Trend commentator: Russian base's long-term presence is issue much wider than theoretical protection of Armenia from imaginary threats
Trend European Desk Commentator Elmira Tariverdiyeva
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's official visit to Azerbaijan late last week clarified once and for all the issue of his country's military base in Gumri, Armenia, which has been a heated subject of debate in political and analytical circles over the past month.
Russia and Armenia recently signed a protocol amending a 1995 bilateral agreement on the base. The document was undersigned by the Armenian and Russian defense ministers. The original agreement's validity was 25 years, and the new agreement extended the contract for another 24 years.
However, for Azerbaijan, the major issue was how to interpret the contract.
During Medvedev's visit to Armenia in late August, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan told journalists at a joint press conference with his Russian colleague that the protocol extends the base's "geographical and strategic responsibility." Moreover, in addition to protecting Russian interests during its military's deployment in Armenia, he added, the base would work with the Armenian armed forces to ensure Armenia's own security.
It is unclear why Sargsyan spoke with such enthusiasm about ensuring the security of his long-suffering motherland. From whom does Armenia need to be protected? Today, in military terms, the country is not threatened by any state. However, when speaking of the possibility of Russian troops intervening in the event of a conflict with Azerbaijan over the territories occupied by Armenia, Sargsyan should be more modest in his expectations.
Nagorno Karabakh and the seven surrounding regions are legally Azerbaijani lands. They are recognized as such by every single country in the modern world. Russia is unlikely to interfere in the domestic affairs of such a strong strategic partner in the South Caucasus, such as Azerbaijan. Relations between Russia and Azerbaijan cannot be compared with the relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, so the Armenians should not expect a repeat of the August 2008 events in Nagorno Karabakh or Baku.
Moscow is simply forced to take into account Azerbaijan's growing role in the region. Russia is primarily interested in economic and energy cooperation with Azerbaijan, as evidenced by recent agreements signed with the country in the gas sphere. During Medvedev's visit to the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, he signed an agreement with Gazprom that envisages Russia purchasing 2 billion cubic meters of gas per year in 2011.
The agreement, which is not the most economically beneficial for Moscow, was initiated to minimize the amount of Azerbaijani gas that could flow into the Nabucco gas pipeline - an EU-backed project that will compete with the Russian South Stream Pipeline.
Furthermore, Baku is important for Russia as a stabilizing factor in the North Caucasus. So it would be nonconstructive for Moscow to fight with Azerbaijan just to please Armenia.
Medvedev made this clear during a joint press conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev last week. During the press conference, he told journalists that the agreement extending the stay of the Russian military at the Gumri base only aims "to ensure peace and stability in the Caucasus."
"This principle (of the agreement) is not new," Medvedev said. "It indicates only one thing - that the term of stay of the base has increased by a certain number of years."
In fact, the Russian base has a much more important goal in the South Caucasus than ensuring Armenian security, and it is strange that this is not understood by Yerevan.
By extending their term of stay at the base, the Russia is making it clear to the West and other states that the Caucasus cannot be used against Iran, which Moscow treats much more loyally than both Washington and the EU.
In addition, extending the lease sends another clear message to the West about Russia's expanding influence in the region and the Kremlin's growing position in an area once considered "its own backyard."
The base's long-term presence is an issue much wider than the theoretical protection of Armenia from imaginary threats. To think that all of Moscow's thoughts are concentrated on calming Yerevan is naive. The earlier Armenia forgets this foolish idea, the sooner it will be able to constructively deal with the great many problems facing the country - including conflicts with its neighbors.