Experts are actively discussing the recent delivery of Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems to Armenia. Their key concern is who owns the systems – Russia’s 102nd military base in Armenia or the Armenian army. Officials are not giving explanations, perhaps, in line with some special agreement on “strategic ambiguity.”
While experts are trying to find answers to their questions, the delivery of the systems has proved that Russia and Armenia are true allies. The delivery was a politically motivated step. Even Russia’s closest ally, Belarus, does not have the system. So, the conclusion is that the Kremlin has more trust in Armenia than in Belarus.
But this is an emotional approach. What we need here is a deeper and soberer analysis. Before the appearance of Iskanders, the military-political balance of forces in the South Caucasus was different. So, the key question now is what changes the new reality will offer the region.
We guess that the Russians and the Armenians co-own the systems. The systems are part of the Armenian army but the Russians have the right of decision on how to use them. A few days ago, the Armenian military leaders said that the talks were long. There was no sense in giving Armenia the export version of Iskander-E, with a maximum range of just 280 km. On the other hand, there were legal and political obstacles to the delivery of Iskanders with a range of 500 km. So, Iskander-E was the only option.
We can understand the surprise of some Russian experts as they in the Kremlin said that Iskanders would not be exported before 2017. But the point is that Armenia and Russia have a united military group in the South Caucasus and this implies united plans and resources.
The 102nd military base deployed in Armenia is part of Russia’s Southern Military District. In 2013 Iskanders were supplied to the 1st Orshan guards guided missile brigade (Molkino, Krasnodar Krai) of the 49th all arms army (headquartered in Stavropol). In late 2015 there were supplied to the 12th missile brigade (Mozdok) of the 58th all arms army (Vladikavkaz).
The deliveries of Iskanders to Armenia (four systems, with a brigade set consisting of twelve systems) started almost simultaneously with the deliveries of Iskander-Ms to the Mozdok-based 12th missile brigade, i.e. in late 2015. Official sources reported only the delivery of Mi-24P and Mi-8MT helicopters to Erebuni air base.
At that time, Russia and Turkey were on the verge of a conflict. But the last summer’s thaw has hardly made this step senseless. Despite Turkey’s apologies for the shot-down Russian plane, it remains Russia’s key geo-political rival in the Black Sea-Caspian Sea area and the Middle East. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has apologized but his country has not stopped confronting Russia on Crimea, Novorossiya and the South Caucasus.
NATO’s growing presence in Eastern Europe, the conflict in Ukraine, the activities of terrorists in the North Caucasus and the military campaign in Syria have urged the Kremlin to reinforce its Southern Military District. The Russians have formed four new divisions and nine new brigades in the southwestern strategic direction (1). Two of the brigades have Iskander-M’s. And that step would have no sense without appropriate measures on the border with Turkey.
The Armenia-based Iskanders are certainly not enough for keeping the Turks away from the South Caucasus. Today they have other concerns in Syria and their own southeast. But once they deal with this problem, they may well look back at the South Caucasus and this is where the Iskanders may come in handy. Their delivery to Armenia was a big step to reinforce the united Russian-Armenian military group but Turkey was not the only reason.
Today NATO is very active in Georgia, with the Georgians actively developing military ties with not only the Americans but also the Turks. The Armenians do not regard this as hostility but they have grounds for being worried about the Georgians’ alliance with Turkey and Azerbaijan.
In their turn, the Georgians have grounds for being worried about the Armenia-based Iskanders. In Aug 2008 some experts suggested that Russia might have used those systems in their five-day war against Georgia. The Georgians reported that Iskanders had bombarded their facilities in Poti and Gori as well as the Baku-Supsa pipeline. The Russians refuted the reports.
For the Armenians, Iskanders are a way to keep their good neighbors on their toes and to prevent them from turning into their enemy. Of course, Iskanders are not a panacea for them but they will certainly make both the Turks and the Georgians think twice before doing something against Armenia.
Now that the Armenians have paraded their Iskanders, the Georgians may become more complaint to their wish to optimize transportation via the Georgian territory. And this may well become the Armenians’ key trump against their good neighbors in the near future.
For Azerbaijan, this is a serious signal. Iskanders will certainly give the Armenians more confidence both in battlefields and at the negotiating table. They in the Kremlin were certainly aware of this even though one of their requirements was no use of Iskanders against Azerbaijan. Still the Azerbaijanis have grounds for being worried.
As a compensation, the Russians may offer them deeper military-technical cooperation. And this has already been proved by Russia’s active participation in the 2nd Azerbaijan International Defense Exhibition (2).
This was also Russia’s signal to Azerbaijan that membership to the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union implies big military-political advantages. So, should Azerbaijan decide to join at least the Eurasian Economic Union, it may also hope to have Iskanders.
(1) The southwestern strategic direction is our priority. So, the troops deployed there enjoy up-to-minute arms, Chief of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov said, while summing up the results of Caucasus 2016 maneuvers.
(2) At the exhibition Rosoboronexport has presented 28 Russian companies and their new models of helicopters, armored vehicles, anti-tank missiles, Tor and Buk systems.
Vyacheslav Mikhaylov, specially for EADaily