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US, Armenia hold military drills as Russia’s influence weakens in Caucasus

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WASHINGTON — The United States and Armenia kicked off combined military exercises this week designed to train Armenian troops to participate in international peacekeeping missions, Armenia’s Defense Ministry said.

The exercise, dubbed “Eagle Partner,” includes 85 US and 175 Armenian personnel and is being held over 10 days at training facilities outside the capital Yerevan.

Why it matters: Tensions between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan are soaring. Both sides have accused each other of building up troops near the disputed territory of Karabakh.

The US military training mission puts Washington’s finger on the scale as it seeks to blunt Russia’s inroads in the Caucasus and amid a wider effort for rapprochement with Turkey.

Armenia has relied on a contingent of Russian peacekeeping troops since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, but Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has accused them of failing both to protect his side against Azerbaijan’s forces and to alleviate Baku’s blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Earlier in September, Pashinyan went so far as to say his government had made a “strategic mistake” to rely on Russia for defense ties, citing Moscow’s own need for munitions amid its war in Ukraine.

Russian reaction: Moscow summoned Armenia’s ambassador Vagharshak Harutyunyan in protest on Friday. 

On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin sought to downplay the rift by emphasizing Russia’s longstanding ties with Armenia. “We have no problems with Prime Minister Pashinyan, as we communicate regularly,” he said.

Russia has remained Armenia’s largest trading partner since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Wider context: Last week, Armenia held elections in the disputed territory in a move condemned by Azerbaijan and Turkey. The United States and the European Union said they did not recognize the legitimacy of the elections.

Coinciding with the military exercises, on Sunday the Biden administration reiterated its call on Azerbaijan to open two corridors to allow humanitarian supplies to reach Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been under a crippling blockade since December.

“The use of force to resolve disputes is unacceptable,” the State Department said in a press release.

“The United States further reaffirms the only way forward is peace, dialogue, and the normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the basis of mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it read.

Armenian authorities in Karabakh announced on Saturday that one of the roads, the Lachin corridor, would be opened to allow supplies to flow from Baku, a decision confirmed by Azerbaijan.

Baku’s armed forces chief of staff visited Ankara to meet with Turkey’s new defense chief Yasar Guler on Monday.

Know more: Read Amberin Zaman’s reporting from southeastern Armenia as fears began mounting in January amid the blockade.

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