Azerbaijan, Baku, Aug. 21 /A.Badalova, V.Zhavoronkova/
Russia's lowering its profile as a go-between in the settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict gives the U.S. an opportunity to restore its position in the region, the leading expert of the Heritage Foundation for Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy, Ariel Cohen believes.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains the main sticking point between the two nations, but Putin's visit likely made no a significant difference on this issue, Cohen wrote in an article in The National Interest.
"Putin reiterated that the dispute needs to be resolved 'politically'-not through a war. This is a signal to Azerbaijan, whose military budget alone is greater than Armenia's state budget. Due to hydrocarbon revenues, Azeri military capabilities are growing, including weapons purchased from Russia," the expert wrote.
According to Cohen, the Kremlin is not ready or willing to discuss any new initiatives and proposals that could potentially lead to solving the protracted conflict. This is largely due to the simple fact that Nagorno-Karabakh is an important guarantee of Russia's political and military presence in the South Caucasus.
"Following four years of high-level mediation led by the then president Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin has lowered its profile as a go-between. This gives Washington an opportunity to strengthen its relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia and restore its position in the region," Cohen wrote.
The United States could have taken advantage of this situation by proposing to work together with Russia on finding a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, the expert's article said.
The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan. Armenian armed forces have occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan since 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.
Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, Russia, France and the U.S. are currently holding peace negotiations.
Armenia has not yet implemented the U.N. Security Council's four resolutions on the liberation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions.
The former Soviet republic is an emerging leader in the South Caucasus region, and Putin's high-profile visit was another way to demonstrate to Washington that Russia's zone of "privileged interests" today covers almost all post-Soviet republics with the exception of Baltics, Cohen wrote.
The expert notes that, Putin arrived in Baku together with two Russian warships and a large delegation of ministers and business leaders. Among the latter were Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, Energy Minister Alexander Novak, Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov, Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov, Minister of the Economy Alexei Ulyukayev, and Igor Bratchikov, head of the Russian delegation to the multilateral talks on the Caspian Sea.
Cohen wrote that, since 2008, the United States has diminished its involvement in the post-Soviet space. It has deferred to Russia in all areas except the transit network to Afghanistan-gone after 2014.
In the meantime, Moscow has happily filled the vacuum created by Washington.
"Putin's visit came just two month before Azerbaijan's presidential elections. For an act of public support for the incumbent president Ilham Aliyev and as an effort to strengthen the ties between the two countries, Putin's timing could not have been better," the article said.
Cohen also notes that, the problem is, the Obama White House and State Department are losing interest in the post-Soviet space, and their interest may decline even further following the departure of NATO forces from Afghanistan.
At the same time, Baku and Moscow are working closely within the framework of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), the expert wrote.
According to the expert, Azerbaijan is Russia's largest trading partner in the South Caucasus, having supplied Gazprom 1.5 billion cubic meters of gas in 2012.
"Clearly, the two leaders had a lot to talk about, especially since Putin was accompanied by the oil magnates Sechin and Alekperov," Cohen wrote.
The growing role of Azerbaijan as an independent energy exporter and transit country for Central Asian resources to Europe worries Russia, he noted.
Rosneft, the Russian state-controlled oil behemoth, is interested in joining the Absheron gas project, the expert's article said.
"This would bring Rosneft to the lucrative European gas market, although in direct competition with another Russian stalwart-Gazprom, Cohen wrote.
The article notes that, during the visit, the heads of the Russian and Azerbaijani state oil companies, Rosneft's Sechin and SOCAR's Abdullayev, signed an energy-cooperation agreement.
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