The missiles didn’t explode and were out of date, Armenia’s prime minister complained. Russians saw those as fighting words.
In a February 23 interview with local television, Pashinyan said that the Iskander missiles in Armenia’s armory – the most sophisticated weapons it possesses – were effectively duds. The Iskanders launched during the war, he said, “didn’t explode, or maybe 10 percent of them exploded.” The interviewer pressed him, asking if that was really true, and Pashinyan cryptically responded “I don’t know. … maybe they were weapons from the 80s.”
All of that was in response to an interview the week before of Pashinyan’s predecessor, Serzh Sargsyan, whom he ousted in the 2018 Velvet Revolution. The ex-president criticized Pashinyan for not using the Iskander missiles until the war was virtually lost; the interviewer was asking Pashinyan to respond to that statement.
Also, as it happens, Sargsyan was notorious for arguing following the last big conflict with Azerbaijan, 2016’s April War, that the Armenian armed forces were fighting with “weapons from the ‘80s.” Sargsyan was heavily criticized for the statement and Pashinyan, in January 2020, pointed to several new Russian weapons acquisitions and bragged that “the shameful chapter of weapons from the ‘80s is over.”
The Iskander is not from the ‘80s. It is Russia’s most advanced ballistic system, and when Armenia acquired it in 2016 it was seen as a gamechanger in its arms race with Azerbaijan. It gave Armenia, for the first time, the ability to strike Baku and the strategic oil and gas infrastructure there. Armenia is the only state other than Russia to own it.
In Russia – where arms exports are a serious business, and Russian weaponry a matter of state prestige – Pashinyan’s insult was a bigger misfire than even the Armenian Iskanders allegedly were.
The deputy head of the state Duma defense committee, Viktor Zavarzin, said that Pashinyan’s statement was an “absolute lie” and said that he was only trying to deflect blame from his own failures. The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, in a story headlined “Don’t mock our Iskanders, Mr. Pashinyan,” interviewed a senior Russian missile engineer.
“If he claims that the Russian Iskanders were ineffective, Pashinyan needs to watch his mouth,” the engineer, Vladimir Kovalev, told the newspaper. “To make such serious claims against the rocket complex and then publicly admit that he ‘doesn’t know’ the issue – it’s unworthy and even dishonorable for the prime minister of Armenia. And his claim about ‘weapons from the 80s’ is a sign of the ignorance of a dilettante. What kind of ‘weapons from the 80s’ can we be talking about if the Russian army only finished equipping itself with Iskanders only at the end of 2019? And Armenia even got some of these complexes even before we did, as allies.”
American military analyst Rob Lee, who has closely followed the conflict, said there was some merit to the criticism of Armenia’s use of the Iskanders. “The big question is why they didn’t use it earlier in the conflict,” he told Eurasianet. One obvious potential target: the bases of the Turkish Bayraktar drones which the Azerbaijani forces used to such success. “Waiting to use it on Shusha was a last-ditch effort, but it was a waste to use such a long-range system on a close target. So I think that’s why Pashinyan tried to deflect by saying they weren’t effective, to deflect blame for why he didn’t use them properly.”
In any case, it was an extraordinary own goal, given the deep dependence on Russia in which Armenia now finds itself. “Such a public stab in the back of Russia, when Armenia’s security completely depends on Russia, is baffling,” wrote analyst Hrant Mikaelian. The deputy chief of staff of the armed forces mocked Pashinyan in his own interview, was fired for it the same day, and that firing became the immediate justification for the armed forces to issue their extraordinary call for Pashinyan to step down.
Ironically, given their role in the current crisis, Armenia originally seems to have acquired the Iskanders as a Russian concession during another period of political turmoil. News about the deal first leaked during the 2016 Electric Yerevan protests, now seen as a sort of precursor to Pashinyan’s Velvet Revolution two years later.
Those protests erupted in response to a price hike by Armenia’s Russian-owned electricity company, and had taken on an anti-Russian flavor. Russia, in an attempt to prop up the government then in power, offered Yerevan a number of concessions in order to tamp down public anger, among which may have been the Iskanders. The organizers of the protests at least saw it that way: One of them called the acquisition of the missiles “a credit to the people” of Armenia. It’s the kind of language Pashinyan himself would like.