The U.S. and Armenian militaries began on Monday a joint military exercise in Armenia strongly criticized by Russia, the South Caucasus nation’s longtime ally.
The Eagle Partner 2023 exercise, scheduled for September 11-20, reportedly involves 85 U.S. and 175 Armenian soldiers. According to the Armenian Defense Ministry, they will simulate a joint peacekeeping operation in an imaginary conflict zone at two training grounds. One of those facilities belongs to the Armenian army’s special peacekeeping brigade.
“Exercise Eagle Partner’s opening ceremony has kicked off,” a spokesperson for U.S. Army Europe and Africa told the AFP news agency.
The Defense Ministry in Yerevan issued a statement on and photos of the ceremony later in the day. It was attended by Lieutenant-General Eduard Asrian, the chief of the Armenian army’s General Staff.
The ministry announced the drills last week amid Armenia’s unprecedented tensions with Russia. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stoked the tensions with a newspaper interview in which he declared that his government is trying to “diversify our security policy” because Armenia’s reliance on Russia for defense and security has proved a “strategic mistake.”
Russia condemned Pashinyan’s remarks. The Russian Foreign Ministry listed them and the U.S.-Armenian drills among Yerevan’s “unfriendly” actions in a note of protest handed to the Armenian ambassador in Moscow on Friday.
“I don’t think [the exercise] is good for anyone, including Armenia,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at the weekend. “Wherever the Americans showed up — you know, they have hundreds of bases around the world — it didn’t lead to anything good.”
The Armenian government did not respond to the criticism. Only one pro-government lawmaker, Gagik Melkonian, agreed on Monday to comment, saying that Lavrov “always wants to destroy our country.” Melkonian also claimed that Russian-Armenian relations have deteriorated because Yerevan is no longer willing to let Moscow “make decisions for us.”
Meanwhile, Armenian opposition parliamentarians expressed serious concern over consequences of what they see as a far-reaching reorientation of Armenian foreign policy. They said that Pashinyan is increasing Turkey’s influence in the region and thus further jeopardizing Armenia’s security.
“They are trying to turn to the West,” said Artur Khachatrian of the opposition Hayastan alliance. “But I think that when they look to the West they will see Turkey. France is not visible for Armenia. Neither is the United States. It’s Russia and Turkey that have traditionally fought for this region.”