By Emil Danielyan
About 400 troops from 19 nations, including the United States, Russia and Turkey, launched on Monday first-ever NATO-led military exercises in Armenia that underscore Yerevan’s drive to forge closer security ties with the West. Senior Armenian and U.S. defense officials, meanwhile, pledged to deepen their unfolding bilateral military cooperation.
The exercises, codenamed Cooperative Best Effort 2003, are the latest in a series of military undertakings organized under NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program for former members of the Soviet bloc seeking membership in or closer ties with the alliance. Like in the previous such drills, their participants formed a single battalion to engage in simulated peace-keeping operations on the grounds of Armenia’s main military academy located in the northern outskirts of Yerevan.
The multi-national troops, among them a platoon of the recently formed Armenian peace-keeping battalion, will practice convoy escort, ambush defense and establish checkpoints in the next 12 days. They will also familiarize themelves and use each other’s weapons.
“The aim of this exercise is to promote mutual understanding and improve interoperability between NATO members and partners,” said Major-General Rafael Barbudo, a senior officer from NATO’s Joint Command South headquartered in Verona, Italy.
“It clearly demonstrates the resolve of NATO and its partners to improve our collective security,” the Spanish general said at the opening ceremony attended by Armenian government ministers and senior parliamentarians. The PfP remains a top priority not only for the U.S.-led bloc but also “the entire free world,” he added.
Barbudo further praised the Armenian leadership for hosting such an event for the first time in Armenia’s post-Soviet history. “Your cooperation and hospitality are greatly appreciated,” he said.
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who presided over the ceremony together with the NATO official, said the exercises reflect his government’s commitment to deepening ties with NATO. “Cooperation with NATO is an element of our national security,” he told reporters.
Armenian soldiers first took part in NATO drills in neighboring Georgia in June 2002. Officials in Yerevan have since announced plans to step up their participation in PfP actions. But they have repeatedly ruled out seeking to join NATO in the foreseeable future — a stance which stems from Armenia’s military alliance with Russia. Georgia and Azerbaijan, by contrast, view NATO membership as a long-term foreign policy goal.
Monday’s ceremony also marked the first-ever participation of Russian troops in NATO-led maneuvers, a fact welcomed by Barbudo. “This is one of the signs that our relations with Russia are improving,” he said. “We are delighted with that.”
Moscow has strongly opposed NATO’s eastward expansion towards its borders and shunned many PfP undertakings in the past. This might explain Armenia’s hitherto cautious approach to contacts with NATO.
In a separate development, senior Armenian and U.S. officials wrapped up on Monday their annual “defense consultations” with a joint statement saying that military cooperation will play a larger role in U.S.-Armenian relations. “The sides underscored that their defense cooperation will continue to develop as an important element of security cooperation between the Governments of the United States and Armenia,” the statement said.
The Pentagon delegation was led by Mira Ricardel, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Eurasia. She said the three-day meeting focused on joint efforts to prevent the worldwide spread of weapons of mass destruction and the use of U.S. military assistance to Armenia.
The U.S. Congress earmarked $4.3 million for that purpose in late 2001 and is expected to approve the approximately same amount of funding for the next financial year. That assistance was made possible by the suspension of a congressional ban on U.S. aid to Azerbaijan in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The joint statement mentions the support given by Armenia to U.S. war on terror ever since.
The Armenian government has decided to spend most of the money on modernizing and upgrading communications facilities of its armed forces. Speaking at a joint news conference with Ricardel, Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian said the Armenian military has already selected a U.S. supplier of such equipment and now awaits the Pentagon’s go-ahead to begin receiving it.
“We have already sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Defense stating which specific means of communication our armed forces need,” he said.