Why we should take Armenia’s statement on building nuclear weapons seriously (OPINION)

The USA Tribune has published an article entitled “Why we should take Armenia’s statement on building nuclear weapons seriously”.

News.Az presents the article.

In late 2020, Armenia, one of three South Caucasian states, sustained a humiliating defeat in a 44-day with Azerbaijan. Financed by petrodollars, generated by lucrative energy projects, in the last two decades Azerbaijan beefed up its military, its servicemen received training in the U.S., Russia and Turkish military schools, diversified its procurement portfolio by buying from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Pakistan, Turkey and Israel, and its domestic military production produced sophisticated equipment to fight a 21st century war. 

Armenia, on the other hand, heavily relied on Russia’s military and political assistance to guard its borders and defend its interests in South Caucasus, effectively making Yerevan a proxy of Kremlin.

Armenia’s overreliance on Russia is what sadly led to the resumption of hostilities in Nagorno Karabakh in 2020 and a near collapse of the Armenian government in Armenia proper in 2021. To win the war, Azerbaijan extensively used Turkish-made TB2 Bayraktar and Israeli-made Harop drones, on par with other high-precision weaponry like the Israeli-made Spike and Turkish-made Aselsan missiles. This technology allowed Baku to strike vital chokepoints of Armenian military in the first days of the conflict, sending Armenian army into total chaos. 

By the end of the armed conflict which ended with Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement on November 9, 2020 Azerbaijan secured strategic heights all around the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, reclaimed Shusha, which is of moral and cultural significance to Azeris, Hadrut, Fizuli, Jabrayil, Gubadli and Zangelan and parts of Agdere. With the deal, signed by Russian, Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders, Armenia also ceded Kalbajar, Agdam and Lachin districts which were returned to Azerbaijan without a single bullet fired. 

Following the conflict, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan faced harsh criticism for inability to handle the war and failure to secure Armenian interests which led to weeks of public unrest in Yerevan and other cities, which continue to this day. Bodies of Armenian servicemen missing in action, continue to be delivered to Armenia months after the war ended. The official number has gone over 5 thousand, although Armenian commentators put the unofficial count at 10 thousand. According to many estimates, Azerbaijan destroyed about 80% of Armenia’s military equipment, including the ones delivered to Armenia from Russia in July and August 2020 in anticipation of hostilities. 

One thing the members of opposition parties keep asking PM Pashinyan is why in the two years of his reign the leader of the Armenian people failed to equip the army with sophisticated weaponry to withstand Azerbaijan’s attack. Armenia was unable to use any drones or to fight them effectively thereby leading to the crushing defeat of the Armenian army deployed to Azerbaijani territories.  

Although Armenian officials and the public continue to take revanchist stance on Nagorno Karabakh conflict and express their willingness to strike Azerbaijan when the time comes, it is highly unlikely that Armenia — which has no natural resources of its own – will be able to fight another war with highly professional, larger and better equipped Azerbaijani army in the next 50 years. 

Without too much to hope for, many Armenian officials began to speak about building and using nuclear arsenal against a more powerful Azerbaijan.

Case in point, the speech of Andranik Kocharyan, the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Defense and Security of the National Assembly of Armenia and an MP of the ruling bloc “My Step” on February 1, in which he stated that Armenia needs to build a nuclear bomb. Calls for building a nuke in Armenia are not new, as Armenian officials have always seen resorting to development of nuclear arsenal as something that would deter Turkey and Azerbaijan from an attack. 

Earlier in January, during a meeting of the parliamentary Committee on Regional Affairs and Eurasian Integration, Hakob Vardanyan, Deputy Minister of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure said that the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant produced a significant amount of radioactive waste during its operation, as well as radioactive fuel that is not classified as “industrial waste” and that it could probably be used for military purposes. 

Despite being party in ruins, Armenian military still possesses Iskander ballistic missiles which, according to many accounts, were used both during the armed conflict against the civilian infrastructure in Ganja, Azerbaijan in October and in a final strike in the town of Khirdalan in the vicinity of Baku on November 9. 

With Iskanders which have a range of 300-500 miles, Armenian military would be able to use the nuclear warheads to strike targets within Azerbaijan, if needed. At least, that seems to be a scenario in the minds and hearts of Armenians officials who continue to speak about production of nuclear weapons in Armenia. 

This is, in fact, a reiteration of Armenia’s designs to use nuclear weapons for a wholesale solution of Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Now that Azerbaijan secured its territorial gains by liberating its internationally recognized territories and self-enforcing UN Security Council resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 844, thereby effectively eliminating the existence of the unrecognized “Arsakh Republic”, Armenia’s only military solution seems to lie in building a nuclear bomb to be used against Azerbaijan or to gain talking point its negotiations with Baku. 

Yet, the problem is that, the international community which is committed to stopping any country from building nukes, including the Iranian nuclear program, is unlikely to support any overtures by Yerevan, regardless how strong the Armenian diaspora is in the Western world. 

