YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Armenian army commandos are due to parachute onto the North Pole for the first time ever during their participation in Russian-led military exercises that are currently held in the Arctic.
The Armenian military said this week that members of its “special mission unit” are taking part in the three-week exercises launched by Russian airborne forces on Monday. It did not specify the number of Armenian soldiers involved in the drills.
The Russian Defense Ministry announced in January that paratroopers from Russia and ex-Soviet states aligned in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) will parachute onto a drifting ice floe near the North Pole in April. It said their joint drills slated for April are aimed at improving their ability to carry out “rescue and evacuation tasks in extreme conditions.”
Armenia’s Defense Ministry made no mention of the CSTO in a statement on the drills described by it as “humanitarian.” It said Armenian participation in them is envisaged a 2016 plan of joint activities drawn up by the Russian an Armenian militaries.
Russia has been steadily increasing its military presence in the Arctic in what analysts sees as an effort to stake claim to more of the region’s vast hydrocarbon and mineral wealth, increasingly accessible due to the receding ice caps.
More than 1,000 Russian soldiers and 14 aircraft held exercises in the area in August 2015. Vladimir Korolyov, the commander of the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet, said at the time that the war games are aimed at “increasing the security of the Russian Arctic, ensuring our state’s economic freedom in this region, and protecting our territory and targets from potential military threats.”
Armenia maintains close military ties with Russia both on a bilateral basis and within the framework of the CSTO. It hosts more than 4,000 Russian troops on its territory as part of that military alliance.
The strong reliance on Moscow for defense and security has not kept Yerevan from deepening ties with NATO over the past decade. Armenia contributes troops to ongoing NATO-led missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo and regularly participates in NATO exercises. Earlier this week, for example, a 32-strong unit of Armenian military medics flew to Germany to participate in multinational drills organized by the U.S. Army in Europe.