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Who is in charge for Armenia’s Iskanders push-button?

Recently, Defense Minister of Azerbaijan, Colonel General Zakir Hasanov has been interviewed by RIA Novosti Russian state news agency for the first time for foreign mass media. The Azerbaijani minister answered a series of pressing questions, including the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and advanced weapons of Azerbaijani army.

The interview caused quite a stir in the Armenian public and government. Some even saw “the Kremlin’s hand” in it. Many experts in Armenia started blaming Moscow for supporting Baku in the Karabakh issue and providing the Azerbaijani minister an opportunity to talk to such an authoritative state media with large audience and to threaten Russia’s ally Armenia.

The whole situation even made President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan give an interview to a national television, which even local experts assessed as a response to the Azerbaijani minister.

Talking to “R-evolution” TV show on Armenia TV Channel, the Armenian leader touched upon his upcoming meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart and the Azerbaijani defense minister’s statement saying “the Azerbaijani Armed Forces have a system capable of downing Iskander missiles.” Serzh Sargsyan, in particular, said: “Armenia will launch Iskander systems, if necessary.”

Although Yerevan and Baku have been “exchanging fair and foul” over the given missile systems for a long time already, their regular statements make us return to the issue again and again.

This time, EADaily talked to Russian military experts, considering the interests of the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides in the Iskander-related issues. It is worth recalling what type of systems these are, what to expect from them and whether they were provided to Armenia without compensation.

Thus, military expert Alexander Yermakov says Iskander missile system, the type provided to Armenia, is equipped with short-range (300-400km) operational tactical ballistic missile. The question is whether the Russian versions have a longer range and whether there are export versions with shorter range (Iskander missiles are not available in the market, they were supplied to Armenia exclusively).

“It is simple. A truck runs, the body opens, missile blasts off. It may have a blast warhead (there will be one big blast off) and may have a magazine,” the expert says. He believes that Iskander is an analogue of Elbrus missile systems (more known as Scud). What makes these two really different is quite difficult interception by air defense systems.

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Yermakov is sure that Iskanders were supplied to Armenia not only as a political gesture, but to level ongoing and planned acquisition of advanced air defense and missile defense systems by Azerbaijan. According to the expert, Russia is taking steps to support the status quo and deter the sides.

In response to the question whether Armenian specialists have access to the Iskander “push button” or only Russian military are authorized to manage the missile systems, Yermakov says the systems will be transferred to the local military personnel at least after they undergo the necessary training. “They have similar systems, but much older ones. Of course, Russia is trying to calm hotheads in Armenia too,” he says.

In the current situation, it is important to realize that Russia, in fact, provided Iskanders to Armenia not to give it more capabilities, but to keep the status quo.

Military expert Vladislav Shurygin, in turn, says Armenia has both Russian Iskander systems managed by Russia and the ones supplied to the Armenian side without compensation.

Evidently, Russian specialists have no direct access to them. Russia just supplied the systems, while Armenia and Armenian specialists will be managing them. “Of course, Armenia’s leadership will reckon with Russia in this issue. They cannot but reckon with the Russian military base deployed in Armenia’s Gyumri,” Shurygin says.

When it comes to Armenia’s access to “push buttons,” it is necessary to recall the Russian-Armenian Agreement on the United Group of Troops ratified by the Russian State Duma lately. Evidently, all this is done to prevent new escalation of the Karabakh conflict. Yet, the Russian officials have responded to the idea quite differently.

For instance, Leader of Liberal Democratic Party of Russia Vladimir Zhirinovsky called the united commanding of military bases and united groups inadmissible. He is sure that the united group of troops shall be under Russian command only.

The Russian parliamentarian believes that united command is fraught with unpredictable negative consequences. “Without our knowledge, they [Armenians] will launch military actions and we will be involved automatically,” Zhirinovsky explained.

All this neutralizes the Armenian president’s warning and provides clear understanding that Armenia will not take any measures without Russia’s consent. Moscow will not leave its “dangerous gift” unattended.

Alexandra Zuyeva, Baku-based political analyst

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