Armenia cancels military drills, widening rift with Moscow

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

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

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

“At least this year, these drills won’t take place,” he said.

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

Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Yerevan since a separatist war there ended in 1994. That conflict left not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself but large chunks of surrounding lands in Armenian hands.

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

Lachin province, which lies between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, was the last of the three areas on the rim 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 deal and to help refugees return.

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

The Azerbaijani move has left Russia in a precarious position. Armenia hosts a Russian military base, and Moscow has been the country’s top ally and sponsor. But the Kremlin also has sought to maintain warm ties with oil-rich Azerbaijan. Western sanctions over the Russian invasion 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 attitude on the Lachin corridor blockade, angering Armenia.

“Russia’s military presence in Armenia not only fails to guarantee its security, but it raises security threats for Armenia,” Pashinyan said 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 U.S. and the European Union to help ease the tensions with Azerbaijan.

After the Russian peacekeepers’ five-year mandate is over, Armenia could invite U.N. peacekeepers to come in “if Russia fails to fulfill its function to ensure security for the population of Nagorno-Karabakh,” Pashinyan said.

The Russia-brokered 2020 peace deal also called for the creation of a transportation link between Azerbaijani and its Nakchivan exclave via 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, though, that Azerbaijan has no plans to wage another war against Armenia.

Asked to comment on Armenia’s decision to cancel the planned military drills, 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 the most complex issues,” he told reporters.

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

Commenting on the claim Tuesday, Pashinyan said that Moscow had not made any official request to that effect but noted that “the reality isn’t 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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