People examine a T-72 tank installed in the War Trophy Park in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Saturday. In 1992, Armenians had installed the tank at the entrance to the city of Shusha as a symbol of their victory in the first Karabakh war. Photo by Roman Ismayilov/EPA-EFE
Sept. 23 (UPI) -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, raced Saturday to discuss their relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have been engaged in recent conflict.
Lavrov, who engaged in a lengthy question-and-answer session with reporters Saturday, was asked if Russia believes its influence is waning in former Soviet states after an outburst of anti-Russia protests in Armenia's capital Yerevan.
Azerbaijan launched a new offensive Tuesday against Armenian separatists amid a decades-long territorial dispute between the countries over the ethnic Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenians largely blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for losing a 44-day war in 2020 when Azerbaijan regained control of land in and around Nagorno-Karabakh and blocked its main supply route to Armenia.
The sentiment was shared this week by Alen Simonyan, the head of Armenia's parliament.
"It is not up to me to judge. It would be very arrogant for me to say that our influence is increasing or if it remains the same. It is up for you to decide," Lavrov began. "Many things are becoming clear right in front of our eyes right now."
Lavrov claimed that non-governmental organizations backed by Western states are in Armenia and other former Soviet nations "advancing the interests of the United States and their allies."
"These interests include undermining Russian influence. This is a fact," Lavrov said. "We see this as artificially created tensions. We once again know who is interested in this and who is pulling the strings and, unfortunately, the leadership of Armenia from time to time adds fuel to the fire itself."
Lavrov added that the 2020 agreements ending the brief war said that Nagorno-Karabakh is "in the realm of responsibility of Russian peacekeeping contingent."
"It was presumed, this was discussed during negotiations, that the decision on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh would be postponed, it would be taken later," Lavrov said. "So after Armenia reaffirmed that Nagorno-Karabakh was a part of Azerbaijan, it was ludicrous to accuse us of this."
Lavrov added that Russian peacekeepers are currently helping to facilitate contacts between the Nagorno-Karabakh representatives and the Azerbaijani officials, including at meetings held Saturday.
"Our peacekeepers have a presence there on the basis of the importance of their role there for confidence building to ensure that the members of the representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh, especially at the beginning to feel themselves to be safe and secure," Lavrov said.
"Time will be necessary, as for the amount of time and the number of peacekeepers, these are issues being resolved on the ground."
Blinken on Saturday held a call with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in which he "reaffirmed U.S. support for Armenia's sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity," according to a readout provided by U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.
"The Secretary expressed the United States' deep concern for the ethnic Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh," Miller said.
"He underscored the United States is calling on Azerbaijan to protect civilians and uphold its obligations to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh and to ensure its forces comply with international humanitarian law."
Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council -- of which both the United States and Russia are a part -- warned that the latest clashes between Azeris and Armenians "undermine prospects of peace" in what is one of the longest-running conflicts since the end of the Cold War.
In May, the European Union mediated a long-term negotiation plan for a "comprehensive peace agreement."
"The final statement included their unequivocal commitment to the 1991 Almaty Declaration and their 'respective territorial integrity'," according to an EU document.
"Some experts see the details of the statement as a potential breakthrough in the peace talks, while others warn of the heavy price tag for the population of Nagorno-Karabakh and the potential political costs for Armenia itself."
In additional remarks, Lavrov added: "We are convinced that the Armenian people remember their history, our history and that they will tie their history to that of Russia and other friendly states in the region rather than those that swoop in from abroad."