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U.S. Military Exercises in Russia’s Backyard Cause Alarm at the Kremlin

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In a possible sign of the geopolitical realignment driven by Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, U.S. forces commenced on Monday 10 days of joint exercises with Armenian soldiers. About 175 Armenian soldiers will train with about 85 soldiers from U.S. Army Europe and Africa Command outside the capital of Yerevan.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Armenia has been an important security partner for Russia and houses one of a small handful of military bases the Kremlin maintains on foreign soil. The country has also remained a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a security alliance of former Soviet countries, which Moscow has developed as an answer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But Armenia has increasingly worked to shrug off Russian influence, particularly in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan directly denied a Russian announcement that the CSTO would host exercises this year in Armenia. He also refused to send troops for those exercises, which were ultimately held in Belarus earlier this month.

A senior State Department official acknowledged that the U.S. is looking to bolster its partnerships with countries that had traditionally leaned on Moscow for economic and military cooperation, although that official dismissed the notion that was the reason for the joint exercises with Armenia.

“We’re always looking for an opportunity to deepen our bilateral ties with these countries,” the official said.

Armenia has hosted NATO forces previously for training. U.S. officials said the joint exercises with Armenia had been long in the works and would be focused on peacekeeping operations.

Last week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed “alarm” over the exercises.

The exercises come amid growing regional tensions between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan as well as Yerevan’s growing frustration with Russia’s failure to enforce a 2020 cease-fire it brokered between the two countries while the Kremlin is mired in the Ukraine war.

While part of Armenia’s turn to the West reflects a generational shift of younger people who see their future tied to Europe and the U.S., it is also driven by Armenia’s frustration with Russia. It says Moscow, distracted by Ukraine, has failed to fulfill security guarantees in Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory that lies inside Azerbaijan but has been disputed, often violently, between Azerbaijan and Armenia for three decades.

The enclave, predominantly Armenian with a population of approximately 120,000, broke away from Azerbaijan in the 1990s.

After heavy fighting with Armenia in 2020, Azerbaijan has since reasserted control around the territory. At the time, Russia brokered a cease-fire, promising to stop the violence and ensure freedom of movement for both sides through the Lachin Corridor, the main road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and a critical route for the delivery of food, fuel and medicine to the enclave.

But Azerbaijan has since imposed a de-facto blockade on that corridor. Last month, the United Nations urged Azerbaijan to lift the blockade to “alleviate the suffering of thousands of people in Nagorno-Karabakh and allow for the unimpeded flow of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population.”

Azerbaijan says it is preventing the import of weapons into the territory from Armenia, a claim Armenia has denied.

Over the past week, Azerbaijan has built up troops around the enclave and on the border of Armenia, a move that Pashinyan said had aggravated the regional political and military situation.

Previously, Moscow also failed to come to Armenia’s aid in 2021 through the CSTO when the country accused Azerbaijan of advancing inside Armenian territory.

“Armenia is overly dependent on Russia and that is our biggest strategic vulnerability and our biggest mistake, something we have to change with the West and other partners,” said Areg Kochinyan, president of the Yerevan-based Research Center on Security Policy.

“It’s not just that Armenians are no longer seeing Russia as a partner, it’s that they’re starting to call it a traitor,” he added.

So far, Armenia has been careful not to provoke Russia, which invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine last year over the countries’ attempts to break out of its orbit. Nonetheless, Moscow has increasingly criticized pro-Western Armenian rhetoric and its expressions of frustration as “bordering on rudeness.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry also said last week that it summoned the Armenian ambassador to the ministry to protest increasingly anti-Russian rhetoric among Armenian officials.

As tensions rise between Russia and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, the U.S. has played an increasingly active role in the region, condemning the humanitarian crisis inside Nagorno-Karabakh and calling for Azerbaijan to reopen the Lachin Corridor.

Washington played a role in negotiating a cease-fire when hostilities flared up last year. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also held meetings with Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev this year.

The current military exercises in Armenia have raised concern in Azerbaijan that the U.S. can’t be an honest broker in its conflict with Yerevan, despite repeated efforts by Blinken, as well as European and U.N. officials, to hold talks with both sides to ease tensions.

A senior State Department official described the exercises as part of an “ongoing partnership” with Armenia and dismissed claims that they signaled any type of bias, adding that “transparency is the way to go on so many of these issues.”

Write to Vivian Salama at vivian.salama@wsj.com and Thomas Grove at thomas.grove@wsj.com

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