Armenia cancels military drills, widening rift with Moscow

Armenia cancels military drills, widening rift with Moscow

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Armenia’s prime minister said Tuesday that his country has refused to host military exercises planned by a Russian-dominated security pact, an announcement that reflected the Armenian government’s growing tensions with Moscow.

Nikol Pashinyan has repeatedly criticized Russian peacekeepers for failing to ensure free transit along a corridor linking Armenia and the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region that Azerbaijani activists have blocked since last month.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Pashinyan said Armenia considers the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization military exercise planned for later this year “inappropriate in the current situation”.

“At least this year, these exercises will not take place,” he said.

Pashinyan’s move followed his refusal in the fall to sign a final document from a meeting of leaders of CSTO member states in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

Nagorno-Karabakh lies inside Azerbaijan, but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Yerevan since the end of a separatist war there in 1994. That conflict left not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself, but also large swaths of surrounding land in the hands of the Armenians.

In 44 days of heavy fighting beginning in September 2020, the Azerbaijani military routed Armenian forces, forcing Yerevan to accept a Russian-brokered peace deal that saw the return of a significant portion of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. The agreement also required Armenia to hand over some of the land it held outside the separatist region.

Lachin province, which lies between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, was the last of three areas on the edge of Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenian forces surrendered in December 2020. Russia deployed nearly 2,000 peacekeepers for at least five years to ensure safe transit across the region, to monitor the peace agreement and help refugees return.

But travel through the Lachin corridor has been blocked since December 12 by Azerbaijani activists, who have demanded access to what Azerbaijan has described as illegal mining sites in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian authorities have described the blockade as part of Azerbaijan’s efforts to extend its control over the region and have asked Russian peacekeepers to unblock the road.

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Azerbaijan’s move has left Russia in a precarious position. Armenia has a Russian military base and Moscow has been the country’s main ally and sponsor. But the Kremlin has also sought to maintain warm ties with oil-rich Azerbaijan. Western sanctions over the Russian occupation of Ukraine have made Russia increasingly dependent on Azerbaijan’s main ally, Turkey.

With its attention focused on the fighting in Ukraine, Russia has taken a wait-and-see stance on the Lachin Corridor blockade, angering Armenia.

“Russia’s military presence in Armenia not only fails to guarantee its security, but poses security threats to Armenia,” Pashinyan said on Tuesday.

He noted that the blockade of the Lachin corridor is intended to “break the will of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh,” adding that Armenia will also seek support from the US and the European Union to help ease tensions with Azerbaijan.

After the five-year mandate of Russian peacekeepers ends, Armenia may invite UN peacekeepers to step in “if Russia fails to fulfill its function to ensure security for the population of Nagorno-Karabakh,” Pashinyan said.

The Russian-brokered 2020 peace deal also called for a transport link between Azerbaijan and its Nakchivan enclave through Armenian territory. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev accused Armenia on Tuesday of reneging on its promise to provide such a transit corridor.

“Whether Armenia wants it or not, it will be implemented,” Aliyev said in televised remarks, describing the corridor to Nakchivan as “Azerbaijan’s natural right.” He added, however, that Azerbaijan has no plans to wage another war against Armenia.

Asked to comment on Armenia’s decision to cancel planned military exercises, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow would ask Yerevan to clarify its position. “In any case, Armenia is our close ally and we will continue our dialogue, including on the most complex issues,” he told reporters.

Peskov earlier rejected a claim by Armenia’s Security Council secretary that Moscow had pressured Armenia to join a union of Russia and Belarus.

Commenting on the claim on Tuesday, Pashinyan said Moscow had not made any official request to that effect, but noted that “reality is not as simple as it seems.” He added: “Sometimes, it’s not the text, but the subtext that needs to be considered.”

“Armenia’s sovereignty is an absolute value,” the prime minister said.

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