France sends weapons to Armenia amid fears of new conflict with Azerbaijan. #Politico
Tuesday, 24 October, 2023, 10:30
France is selling military equipment such as air defense systems to Armenia, the French government said Monday, as fears grow that Azerbaijan could follow up its seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh last month with assaults on its neighbor's territory.
The announcement on French arms comes just a month after Azerbaijan declared victory following a lightning military offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh, forcing more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians living in the breakaway region to flee their homes.
The concern — as raised by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken — is that may not be the end of Azerbaijan's regional ambitions, and all eyes are now on the Zangezur corridor, a tract of land running along Armenia's border with Iran. The danger is that another move by Baku's forces could inflame a broader conflict in the Southern Caucasus — an area where Turkey, Russia and Iran all have core strategic interests.
France, the country with Europe's largest Armenian diaspora community, made clear it was not going to sit on the sidelines.
"Even if we are not part of the same military and political alliances, we assume this defense relationship, which is based on the simple principle that you need to be able to defend yourself and your civilian population," French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu told his Armenian counterpart Suren Papikyan at a press conference.
Increasing political support from the West comes as Armenia works to distance itself from Russia. Despite being a member of the Moscow-led CSTO military bloc, the country's calls for help from Russian President Vladimir Putin in the conflict against Azerbaijan have fallen on deaf ears, and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told Politico last month that it was time to stop relying on Russia for protection.
Paris started stepping up defense cooperation with Yerevan in September last year, but Azerbaijan's offensive has accelerated France's willingness to deepen military ties. Last month, France dispatched a military attaché to the French embassy in the Armenian capital.
On Monday, Armenia signed a contract to buy three Ground Master 200 radars manufactured by Thales — the same as delivered to Ukraine to fend off Russia's aggression — and another one with Safran for equipment including binoculars and sensors. Armenia and France also signed a letter of intent to kick off a process to purchase Mistral air defense systems made by MBDA.
In the coming months, the French government will send a French military official to act as a defense consultant for the Armenian executive branch on issues such as armed forces training, Lecornu said. France will also train Armenian soldiers and help Yerevan audit Armenia's air defense to identify blind spots.
"As often in the difficult times of the Armenian people, in this complex political and military situation, France and the French people are at our side, and for that I thank you infinitely," Papikyan said.
The meeting between the French and Armenian defense ministers comes on the same day as Azerbaijan kicked off major military exercises in Nagorno-Karabakh and close to the border with Iran, training alongside troops from its close ally, Turkey.
At the same time, Russian, Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers met with their Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts in Tehran for talks on avoiding a renewed conflict. According to Iran’s state news agency, the format was designed to avoid “the interference of non-regional and Western countries."
There are fears in Armenia that Azerbaijan could push across the internationally recognized border and seize the southern region of Syunik, which Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has previously said should host a “corridor” connecting his country to its exclave of Nakhchivan, which is split from the rest of Azerbaijan by Armenian territory.
Weeks after Azerbaijan's attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, Blinken informed U.S. lawmakers that Washington was tracking the possibility of a full-blown invasion of Armenia. Azerbaijan denies it has any such plans.
"The fact Armenia is investing so much of the budget into defense and defense procurement shows how seriously it's taking the threats — over a year it has virtually doubled,” said Leonid Nersisyan, a defense analyst with Armenia's Applied Policy Research Institute. “In 2022, the spending was around $700-$800 million, and now in 2024 it's going to be $1.4 or $1.5 billion. There's already a billion dollars of defense contracts with India, and there could be hundreds of millions of dollars with France too."
Earlier this month, Aliyev accused Paris of inflaming tensions, using a call with European Council President Charles Michel to warn that “the provision of weapons by France to Armenia was an approach that was not serving peace, but one intended to inflate a new conflict.”
Aliyev and senior Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly accused France of “neocolonialism,” while Baku has even established a working group tasked with “the complete elimination” of what it slams as France's imperial ambitions.
On Monday, Lecornu pushed back against accusations that French weapons could be used to start a war. "Good luck explaining that the weapons [we're selling] have an aggressive version. These are weapons systems which, by their very nature, can only be deployed in the event of aggression on Armenian territory," he said.
"No one can blame a sovereign state for protecting its skies and the population living underneath," he added.
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