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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Solana Stirs Russia's Ire in Caucasus

As NATO chief Javier Solana wrapped up a tour of the Caucasus countries, Russia continued its attacks on the trip Thursday, saying it thwarted Russia's plans to rebuild relations with the former Soviet republics.

Solana flew to Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, Thursday on the last leg of his tour before returning to NATO headquarters in Brussels on Friday. In Baku he told journalists he hoped to discuss the long, drawn-out dispute between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia over Nagorny-Karabakh, an enclave of ethnic Armenians within Azerbaijan.

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Gennady Tarasov, told journalists in Moscow that the Caucasus region was not within NATO's "sphere of activity, and it is highly unlikely the North Atlantic alliance can offer real help in resolving conflicts or eliminating the hot spots in that region."

"The leading role played by Russia in resolving many of these conflicts is obvious and recognized by every party," Tarasov said.

Solana told the British Broadcasting Corporation on Thursday that he considered Moscow's reaction to his tour as "absolutely exaggerated."

"NATO is not a threat to Russia," he said. "NATO enlargement is not a threat to Russia."

Solana has already visited Moldova, Armenia and Georgia on this trip. He irritated Russia earlier this week in Moldova by saying that, in keeping with a 1994 agreement, Russia should remove peacekeeping troops that it has kept in the rebel republic of Transdnestr on Moldovan soil.

Russia shot back that it is up to Moscow to decide the pace of withdrawals. Russian defense council chief Yury Baturin, said Wednesday in Moldova that Russia would considerably reduce the number of troops from the current 6,000, according to Itar-Tass.

The NATO secretary general's tour of former Soviet republics coincides with a verbal war over the impending expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, with Russian leaders daily denouncing the plan as an aggressive move aimed at Russia.

NATO repeatedly has sought to assure Moscow that invitations likely to be issued to new members from the former Warsaw Pact at a NATO summit in July are not intended to isolate Russia.

Moldova and the three Caucasus republics, like Russia, are all participants in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, which aims to build closer ties between the former Cold War opponents. None of the four republics is seeking NATO membership.

Solana told Interfax on Wednesday that he intends to visit all 27 participants in the program before the NATO summit in July, and that these visits had begun in 1996. Next month he plans to visit former Soviet republics in Central Asia, another tour that is bound to anger Moscow.

Defense ministers from three Central Asian countries -- Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan --- will meet a senior NATO official Sunday in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, a senior Kyrgyz defense official told Reuters.

Meanwhile, with the Estonian president Lennart Meri on a visit to France, where he will raise the issue of Estonian membership in both NATO and the European Union, Russian Foreign Ministry officials emphasized Moscow's desire that the Baltic republics should remain "nonaligned."