Still, Yerevan may not be the sole voice in promoting development of nuclear weapons in Armenia. It is likely that Armenians are simply messengers of Moscow which by now had to concede to Turkey in three conflict areas, including Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan, all but largely thanks to Turkish Bayraktar drones. Unlike Syria and Libya, South Caucasus is actually close to home, and the foundation of Russian statehood, if you will. 

For nearly 300 years, Russian tsars regarded South Caucasus as an indispensable border to guard against intrusion of Turkic and Persian invaders into Russia proper. That’s exactly why upon conquering the region in the 19th century, Russia created an “Armenian oblast” and relocated thousands upon thousands Armenians to the highlands and to this day, is a guarantor of Armenia’s security.

According to a bilateral agreement, Russia has two military bases in Armenia, including the 102nd military base with up to 5,000 Russian servicemen in Gyumri and a Russian airbase in Erebuni airport just outside of Yerevan. That’s why it is important for Russia to maintain the status quo and keep Turkey at bay at all costs. Turkey’s entry to South Caucasus is not a welcome sign, although to save face, Russian President Vladimir Putin acts as if Kremlin happily engages their Turkish partners. 

Four years ago, Russia played a crucial role in stopping the Azerbaijani offensive during the so-called Four Day War in April 2016. Although more than 200 died on both sides, Armenia was the side that lost territory it had conquered in 1990s. That’s when Armenian official began discussing using “dirty bombs”. 

Immediately after the war, reports of Armenia’s involvement in nuclear proliferation resurfaced. On April 18, Georgian intelligence detained several Armenian nationals attempting to sell $200-million-worth of weapons-grade U-238 used to produce homemade nuclear device also called “dirty bomb”. 

According to Jerusalem Post, on April 29 Armenian MP Hrant Bagratyan went to the full extent of admitting that Armenia now has “the ability to create nuclear weapons” and bragging that “we have nuclear weapons.” 

This statement alone from a spokesperson of Serzh Sargsyan government reaffirmed fears of Armenia engaging in nuclear proliferation. In the last several years, Armenia had repeatedly threatened to launch “preemptive strikes” and “cause irreversible damage” to Azerbaijan, including striking oil and gas infrastructure in the country operated by Western companies.

Even without Armenia developing nuclear weapons, its decrepit Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant is a danger to the region and itself. The plant was constructed with two VVER-440 Model V230 nuclear reactors. The European Union (EU) had classified the VVER 440 Model V230 light water-cooled reactors as the “oldest and least reliable” category of all the 66 Soviet reactors built in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The design of the Metsamor plant is much the same as those which the European Union insisted on being shut down before Bulgaria and Slovakia joined the EU.

Metsamor is located in the area which has 11-magnitude earthquake risk. It was built to withstand only 9-magnitude earthquake. After the devastating earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the authorities decided to close it, which is a proof that even the Armenian leadership in that period realized the threat of Metsamor in case of force majeure and natural cataclysms. 

The October 22, 2011 earthquake in eastern Turkey was felt in Yerevan and Metsamor, Armenia, and panic ensued. This is just another reminder of how dangerous the area is and that urgent action is needed. 

Hakob Sanasaryan, an Armenian chemist and environmentalist campaigner and head of the Green Union of Armenia, claimed in 2003 that the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant did not meet internationally accepted nuclear safety standards, due to the lack of a containment vessel. Since it does not have a protecting layer, it would not absorb exhausted dangerous elements in case of an accident. Former Austrian Foreign Minister Hans Winkler said back then that technologies of the Armenian nuclear plant are outdated and not compliant with European security standards. 

In addition, Georgian physicist Mikhail Kaviladze said that this station is old and the risk of failure is high. Its location is also a shortage in terms of safety. As the station is in the mountains, problem may appear with water supply for the emergency cooling of the active zone of the reactor.

Although the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) documents expressed concerns more than once, that this station situated in the seismically active zone is a source of serious danger for all of the Caucasus region (Doc. 9148 of 27/06/01; Doc. 9336 of 31/01/02; Doc. 9444 of 07/05/02) unfortunately, the plant is still operational. Also, the existence of the nuclear plant in Armenia breeds nuclear smuggling and terrorist operations, exemplified by numerous U.S. government sanctions against Armenian companies and individuals, as well as arrests of Armenian nationals trying to sell nuclear technologies on the Georgian border as seen in the aforementioned case in 2016.

The international community must not neglect statements coming from Armenian officials and condemn and even warn Yerevan of repercussions of attempting to build ‘dirty bombs’ or nuclear bombs, even to deter any military action from its neighbors.

Any plans to develop nuclear bombs in the region would certainly lead to an arms race and impel both Turkey and Azerbaijan to launch their own programs, a prospect which would not be liked in Europe, or Russia, for that matter.

News.Az 

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