(Reuters) – Russia sharply criticised on Thursday a decision by the European Union to establish a new civilian mission in Armenia, saying it would only further stoke “geopolitical confrontation” in a region plagued by tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The EU said the two-year mission, approved on Monday, would contribute to stability in border areas of Armenia and help ensure “an environment conducive to normalisation efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan”.

Moscow is the main power broker in the South Caucasus and has long resented any meddling by outside powers in former Soviet republics, a zone it refers to as its “near-abroad”. It deployed peacekeepers to the region in 2020 after a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, their second since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Its authority is being tested, however, as the war in Ukraine consumes the attention of the Kremlin and reduces its ability to fight fires elsewhere.

“The appearance of the EU representatives in the border regions of Armenia… can only bring geopolitical confrontation to the region and exacerbate existing contradictions,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

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“The EU’s attempts to gain a foothold in Armenia at any cost and to squeeze Russia’s mediation efforts could damage the fundamental interests of Armenians and Azerbaijanis in their aspirations for a return to peaceful development in the region.”

Russian peacekeepers and Russian border guards deployed on Armenia’s borders will remain the key factor for regional stability for the foreseeable future, the ministry added.

For decades the region’s main flashpoint has been Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but home to around 120,000 Armenians.

The EU’s move comes amid growing Armenian frustration over the failure of Russian peacekeepers to reopen the Lachin corridor, the only route across Azerbaijan by which Armenia can supply food, fuel and medicine to Nagorno-Karabakh.

The corridor has been blocked since Dec. 12, when protesters claiming to be environmental activists stopped traffic by setting up tents. Azerbaijan denies any blockade, saying the activists are staging a legitimate protest against illegal mining activity.

The Kremlin said on Tuesday Russia was working hard with both sides in the region to resolve the situation.

(Reporting by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

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