Russia extends military presence in Armenia
Armenia and Russia signed a deal Friday extending the Russian military presence in the ex-Soviet republic by decades, strengthening Moscow's military clout in the strategic South Caucasus region.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian signed the deal in Yerevan during a visit by the Russian leader.
The deal will see Moscow extend its lease on a military base in Armenia from 2020 to 2044 and upgrade the mission of the estimated 3,000 Russian troops stationed there to include providing for Armenia's security.
It also calls for Russia to assist Armenia in securing arms and modern military equipment.
Medvedev used the signing of the deal to signal that Russia still considers itself the leading power in the region.
"Russia's task as the largest and most powerful state in the region... consists of maintaining peace and order," he said.
Asked if Russia would intervene in a conflict involving Armenia, Medvedev said: "Russia takes its obligations to its allies very seriously."
Sarkisian said the new agreement boosted Russia's military role in the region.
"Russia has taken on the obligation to jointly guarantee the military security of the republic of Armenia and to accordingly equip our armed forces with modern weaponry," Sarkisian said.
The deal "not only prolongs the presence of the Russian base in Armenia, but also expands the sphere of its geographic and strategic responsibility," Sarkisian said.
The agreement is likely to raise alarm bells in neighbouring Azerbaijan, which is locked in a long-simmering conflict with Yerevan over the breakaway Nagorny Karabakh region, and in Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia two years ago.
Armenian officials have said the deal will deter Azerbaijan from launching a new conflict over Karabakh. But analysts have said it is unclear whether Russia would intervene in a new war in the region, since the conflict would likely unfold in Karabakh and surrounding territories that are not part of Armenia.
Tensions remain high over Karabakh, where ethnic Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan broke from Baku's control during a war in the early 1990s that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives.
At least 10 Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers have been killed in skirmishes over the region this year.
Azerbaijan has repeatedly threatened to retake the region by force and in recent years has more than doubled its defence spending.
© 2010 AFP