Raising a serious obstacle to Russia's military presence in Armenia, Georgia appears to have closed its airspace to transport planes making vital shipments to Russian troops stationed in the neighboring South Caucasus state.
According to Russian and Armenian officials, the move is the result of the recent Russian-Georgian war that has redrawn the geopolitical picture in the region. They say the Russian military is now forced to re-route supplies to its base in Armenia via Iran and even Azerbaijan, which has long resented Moscow's close defense links with its archenemy.
Policymakers and defense experts in Yerevan, however, downplay the significance of the apparent ban on the transit of Russian military personnel and cargos through Georgian territory. They insist that it does not call into question the continued deployment of some 5,000 Russian troops at the western Armenian town of Gyumri, a key element of Armenia's national security doctrine.
"Georgia no longer provides us with air corridors," Colonel Ashot Karapetian, deputy commander of the Russian military base in Armenia, told EurasiaNet. "Our supplies are now being carried out via Azerbaijan and Iran."
Karapetian described those supplies as erratic, saying that Russia secures over-flight permissions from these countries with "great difficulty." "But despite these difficulties, we are getting by and doing everything to continue our service. The government and armed forces of Armenia deserve much of the credit for that," he said, adding that they have helped the Russian base stockpile fuel, food and other materiel.
A Russian diplomatic source confirmed the information. The Georgian ban, the source said, also applies to Russian civilian aircraft flying to and from Armenia. Russia's defense and foreign ministries refused to comment officially, however. Georgia's defense ministry also declined comment.
Whether the issue was on the agenda of Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov's October 3-4 visit to Yerevan is not clear. In a short statement, the Armenian defense ministry said only that Serdyukov and his Armenian counterpart, Seyran Ohanian, discussed "issues relating to bilateral military cooperation."
Georgia has served as the main transit route for deliveries to Armenia's Russian military base ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russian-Georgian agreements have regulated the transit. Even before the August 2008 outbreak of fighting, the Russians had accused the Georgians of failing to comply with the most recent agreement, signed in March 2006, and restricting over-flights.
Armenian officials, however, seem confident that Moscow will not close its Armenia base in the foreseeable future despite the serious logistical problems posed by the closure of Georgian air space.
"These are short-term problems that have no legal basis and cannot be long-lasting," said Artur Aghabekian, a retired army general and former deputy defense minister who now heads the Armenian parliament's committee on defense and security.
"If Georgia doesn't provide an air corridor, Russia will find alternative ways of supplying its military base here," Aghabekian told EurasiaNet. "After all, Russia is bound by an agreement with Armenia that commits it to keeping the base combat-ready and on high alert. Russia will resort to any method to honor that obligation."
Another former deputy defense minister agreed. "I don't think that these obstacles will have any influence on the continued existence of the Russian base in Armenia," said Vahan Shirkhanian. "Russia is a powerful country. Supplying a small base, whether through Iran or Azerbaijan or even Turkey, is not a problem for it." Both Russia and Armenia will need the base at Gyumri "for a long time," he added.
Located close to the Turkish border, the Russian base at Gyumri has enabled Armenia to receive large quantities of Russian weapons at cut-down prices or even free of charge, and thereby somewhat offset energy-rich Azerbaijan's soaring defense expenditures.
In particular, Russia has recently helped to upgrade and modernize its South Caucasus ally's air defense system. The deputy commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force, Lieutenant General Aytech Bizhev, revealed in early 2007 that Armenian anti-aircraft officers had been trained to operate the sophisticated S-300 missile systems as part of that assistance. The long-range surface-to-air missiles were deployed in Armenia in the late 1990s and are part of a joint Russian-Armenian system of air defense.The Russian military presence in Armenia has also precluded any potential Turkish military intervention in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, allowing Yerevan to concentrate the bulk of its military power on the frontier with Azerbaijan. Despite its recent overtures to Yerevan, Turkey has lent unconditional support to Azerbaijan in the dispute and continues to link the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations to a Karabakh settlement acceptable to Baku.
Not surprisingly, the military alliance with Russia remains the cornerstone of Armenia's defense strategy despite its increased military cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United States in particular. Visiting Yerevan on October 3, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow is not worried about Armenia's growing defense links with the West not least because they do not hold the prospect of membership in NATO.
Speaking to EurasiaNet, Shirkhanian, who was a key figure in the Armenian defense establishment throughout the 1990s, said the crisis in Georgia has, in fact, only increased the importance of military cooperation with Russia for Armenia. Aghabekian was more cautious in that regard, saying that Yerevan should review the official National Security Strategy unveiled in February 2007. But the pro-government lawmaker would not elaborate about specific changes which he believes need to be made in the strategy.
The 27-page document underlines the "strategic character" of the Russian-Armenian relationship and its military component, saying that membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization will become even more important for Armenia in the coming years. It says at the same time that closer ties with NATO, the United States and the European Union are another "guarantee" of the country's security.
In the latest indication of this so-called "complementary" policy, on September 29 Armenia began hosting the first NATO-led military exercises in the region since the Russian-Georgian war. Both Russia and Georgia snubbed the three-week drills involving about a thousand soldiers from 17 countries, including the US.
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist.