Message to Ankara: Russia beefs up its military presence in Armenia in wake of Turkey incident

Russia is increasing its military presence in Armenia in what most analysts see as a message to neighboring Turkey with which Moscow has been at loggerheads since last year’s warplane incident at the Syrian border.

President Vladimir Putin described the downing of a Russian bomber by Turkish air forces in November as a “stab in the back”, accusing Ankara of obstructing Russia’s anti-terrorism fight in Syria.

Hayk Martirosyan, a Yerevan-based Sorbonne-graduate political analyst specializing on former Soviet States and the Middle East, says the latest Russian military deployments in Armenia are a show of strength in Turkey’s close vicinity linked to that incident.

Russia, which has had a military base in Gyumri since the collapse of the Soviet Union, deploying some 5,000 personnel and about two dozen fighter aircraft, began to increase its military capabilities on Armenian soil within weeks after the Syrian border incident by shipping 13 combat helicopters to a military airfield near capital Yerevan.

Russia and Armenia also set up a new joint air-defense system with an agreement signed by their defense ministers in Moscow in late December.

In the next move on January 5, Russia announced that it will deploy additional modernized MiG-29 fighter jets and one more transport helicopter at its military base in Armenia in the second half of 2016. Also, Russia’s Tass news agency quoted the press office of Russia’s Southern Military District on Monday as saying that a new batch of unmanned aerial vehicles designed for army reconnaissance has arrived for duty at the Gyumri base situated close to the border with Turkey.

While officials in Moscow and Yerevan do not immediately link the latest deployments with the changing military and geopolitical situation in the region, saying that most of the deliveries are part of earlier agreed schemes, analysts still see an increased role of the Armenian base for Russia’s strategies in the Middle East.

“Russia is making a show of force for Turkey just as the United States Air Force, for example, operates demonstrative flights near the border with North Korea,” says Martirosyan, drawing parallels between tensions in the Middle East and the Caucasus and the Korean peninsula crisis where Washington is an ally of Seoul in its decades-long standoff with Pyongyang.

“While the current governments [of President Recep Tayyin Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin] continue to be in power in Turkey and Russia, tensions will remain and there will be no return to the previous relationships between the two regional powerhouses,” the expert predicts.

Like most other analysts Martirosyan finds it difficult to assess at the moment how far Armenia may be involved in further regional processes involving Russia and Turkey, but he says it is unlikely it will remain unaffected should tensions between Moscow and Ankara further aggravate.

Commenting on the new Russian military deployments in Armenia last month, a Turkish official told the Hurriyet Daily News that “Russia and Armenia [need] to abstain from actions that would jeopardize regional peace in the Caucasus,” with Ankara fearing that “Yerevan’s attitude would boost the risk of clashes in the region.”

The remarks of the unnamed official in Ankara presumably referred to clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh that intensified in December.