Armenia's announcement this month that it was tripling its troop commitment to Afghanistan raised some eyebrows. It has no NATO aspirations, and has largely thrown in its strategic lot with Russia, as evidenced by the agreement it recently signed allowing a large, decades-long Russian military presence in the country.
But the newest trend in Eurasian geopolitics is multi-vectored foreign policy (i.e., trying to balance relations between various big powers rather than becoming dependent on a single one), pioneered by Kazakhstan but now increasingly deliberately employed across the region. And that means that even faithfully pro-Moscow states like Armenia have to hedge their bets a little. Thus, Armenia's contribution of two extra platoons (81 soldiers) to help guard the airport in Mazar-e-Sharif, bringing its troop contribution to a total of about 130. As Deputy Defense Minister David Tonoyan told Mediamax:
First of all, this step is based on Armenia's interests in accordance with the multi-layer and initiative foreign policy of our country, and demonstrates our particular place in the world order after the "cold war".
And he played down suggestions that cooperating with NATO in Afghanistan was somehow incompatible with Armenia's membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, emphasizing the CSTO's cooperation with ISAF in Afghanistan:
Participation of the active CSTO member - Armenia - in ISAF Mission strengthens our country's relations with the North-Atlantic Alliance and EU member countries, and this is based on common interests of both our country and the international community. These interests are obvious, taking into account the assistance, rendered by CSTO-allied and our strategic partner Russia to NATO in provision of transit across its territory to Afghanistan for the transportation of and resupply for Alliance troops.
The role of infrastructural and logistic support, provided by CSTO member countries - Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is also great in terms of ensuring ISAF Mission's success. In this context, it is difficult to assess whose contribution from CSTO countries is of more importance; however it is obvious that CSTO plays a significant role in provision of security and stability in Afghanistan.
Emil Danielyan, writing in Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor, says that while the move is surprising, Russia isn't objecting too much -- probably because it understands that Armenia's commitment to NATO is modest and does not threaten its ties with Moscow:
The Armenian government’s decision was rather unexpected against the backdrop of a new Russian-Armenian military agreement signed during President Dmitry Medvedev’s August 2010 visit to Yerevan. The agreement prolonged the presence of a Russian military base in Armenia by 25 years—until 2044—and upgraded its security mission. It also committed Russia to supply the Armenian military with more modern weaponry.
By boosting its military commitments in Afghanistan, Yerevan is signaling that the new defense pact with Moscow will not hold it back from seeking closer military cooperation with Western powers, which has deepened significantly over the past decade. Armenia participated in the U.S.-led occupation force in Iraq with a small army contingent, and currently has about 80 soldiers serving in Kosovo under NATO command...
Still, Moscow has never publicly faulted Yerevan, suggesting that it does not yet consider the growing Armenia-NATO ties a cause for serious concern. According to Anatoly Tsyganok, a Russian defense analyst, the Kremlin “does not quite like” them but at the same time “understands the difficult situation Armenia is in. Russia will not insist that the Armenian armed forces stop cooperating with NATO,” Tsyganok was quoted by Regnum as saying on May 13.
Furthermore, there are reasons beyond geopolitics for the deployment. Forces that take part in missions like this gain valuable practical experience, something that the CSTO can't really offer. Tonoyan again:
[I]n terms of experience exchange, due to participation of Armenian military in ISAF, our units familiarize on the spot with Western military art and military culture, employ in combat the most advanced armament, military equipment and high technologies, supplied by the German side, adopt new tactics. All this is of highest value in terms of our defence reforms and development of the Armenian Armed Forces. This is not only participation in multi-national operations, but also an intensive training and education for our peacekeepers.
However, no comment yet from the Taliban, which responded strongly to Kazakhstan's announced deployment, which turned out to be all of four soldiers. Perhaps, as the first country ever to adopt Christianity, the Taliban considers Armenia a lost cause.