Armenia has refused to host military drills by the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russian-led alliance of post-Soviet countries, in an announcement that reflects Yerevan’s growing tensions with Moscow.
Russia had announced earlier this year that Armenia would host the annual exercises of the group which comprises six states – Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
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“The Armenian defence minister has informed the CSTO Joint Staff that in the current situation, we consider it unreasonable to hold CSTO exercises on the territory of Armenia. At least, such exercises will not take place in Armenia this year,” Interfax news agency reported Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as saying.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, when asked about the cancelled military drill, 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.
Pashinyan’s move followed his refusal in 2022 to sign a concluding document from a meeting of the leaders of CSTO member nations in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.
The tensions are rooted in Armenia’s conflicts with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The two ex-Soviet states maintain good relations with Russia despite its invasion of Ukraine; Armenia hosts a Russian military base and the Kremlin wants to maintain ties with oil-rich Azerbaijan.
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 of a significant part of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.
The agreement also required Armenia to hand over swaths of land it held outside the separatist region.
Pashinyan has repeatedly criticised Russian peacekeepers for failure to secure free transit along a corridor linking Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Lachin province, which lies between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, was the last of three areas on the region’s rim that Armenian forces surrendered in December 2020.
Russia deployed nearly 2,000 peacekeepers to ensure safe transit across the region and monitor the peace deal.
But travel across the Lachin province has been blocked since December 12 by Azerbaijanis identifying themselves as environmental activists who say that Armenia has unlawful mining sites in the region.
Armenia has called on Russian peacekeepers unblock the road, but Moscow has adopted a backseat approach to the dispute, which has angered the Armenian government.
“Russia’s military presence in Armenia not only fails to guarantee its security, but it raises security threats for Armenia,” Pashinyan said on Tuesday.
He added that the blockade of the Lachin corridor is intended to “break the will of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh”, and that Armenia will also seek support from the US and the European Union to help ease the tensions with Azerbaijan.