WASHINGTON (Reuter)–The United States–deflecting criticisms by Russian President Boris Yeltsin–said Wednesday it was not seeking to create a sphere of influence in the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus.
The State Department said it was working closely with Russia to resolve conflicts in the region–which has been torn by ethnic strife since the decline of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
Yeltsin said in televised remarks during a session of Russia’s Security Council Wednesday that he was concerned by increased US influence in the Caucasus–a region long seen as strategically vital to Russia.
"Already the United States is declaring that (the Caucasus) is in their zone of interest. Our interest is weakening but the Americans–on the contrary–are beginning to penetrate this zone and–without reservation–declare this," he said.
"(A settlement for the region) must respond to the interests of our national security–we have a right to count on understanding on this point from the international community–and this is the task of (Russia’s) Foreign Ministry," he said.
He said increased US involvement in the region was just one of a "series of new worrying tendencies" in the Caucasus–which includes Moscow’s breakaway province of Chechnya where Russian troops fought a bloody but unsuccessful 21-month war against separatist guerrillas.
Moscow has long regarded the Caucasus as a strategically soft underbelly and has reacted nervously when Western officials have visited the region.
"All this makes me very worried because the integrity of Russia is at stake," Yeltsin said.
State Department spokesman James Rubin said Washington believed in the independence and territorial integrity of the nations in the region.
"We do not believe in spheres of influence for the United States or any other country," he said. "We don’t see ourselves as having a sphere of influence or an interest of that kind" in the area.
Rubin told a news briefing the United States was "working quite well" with Russia to try to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
"We and Russia have common interests in that region. We have an interest in stability there. We have an interest in commercial development of–obviously–the important energy resources that are there," Rubin said. "So we want to work closely with Russia."