Armenia agrees to host Russian base through 2044

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Russia secured a long-term foothold in the energy-rich and unstable Caucasus region Friday by signing a deal with Armenia that allows a Russian military base to operate until 2044 in exchange for a promise of new weaponry and fresh security guarantees.

The 24-year extension will allow the base's fighter jets and thousands of troops to operate outside former Soviet territory, lifting a previous restriction.

The agreement could raise tensions between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan, who have clashed over Nagorno-Karabakh, a rebellious ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan's territory. Azerbaijan shares ethnic and cultural bonds and close ties with Turkey.

"The protocol doesn't just allow the Russian military base to stay in Armenia for a longer period, it also extends the sphere of its geographic and strategic responsibility," Armenian President Serge Sarkisian said after talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The deal is part of Moscow's efforts to strengthen its clout in ex-Soviet nations, which have worried many of its neighbors. Russia fought a brief August 2008 war with Georgia, which borders Armenia to the north, and tensions have remained high.

"Russia wants to underline its role as the key player in the region," Sergei Minasian, a Yerevan-based political expert, told The Associated Press.

Russia's clout on former Soviet turf, which Russian leaders have declared a privileged zone of interests, has remained limited, however.

Moscow has run into fierce economic and political disputes with its one-time closest ally, Belarus. Russian and Belarusian leaders have traded barbs and blamed one another for an increasing strain in relations.

Russia also has talked much about raising its influence in Central Asia and has grown increasingly jealous of the U.S. presence there, but it did nothing when the government of Kyrgyzstan asked Moscow to send troops to help put down deadly ethnic violence in June.

After their talks, the Russian and Armenian presidents were joined by other leaders from a Moscow-led security alliance of seven ex-Soviet nations. Medvedev said the Kyrgyzstan unrest showed that the Collective Security Treaty Organization needed to be able to respond more quickly and effectively in crisis situations. He said the treater organization leaders agreed to form a plan by the end of the year, and he recommended studying the experience of other organizations such as NATO, the EU and United Nations.

Armenia on Friday also awarded Russia with a contract to build two new reactors at a Soviet-era nuclear power plant. Construction works on the $5 billion project are expected to start next year.

Russia has maintained close ties with Armenia since the Soviet collapse, providing economic assistance to the landlocked nation, whose economy has been crippled by blockades by Azerbaijan and Turkey over the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russian already provides a security guarantee to Armenia under the CSTO, and it was not clear how the new guarantee would be different.

Russia's base in Armenia has about 5,000 troops along with MiG-29 fighter jets and S-300 air defense missiles, according to Russian and Armenian reports citing official sources.

Medvedev said the base is intended to "support peace and stability in the southern Caucasus and the entire Caucasus region."

Nagorno-Karabakh has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces since a six-year conflict ended with a 1994 truce.

Azerbaijan has often voiced concern about Russian military cooperation with Armenia.

Russia is taking part in mediation efforts on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict along with the United States and France under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but attempts to reach a settlement have failed and sporadic clashes have continued in a tense zone around the region.

"We have neither peace, nor war," Sarkisian said Friday. "It's bad that there is no peace, but at least there is no war."

Turkey and Armenia signed an agreement last October to restore diplomatic ties and reopen their shared border, but neither has ratified it.

The leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organization — which also includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Takijistan — were scheduled to continue informal talks on Saturday.


Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.