Armenia will not host Russian-led military exercises this year, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said, contradicting Moscow's announcement a week earlier. Pashinyan also launched a sharp criticism of the Russian military presence in Armenia, saying it was more of a "threat" than protection for his country.
On January 1, the Russian Defence Ministry announced that the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led alliance, will hold a 2023 repeat of its annual flagship exercise, "Unbreakable Brotherhood," in Armenia.
This announcement came as a surprise given the rocky relationship between Yerevan and Moscow over the past year, and the CSTO in particular.
Many Armenians have found Russia's and the CSTO's actions weak in the face of Azerbaijan's attacks in recent months, including an unprecedented attack on Armenia in September 2022 and the ongoing blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh that began in December.
At a press conference on January 10, Pashinyan addressed the issue and called the Russian plans a "misunderstanding."
"I think there is a misunderstanding, as the Ministry of Defence of Armenia has already informed the CSTO joint staff in writing that conducting exercises in Armenia in the current situation would be inappropriate," he said. "These exercises in Armenia, at least this year, will not take place."
Russia was in the process of "clarifying" the announcement, said Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that Peskov said this was a new announcement, that Armenia was a "close ally" of Russia and that dialogue would continue.
The CSTO had received Armenia's notification and was working on plans to conduct the exercise in another country, Russian news agency TASS reported.
An Armenian source, who spoke to Evangelos D. Kokkinos of Penta Postagma on the condition of anonymity, commented on Yerevan's refusal to hold CSTO exercises in Armenia, pointing out that this "is not surprising, as Russia has failed in both its multilateral and bilateral obligations to of Armenia."
"First of all, Russia is the mediator and co-signatory of the cease-fire declaration of November 9, 2020. Immediately after the signing, Azerbaijan flagrantly violated the declaration, initially advancing and seizing territory in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, 2021 and 2022, as well as more recently by simply blockading the Lachin Corridor. Russian peacekeepers, who are supposed to rule out such escalations, were spectators," explained the source, who has knowledge of the situation.
“Secondly, Armenia and Russia bilaterally, as well as within the CSTO, have an agreement on the mutual defence of territorial integrity. Azerbaijan has flagrantly violated the territorial integrity of Armenia since September 2022 and again we see no concrete steps from Russia to ease or resolve this issue. What was even more disturbing, in the UN Security Council, most members, unlike Russia, recognised the occupation of Armenian territory," the source stressed.
Pashinyan has been increasingly critical of the CSTO, an organisation that also includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
At a organisation's summit in November, which happened to take place in Yerevan, the Armenian leader vetoed a statement on the recent escalation between his country and Azerbaijan because it did not directly condemn Azerbaijan's attacks.
In his New Year's address to the nation, he made a strong reference to the CSTO, saying that Azerbaijan's attacks were "doubly painful because our allies have left us alone, preferring to remain in a passive observer status rather than offering active observer status as an alternative."
CSTO did send a small monitoring mission to Armenia after the September attacks and has offered some forms of aid.
At the press conference, Pashinyan was asked about Armenia's withdrawal from the CSTO and responded: “Can we say that Armenia will withdraw from the CSTO? Maybe CSTO will leave Armenia? Does this whole situation [in the region] suggest that the CSTO intends to leave Armenia?"
Even without an official break with Russia, Armenia has noticeably accelerated its contacts with European countries and the United States. The rejection of the CSTO exercise is perhaps the strongest shot against Russia's influence in the country.
The announcement was accompanied by sweeping criticism of the Russian military presence in the country. According to EurasiaNet, several thousand Russian troops are stationed at a base in Gyumri, near the Turkish border.
"Recently Azerbaijan, in its contacts with Western partners, has been justifying its aggressive actions with the fear that Armenia and Russia are preparing joint aggressive actions against Azerbaijan and that [Baku] is taking preventive measures," Pashinyan said an interview.
While he said those claims were "preposterous," he added that they had some resonance with Western officials in the context of Russia's war in Ukraine.
"We draw the attention of our Russian colleagues to the fact that when they remain silent it means that Russia's military presence in Armenia does not guarantee the security of the republic, but the opposite: it creates a threat to the security of Armenia," he said.
READ MORE: Turkish analyst: "Let's send the TCG ANADOLU aircraft carrier between Crete and Rhodes."