The arrival of 85 U.S. soldiers for a training mission in Armenia has sparked a strong negative reaction from the Russian government, which has long had a military alliance with that country through its Collective Security Treaty Organization.
The U.S. personnel are in Armenia for an exercise called Eagle Partner, during which they will train with 175 members of the Armenian 12th Peacekeeping Brigade. The objective is to prepare the Armenian soldiers for an assessment later this year of their ability to conform to NATO standards if deployed as peacekeepers.
The 10-day exercise will take place at training grounds near the Armenian capital, Yerevan. The American forces include members of both the 101st Airborne Division and the Kansas National Guard.
The arrival of U.S. troops in Armenia comes at a time when tensions are high in the region.
Armenia and Azerbaijan, its neighbor to the east, have fought two wars in the past several decades over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is within the current internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan, but which has a large Armenian population.
The most recent conflict took place in 2020, and was ended by a peace brokered by Russia, which required Armenia to return land it had previously seized from Azerbaijan. Despite the turnover, a large portion of Nagorno-Karabakh remains under the control of a breakaway ethnic Armenian government.
The cease-fire included the installation of 2,000 Russian troops in an area known as the Lachin corridor, which connects Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. The presence of Russian troops in the corridor was supposed to allow people in Nagorno-Karabakh access to Armenia, as well as keeping open a supply line to the outside world.
Last December, though, the Azerbaijani government closed the roads, severing the supply route and creating what Armenia describes as a humanitarian crisis in the region. With many aid convoys effectively barred from entering the region, Russian peacekeepers have not intervened, angering the Armenian government.
Azerbaijan has denied it is purposefully cutting off supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh, claiming that aid caravans have been carrying contraband and are meant as a 'provocation.'
Fraying ties with Russia
Last week, with the arrival of American troops looming, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan criticized Russia in an interview with an Italian newspaper, saying Moscow had failed to assure Armenia's security. He accused the Russian government of stepping away from its responsibilities in the South Caucasus region.
'Armenia's security architecture was 99.999% linked to Russia, including when it came to the procurement of arms and ammunition,' Pashinyan told the newspaper La Repubblica. 'But today, we see that Russia itself is in need of weapons, arms and ammunition. And in this situation, it's understandable that even if it wishes so, the Russian Federation cannot meet Armenia's security needs.'
Pashinyan added, 'This example should demonstrate to us that dependence on just one partner in security matters is a strategic mistake.'
Following Pashinyan's comments, his government also took steps toward ratifying the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, a body that indicted Russian President Vladimir Putin on war crimes charges over actions taken during his country's invasion of Ukraine.
The ICC was established in 2022, after being ratified by 60 countries. Since then, dozens of other countries have also ratified or acceded to the treaty on a rolling basis. If Armenia were to join, it would be the 124th country to join.
In addition, the prime minister's wife visited the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, as part of an aid mission.
The Russian government summoned Armenia's ambassador to the Kremlin to 'strongly protest' the prime minister's comments and his government's action.
In a statement Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, 'The Armenian leadership has taken a series of unfriendly steps in recent days, including the launch of the process of ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the trip of the prime minister's wife Anna Hakobyan to Kiev to deliver humanitarian aid to the Nazi regime, and the holding of military exercises on Armenian territory with the participation of the United States.'
In comments Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov followed up by saying that it looks 'strange' for Armenia to be hosting U.S. troops when for the past two years, it has declined to participate in drills with the five other members of Collective Security Treaty Organization.
'I do not believe it will be any good for anyone, including Armenia itself,' Lavrov said during a news briefing on Sunday. 'Wherever the Americans arrive, it always means trouble.'
On Monday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin is in the process of trying to 'make sense' of Armenia's actions.
'Against the backdrop of Armenia's reluctance to hold drills with the CSTO and its latest plan to host a joint exercise with the United States, for us, perhaps, these are decisions that will require our thorough analysis in order to understand why Armenia has decided to do this and what its goals are here,' Peskov said.
Concerns about conflict
Pashinyan's government has also warned that Azerbaijani troops are massing on Armenia's borders - which Azerbaijan denies - and has been seeking international assistance in an effort to reopen a dialogue between the two countries.
In recent days, Pashinyan has reached out to the leaders of multiple Western countries, including the United States, France and Germany, seeking assistance in brokering an agreement with Azerbaijan.
On Monday, Pashinyan spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdigan, a close ally of Azerbaijan. Media reports suggested that the two had discussed ways of reducing tension in the region. The day before, Erdogan had denounced an election held by the separatist government in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The U.S. Army characterized the Eagle Partner operation as a normal training exercise - one that expanded on a longstanding relationship the Armenian military has had with the Kansas National Guard.
'Eagle Partner is a vital opportunity for our soldiers from our two nations to build new relationships at the tactical level and to increase interoperability for peacekeeping operations,' Colonel Martin O'Donnell, a spokesperson for U.S. Army Europe and Africa, said in a statement. 'It also builds upon the 20-year relationship that the Kansas National Guard has cultivated with Armenia.'