Suren Sargsyan

Recent developments around Armenia and Artsakh did not allow a full assessment of the Armenian-American military drills that took place in September. It is clear that the attention of the Armenian public was elsewhere. However, the conduct of these military exercises introduced another tension in Russian-American relations, the epicenter of which was Armenia. The US-Armenian joint military exercises became the main topic of controversy both inside and outside the country.

EAGLE PARTNER 2023” joint drills between Armenia and the United States were held on September 11-20 in Armenia, particularly at the Zar Training Center of the Peacekeeping Brigade and the Training Center of the Ministry of Defense “in the framework of preparation for participation in international peacekeeping missions.” The drills involved approximately 85 US personnel and 175 Armenian participants. This initiative had several objectives, among which are to fortify the US alliance with Armenia, to bolster interoperability, and to prepare the Armenian 12th Peacekeeping Brigade for a NATO Operational Capabilities Concept (OCC) evaluation under the NATO Partnership for Peace program later this year.

The conduct of the US-Armenian joint military exercises led to criticism by Russian officials. During this period of a tense US-Russian relationship, cooperation of Armenia with the US has been received as an unfriendly gesture.

One criticism came from the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In Lavrov’s words, “this action of the Armenian leadership is regrettable.” In general, Russia is worried about the US trying to play a more active role in the Caucasus. “Of course, we see little good from an aggressive NATO country trying to infiltrate into South Caucasus. I don’t think this is good for anyone, including Armenia itself,” Lavrov stated. Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov also commented on the joint military exercise, stating that “In this situation, the implementation of such exercise will not contribute to the stabilization of the situation, in any case, it will not contribute to the strengthening of the atmosphere of mutual trust in the region.”

Moreover, the Foreign Ministry of Russia summoned the Armenian Ambassador in Russia to protest the joint military exercise among other actions Russia deemed unacceptable. In its statement Foreign Ministry stated that Armenia has taken a number of unfriendly steps, among them “the exercises that will begin Monday, Armenia’s provision of humanitarian aid to Ukraine and its moves to ratify the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court, which this year indicted President Vladimir Putin.” In sum, the Russian response to these exercises coupled with other moves has been quite negative.

Conversely, the US side has stressed that this exercise is a “routine exercise that is in no way tied to any other events.” According to a US State Department spokesperson, the US regularly trains and operates alongside its partners and continuously improves interoperability between armed forces. According to the spokesperson, Armenia is a partner of the US and has “an enduring relationship since 2003 with the Kansas National Guard as part of the Department of Defense’s State Partnership Program.” Hence the conduct of exercises now should not be deemed as action directed against some other country or connected to some event.

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Asked about Russia’s response to the joint military exercise, the US harshly responded that “given Russia has invaded two of its neighbors in recent years, it should refrain from lecturing countries in the region about security arrangements.” Hence, this became just another issue on which Russian and US officials attack and criticize one another, leaving Armenia to deal with the repercussions.

Having considered all the criticism and accusations from the Russian side it is important to highlight the fact that such joint military exercises are not something new between the US and post-Soviet countries. Such drills happen annually and have a permanent and regular character. It’s not only Armenia that conducts such joint exercises with the US but also the countries of Central Asia.

Such joint exercises took place in Tajikistan between 10-20 August, 2022 within the framework of the US Central Command-sponsored REGIONAL COOPERATION 22. The participating states were the United States, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan and the United States also conducted a five-day bilateral field training component of the exercise at the Fakhrabad Training Center. Another such joint exercise – STEPPE EAGLE 19, took place in Kazakhstan in 2019, where soldiers from such countries as the US, the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkey took part in. This year, on August  8, Exercise Regional Cooperation 23 took place in the US, at Helena, Montana. It brought together military personnel from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as US personnel from across the country.

Naturally, the Armenian government would like to establish continuous military cooperation with the US after these military exercises, including security cooperation, but there are no signals from the US that these exercises can become more than routine exercises.

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