said, according to the RIA news agency.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov also distanced Russia and Armenia from the crisis in Georgia. Ivanov dubbed Armenia as "Russia's only ally in the south," called Russian arms supplies to Armenia "purely defensive" and pledged to replenish them. "Russia's military presence in Armenia is necessary. The military hardware at the Russian 102nd base makes any threat to Armenia unrealistic," Ivanov told a news conference in Yerevan, according to Interfax. "We will rearm and re-equip the Russian 102nd military base in Armenia."
On November 11, Ivanov and his Armenian counterpart Serge Sarkisian signed a number of agreements on the Russian military base as well as on bilateral military cooperation in 2004. The deals seem to bolster what is already a close strategic relationship. "These agreements would allow the 102nd base to feel more comfortable," Ivanov reportedly commented. Russian forces in Armenia reportedly use MiG-29 jetfighters and S300 PMU1 air defense batteries, an advanced version of the SA-10C Grumble air defense missile. According to Russian missile manufacturers, the new S300 has anti-stealth capability and can shoot down combat aircraft, cruise missiles as well as ballistic missiles in an ABM mode. The S300 PMU1 missile system can engage targets flying as low as 10 meters off the ground at a range of up to 150 kilometers.
Neighboring two traditionally hostile nations Turkey and Azerbaijan - Armenia relies on Russia for political, military and economic support. In return, Armenia tends to support Russia's geopolitical policy in the Caucasus. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In 1997, the two countries signed a far-reaching friendship treaty, under which they provided for mutual assistance in the event of a military threat to either party. The pact also allows Russian border guards to patrol Armenia's frontiers with Turkey and Iran.
Now that Georgia appears at risk of entering sustained political turmoil, this alliance may shape security decisions in Moscow. On November 14, the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that Moscow is ready to discuss faster withdrawal of Russian troops from Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases in Georgia. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archives. ] This would accelerate an established trend. Over the summer, one Russian battalion completed a transfer from Akhalkalaki to the 102nd base at Gyumri.
In the course of Georgia's crisis, Russian and Armenian officials have been very careful to dismiss any hints of Russian possible meddling in Georgia. On November 14, Viktor Kazantsev, President Vladimir Putin's chief envoy in the Southern Federal district, stated that Russia was not going to dispatch extra peacekeepers to Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Though Ivanov has taken a bellicose tone about Georgia in the past, the threat of instability there has reinforced rhetoric about Russia's peacekeeping purpose. Kocharian has always been careful not to provoke Georgia. He stressed in January that that Armenia and Russia were forging closer security cooperation under the aegis of the CIS Collective Security Treaty, and thus the partnership "was not directed at third countries."
Russian military bases in Akhalkalaki and in Batumi, the capital of the autonomous province of Ajaria, are operating normally, Russian military spokesman Colonel Alexander Lutskevich told the RIA news agency. He dismissed allegations that the Russian troops in Georgia were on high alert.
Nonetheless, any tilt toward Yerevan may reflect anxiety about the ongoing Georgian standoff between Shevardnadze and opposition forces. Alexander Konovalov, head of the Moscow-based Institute for Strategic Assessments, suggested that Ivanov's visit to Armenia was hardly a side trip. While it may help Kocharian's peace of mind to have new Russian arms, no president in the Caucasus can feel sanguine about chaos in Georgia. Both Putin and Kocharian understand how a teetering Georgia can raise fears of terrorism, economic trouble, and even civil conflict.
Now, though, Georgia's government evidently sees the value of friendlier ties with Russia. Georgian President Shevardnadze repeatedly called President Vladimir Putin on November 14 and 15, according to officials, and Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze traveled to Moscow on November 13 for closed-door consultations with Foreign Minister Ivanov. [For background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive].
As the question of who will govern Georgia continues, Russia's investment in a quiet Armenia may deepen. Armenian officials presumably hope that investment pays dividends long after Georgian turmoil subsides.
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.