MOSCOW (AP) — Russia on Saturday defended its policy of selling arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, whose military forces have faced off in a sharp escalation of fighting around separatist Nagorno-Karabakh.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said if Russia stopped selling arms, both countries would simply seek new suppliers.
"They would buy weapons in other countries, and the degree of their deadliness wouldn't change," he told Russian state television following visits to the capitals of Armenia and Azerbaijan. "But at the same time, this could to a certain degree destroy the balance" of forces that exists in the South Caucasus region.
Both Azerbaijani and Armenian forces this month have used artillery, tanks and other weapons on a scale not seen since a separatist war ended in 1994. The war left Karabakh, officially part of Azerbaijan, under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military.
The recent fighting has killed about 75 soldiers from both sides along with several civilians. A Russia-brokered truce went into effect Tuesday, but both sides accused the other of violating it daily.
The Russian arms sales to energy-rich Azerbaijan have angered many in Armenia, which has hosted a Russian military base and kept close security and economic ties to Russia. But the parallel arms sales reflect Russia's desire to expand its influence in the strategic region, a key conduit for energy resources from the Caspian Sea to the West.
Russia has joined the United States and France in acting as mediators in Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which have dragged on since 1994 with no visible results.
With the OSCE Minsk Group meeting Saturday in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, hundreds of demonstrators rallied on a central square to protest the lack of progress by the negotiators.
They demanded that the Karabakh separatists be a party to the peace talks and for Russia to stop selling arms to Azerbaijan, said Marine Manucharyan, one of the organizers. Their demands were delivered to the Russian, U.S. and French embassies.
The Russian representative to the Minsk Group, Igor Popov, said the mediators met with the political and military leadership of both sides, which he said "demonstrated a readiness to preserve the truce" and understand the need to return to a political discussion.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said Saturday his country was committed to the peace process but had no intention of giving up territory and "would never allow the formation of a second Armenian state on Azerbaijani lands."
Avet Demourian in Yerevan, Armenia, and Aida Sultanova in Baku, Azerbaijan, contributed.