The military parade dedicated to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Armenia’s independence has put an end to three years of speculation about whether Armenia is in possession of the Russian-made advanced 9K720 Iskander Short-Range Ballistic Missile System (SRBMS). Starting with the public rehearsal on September 16, 2016, with newly procured equipment, Armenia showcased elements of the system: two transporter-erector-launchers and their transporter-loader vehicles. Subsequently, several Russian media outlets reported that Armenia had purchased at least one division, including a minimum of four launchers of the Iskander system, adding that this acquisition was outside the terms of 2015’s Armenian-Russian arms deal, which was worth $200 million. Moreover, it was officially underscored that these systems are not the same as the Iskander-M systems dispatched to Armenia in 2013 as reinforcement for Russia’s 102nd Military Base in Gyumri.
The Iskander is a mobile operative-tactical missile platform codenamed SS-26 Stone by NATO, which came to replace Soviet Scud missile prototypes. In particular, Iskander’s missiles are designed to be capable of carrying conventional or nuclear warheads, and claim to be accurate within seven meters.
Such formidable ballistic equipment has long been the focus of disputes between Western and Russian political actors and experts, especially in light of the mounting standoff between NATO and Russia.
It is believed that such a missile system enables missiles to reach their target without being detected by air-defense radar systems or missile-intercepting assets. Iskander missiles had first been deployed, temporarily, in the Kaliningrad region, to participate in military drills in relative proximity to NATO states’ borders, which reasonably triggered firm objections from the alliance. Such equipment often serves as a political instrument in Moscow’s hands, putting pressure on NATO in pursuit of derailing the alliance’s deterrent posture vis-à-vis Russia’s consistent defiance. As such, in response to NATO’s intention to boost its missile-defense capabilities by stationing the “Aegis Ashore” ballistic-missile defense shield in Romania and Poland, the Kremlin promised to deploy its Iskander-M assets in Crimea and Kaliningrad on a permanent basis by 2019.
This advanced equipment has now passed into the possession of the Armenian Armed Forces. The move is likely to invigorate a new wave of the military arms race between Yerevan and Baku, where the critical beneficiary could well be Russia. It could be argued that by dispatching Iskander missiles to Armenia, Moscow sought to achieve two central objectives. Firstly, amid growing anti-Russian sentiment in Armenian society, triggered by Moscow’s $4.5 billion military deal with Azerbaijan, Moscow has appeared to allegedly restore the power balance between the contenders. Second, while the procurement of Iskander SRBMs is set to reverse Moscow’s fading political credibility in Armenia, from Moscow’s perspective, it also paves the way for Azerbaijan and even Iran to purchase the Iskander-E missile system.
Overall, intrigue with this equipment may further complicate the politico-military image of the region as whole. Incidentally, as the parade was officially reviewed by the recently established joint Armenian-Russian land force commander, Maj. Gen. Andranik Markaryan, it conveyed the notion that the received ballistic-missile system is somehow under Russian control. It is particularly rumored that the Iskander with several S-300 surface-to-air air defense systems, combined with Russian 102nd Military Base and Armenian Fourth Army Corps, will shape the core of the joint Armenian-Russian regional army group. However, it is unlikely that the Russians would be able to keep Yerevan from utilizing its ballistic arsenal in full if its escalation with Azerbaijan reached the point of full-scale warfare.
It has been revealed that the supplied ballistic equipment belongs to an export variant of Iskander—namely Iskander-E, with a maximum engagement range of 280 kilometers instead of the classic five-hundred-kilometer Iskander-M. It definitely might have a game-changing effect in the case of a new phase of escalation.
Apart from this substantial ballistic reinforcement, the Armenian Armed Forces have already had possession of comparatively modest but operational ballistic missiles. The Armenian ballistic missile arsenal includes the short-range Soviet Tochka-U tactical operational missile complex (SS-21 Scarab B), with an operational range of 120 kilometers. Armenia owns at least eight launchers that, presumably, were supplied by Russia from 2010–12. Prior to the purchase of Iskander-E SRBMs, a major part of Armenia’s ballistic portfolio comprised the Soviet-era Elbrus tactical surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, largely known in the West as Scud-B.
Russia has decided to feed an arms race between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
As is broadly accepted by military experts and officials, the combat drones that Azerbaijan recently embarked on manufacturing pose a tangible threat to Armenian military-strategic assets, including ballistic missiles; hence the plants producing UCAVs are seen as a source of potential menace. This is in accordance with the concept of preemptive deterrence, which in turn enables Armenia to justify defensive preemptive strikes, similar to those undertaken multiple times by Israel in the twentieth century. Therefore, against the backdrop of measures applied by Baku to embolden its military advantages with regard to its opponent, the ballistic missiles in Yerevan’s hand may easily go from being deterrence tool to being preemptive strike equipment, ultimately becoming an indispensable instrument for preventive actions. A case in point: Azerbaijan’s growing military-technical potential, seeking to challenge Armenia politically and militarily. From Armenia’s perspective, the deterrence posture by no means implies the denial of using ballistic missiles in the face of an imminent (preemptive) or potential (preventive) threat. In other words, having adopted a new defense doctrine and fostered ballistic-missile capacities, it is unlikely that Armenia should stand aside as Azerbaijan launches the production of hundreds of combat UAVs, which certainly will be used during a new round of escalation if the status quo holds over Nagorno-Karabakh.
To sum up, by supplying both Armenia and Azerbaijan with advanced equipment, Moscow has sparked an arms race between the two rivals, which in turn will inevitably lead to new rounds of violence. This approach apparently allows Russia to strengthen its grip on Armenia and Azerbaijan, making them increasingly dependent in terms of arms procurement. Regardless of Russia’s efforts to restore its credibility within Armenian society and the political and military elite by using the arms delivery in its propaganda, following the April fighting and Russia’s neutral stance, Armenia turned more pragmatic in its relations with Moscow.
As for Azerbaijan, struggling with economic predicaments, Baku will be more focused on fostering technical advantages. Azerbaijan will apparently avoid large-scale military actions in the medium term, in face of substantial cuts to its military budget. Concerned that such a reality may embolden Yerevan to act more decisively, Baku will likely embrace the opportunity to eliminate Armenia’s ballistic advantages at any convenient moment. Although Baku will likely impose a more defensive, or a parallel “preemptive deterrence,” strategy vis-à-vis its opponent, its posture is likely to be generally less belligerent but at several key points more provocative.
Eduard Abrahamyan, PhD, is a defense and regional security analyst and scientific researcher at the University of Leicester, UK. His expertise is on NATO’s strategy evolution and adaptation in the Eastern Europe and Black Sea regions.
Image: 9P78-1 TEL for Iskander-M system. Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin