Author: Shota Utiashvili, Senior-Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
On October 12, 2016, the Parliament of Armenia ratified the Armenian-Russian agreement on establishing a common air defense space in the Caucasus. President Putin asked the Russian Parliament to follow suit.
The Agreement establishes a unified system, allowing the sides to exchange information in real time and use each-others capabilities when necessary. “Armenia will be able to use Russian radars, S300 air defense systems, three squadrons of MIG29 fighters deployed in Armenia, etc.,” said the Minister of Defense of Armenia. The Agreement does not cover the airspace of Nagorno-Karabakh, and it remains Armenia’s responsibility to defend that area.
Russia has already established similar joint systems with Belarus and some Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kirgizstan). These agreements allow Russia to expand its air defense perimeter further from its national borders.
Unlike Kazakhstan or Belarus, Russia has no common border with Armenia: Georgia is between the two. Most of western Georgia’s airspace is controlled by an S300 system deployed by Russia in Abkhazia in 2010. The Giumri Military Base, which hosts another S300 system, deployed in Armenia, is only 40 km away from the Georgian border. The two will allow Russia to control most of Georgia’s airspace.
On November 30, 2016, Russia and Armenia signed another military agreement, this time on creating a joint Russian-Armenian task force. The joint task force (JTF) is set up to repel aggression on any state party as well as to facilitate the defense of the land borders of Armenia. In peacetime, the JTF is led by an officer from the Armenian General Staff. During war, however, command may be transferred to Russia’s southern military command located in Rostov-on-Don.
The text of the agreement has never been made public, but both Russian and Armenian commentators stress that, if attacked, Armenia will be defended by the full force of the Southern Military District, including Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Caspian Flotilla, Land and Air forces. The duration of the Agreement is five years. Russia has a similar agreement with Belarus.
As for Nagorno-Karabakh, again, its defense is solely Armenia’s responsibility. Russia is also obliged to provide Armenia with military supplies at domestic prices. There are about 250 Armenian future officers studying in the Russian military school, the same number as in both Armenian military academies.
The JTF was first set up in 2000 and comprised servicemen of the Russian 102nd (Giumri) Military Base, and Armenia’s 5th Corps. The 102nd Military Base is armed with 100 T72 tanks, 150 BMP2/BTR70/80 armored vehicles, BM21 GRAD and BM30 SMERCH multiple rocket launchers, MI24 attack helicopters, and more.
In September 2016, during a military parade in honor of the 25th anniversary of its independence, Armenia demonstrated elements of the Iskander missile system. After years of speculation, it was proof that Yerevan now has Russia’s most advanced short-range ballistic missile (the INF treaty prohibits US and Russia possessing missiles of a 500-5500 kilometer range). It is also believed that the Russian military base in Giumri also possesses these missiles.
Interestingly, after the end of the Cold War, it was in Kaliningrad that this combination of advanced air defense system and Iskander missiles was first deployed, and it immediately triggered deep concern in NATO. NATO analysts concluded that Russia was employing the Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) tactic. Air defense and anti-ship missiles, in addition to the ballistic missiles deployed in Kaliningrad, were meant to prevent or at least limit NATO’s ability to send additional forces for the defense of the Baltic countries if they were attacked or threatened by Russia. S300, and its modernized version S400, can detect and destroy enemy airplanes within up to a 400km radius. RAND Corporation analysts concluded that, if unaided, Lithuania or Estonia could resist full scale Russian aggression only for 36 to 60 hours.
Russia employed the A2AD tactic effectively in Syria. Although no Western planes were targeted, Turkey had to stop using its Air Force in Syria after its relations with Russia deteriorated seriously following the shooting down of a Russian military jet.
The next location where Russia is considering deploying Iskander missiles, together with an advanced air defense system, is Crimea.
In general, if you look at the places where Russia is deploying S300/400 in combination with an Iskander missile system, one can see that Moscow is doing so in the areas where the chances of an escalation of confrontation with NATO is the highest. Its logic is clear: these weapons would make it much harder for NATO to deploy its air and sea power. Obviously, air and sea power are the backbone of NATO’s military prowess.
As for the South Caucasus, Russian strategists should remember the impact the US military transport planes had when they landed in Tbilisi airport during the August War of 2008. The Kremlin’s goal is apparently to address this “shortcoming” and prevent NATO ships or planes from reaching Georgia in case of war.
Theoritically, there are countermeasures NATO can employ against the Russian A2AD tactic. It can build land-based military bases in the areas which Russia is trying to seal off, or it can develop more advanced missiles that can penetrate Russian air and missile defenses. However, using such tactics would mean a significant raising of the stakes by NATO allies.
It seems that deploying Iskander missiles and an advanced air defense system is aimed at preventing access for NATO in and around Georgia, rather than at putting pressure on Turkey or Azerbaijan.
Russia knows only too well that there is no consensus in the Alliance about Georgia’s membership. The extreme difficulty of defending Georgia militarily is the key argument of the sceptics. By creating a restricted access zone in Georgia for NATO’s ships and planes, Russia strenghtens sceptics’ arguments and aims to delay Georgia’s progress towards NATO even further.