Russian forces expand presence in Armenia near Azerbaijani border

TAS31: ARMENIA. AUGUST 9. An episode of the joint command and staff exercises of Russian and Armenian troops (in pic). The marshal Bagramyan firing range was the scene of the exercises of Armenian armed forces and personnel of the Russian military base in the territory of the republic. (Photolure-ITAR-TASS/Mkhitar Khachatrian) ----- ТАС 40. Армения, 9 августа. На военном полигоне имени маршала Баграмяна прошли совместные командно-штабные учения подразделений ВС Армении и военнослужащих российской военной базы, дислоцированной на территории республики. На снимке: во время учений. Фото Мхитара Хачатряна (ФОТОЛУРЕ - ИТАР-ТАСС)

In a fresh attempt of expanding its sphere of influence in the Caucasus region, Russia has occupied two new sites in the south of Armenia near the Azerbaijani border as an “additional security guarantee” following last year’s conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The move gives Moscow a bigger footprint in a region where it sent extra troops last year to keep the peace, under an agreement that ended a six-week war in which Azerbaijani forces made far-reaching territorial gains against Armenian forces, who illegally occupied the region for nearly three decades.

Russia is an ally of Armenia, an impoverished former Soviet republic of fewer than 3 million people. Moscow already has a military base in the northwest of Armenia and deployed 2,000 troops as peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of Azerbaijan populated by ethnic Armenians, under the accord that ended last year’s fighting in the area.

“Two strongholds of the 102nd Russian military base were established in the Syunik region,” the Interfax news agency cited Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian as saying in an address to the Armenian parliament, referring to Russia’ existing base in Armenia.

“This is an additional security guarantee not only for the Syunik region but for Armenia,” Pashinian was quoted as saying.

Syunik is a strategic strip of Armenia located between Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan and Iran. The Armenian defense minister said in February that Yerevan wanted Russia to expand its presence and deploy troops closer to Azerbaijan.

On the other hand, the one-sided and partial attitude of Russian military elements deployed in the Karabakh region to monitor the cease-fire deal signed in November in favor of the Armenian side has raised eyebrows in Azerbaijan.

Deployed to the region as part of the Russia-brokered cease-fire deal signed on Nov. 10, Russian troops sometimes exhibit a pro-Armenia attitude instead of taking the required neutral stance for the implementation of the peace agreement, Azerbaijani officials say.

Pashinian has remained in office in an acting capacity after resigning as prime minister last month in a dispute with the army over blame for the outcome of last year’s war, seen as a humiliating defeat. A new election is set for June 20.

Fresh clashes erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan in late September, rekindling the Caucasus neighbors’ decadeslong conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. During the conflict, Azerbaijan liberated several towns and nearly 300 settlements and villages from the Armenian occupation. Fierce fighting persisted for six weeks before Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a Moscow-brokered peace deal.

The agreement came after Baku’s military overwhelmed the separatist forces and threatened to advance on Karabakh’s main city of Stepanakert (Khankendi). Following the deal, Russia deployed its troops to the region for monitoring the implementation of the deal.