By Emil Danielyan
Armenia said on Friday that the planned dispatch of US troops to neighboring Georgia, denounced by its ally Russia, is unlikely to heighten tensions in the volatile region.
"I think it is too early to speak about a destabilization [of the situation]," Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian told reporters. But he stopped short of endorsing Washington's controversial plans to open a new front in its fight against international terrorism.
"Generally speaking, we are against the emergence of new dividing lines and blocs in the region. Let's just wait and see [what happens]," Sarkisian said.
The powerful minister pointed to an apparent softening of Russia's opposition to US military presence in what Moscow regards as its traditional zone of influence. President Vladimir Putin said earlier in the day that the impending arrival of a small contingent of US military experts, tasked with training Georgia's armed forces for anti-terror operations against Islamic guerrillas based in the lawless Pankisi Gorge, will mean "no tragedy" for Russia.
"Why should they (the U.S. forces) be in Central Asia and not in Georgia?," he said speaking at a news conference in Kazakhstan during a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Putin referred to the deployment late last year of US forces in former Central Asia as part of the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
The comments contrasted with strongly-worded statements made by other top Russian officials earlier this week. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov warned that the presence of US special forces in Georgia could further destabilize the entire region.
Sarkisian stressed that Thursday's visit to Armenia by a team of senior US army officers "had nothing to do with the situation in the Pankisi gorge." The officers arrived from Georgia where they confirmed reports about the first-ever US military move into the Caucasus.
Sarkisian said their talks with Armenian defense ministry officials only addressed the unfolding US-Armenian military cooperation agreed during US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Yerevan last December. He said he will pay an official visit to Washington on March 17-21 at the head of an Armenian military delegation. The two sides will sign an agreement on the use of the $4.3 million US military assistance to Armenia, Sarkisian added.
The military alliance with Russia is the cornerstone of Armenia's national security doctrine. But Yerevan has sought to forge closer links with NATO and the US in particular over the past year. A small detachment of the Armenian armed forces will take part for the first time in NATO-led military exercises to be held in Georgia in June.