YEREVAN — More than 1,500 Armenian and Russian soldiers began annual joint military exercises in central Armenia on Wednesday, highlighting close military ties between their countries.

The five-day “tactical exercises” involve troops from the Armenian army and the Russian military base, headquartered in Gyumri, that are part of a Russian-Armenian “united grouping.” Its Armenian commander, General Mikael Grigorian, is presiding over the drills, along with the Russian base chief, Colonel Andrey Ruzinsky.

A statement by Russia’s Southern Military District stated that the participating troops will simulate defensive and counteroffensive operations against an “imaginary adversary” at a shooting ground in the Aragatsotn province. It’s said they are backed up by around 300 artillery systems, tanks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles, as well as recently modernized Russian MiG-29 fighter jets.

The Armenian Defense Ministry did not issue written statements on the war games. The ministry spokesman, Artsrun Hovannisian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that they were planned in advance and are not connected with a recent upsurge in fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh or other international crises.

The Russian base’s aviation unit, stationed in Yerevan, is believed to have at least 16 MiG-29 jets. Their electronic targeting and navigation systems have been upgraded over the past year, as part of a broader reinforcement of the Russian military presence in Armenia. The Russian military also plans to deploy about two dozen combat helicopters there, by the end of this year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin underscored the base’s significance to Moscow, when he toured its Gyumri headquarters at the start of a state visit to Armenia last December.

Colonel Ruzinsky caused a stir earlier in 2013, when he said that his forces reportedly numbering between 4,000 and 5,000 soldiers would fight on the Armenian side, should Azerbaijan try to reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding lands. The statement triggered protests from Baku.

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