Will Turkic-centric Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev play NATO’s Trojan horse in the South Caucasus, or will he uphold his new alliance with Russia?
Despite Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s adherence to the ideology of pan-Turkism, the former-Soviet republic has long managed to successfully balance its relations between Russia, Turkey, and the west. However, the ‘frozen conflict’ with Armenia over disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory, and the on-going conflict in Ukraine, have recently tested the limits of this balancing act.
In January 2022, as Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s border was in full swing, Aliyev visited his counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv and reaffirmed Baku’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Then, the following month – just two days before Russia announced its ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine – Aliyev was in Moscow signing a treaty of alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Is Azerbaijan Russia’s Ally?
The signing of the ‘allied cooperation’ agreement with Russia was not universally welcomed by Azerbaijan’s politicians and intellectuals. Although government officials praised it and attributed it to Aliyev’s ‘balanced’ foreign policy, analysts and opposition circles raised concerns about Moscow’s increasing leverage over Baku.
According to regional analyst Fuad Shahbazov, the main objective of Aliyev’s visit to Moscow was to upgrade their bilateral relations, most importantly in the foreign policy and military realms.
“The declaration expresses both sides’ intention of strengthening cooperation across a wide range of fields, including regional security issues, military ties, energy, and trade, while calling for mutual consultations on joint efforts in international organizations, with the aim to protect the interests of Azerbaijan and Russia,” explained Shahbazov.
Many observers questioned the timing of the signing, as they interpreted Aliyev consolidating his authoritarian regime and sacrificing Baku’s long-term strategy of balanced foreign policy in favor of Moscow.
Signing away sovereignty?
Interestingly, the new declaration came just days after the European Union’s (EU) energy commissioner visited Baku. This was followed by NATO’s chief Jens Stoltenberg telephone call to Aliyev, thanking Azerbaijan for being “a reliable gas supplier of Europe and for increasing gas exports.” This comes at a crucial time as the west seeks increased natural gas deliveries to make up for potential shortfalls in Russian supplies.
From Aliyev’s perspective, this declaration is particularly important for Azerbaijan in light of the ongoing uncertainties around Nagorno-Karabakh and the Russian peacekeeping mission deployed in the region. Many believe that the document was a win-win scenario for both sides. For Moscow, it also ensured that Baku would not join western-led sanctions against Russia.
Now, a number of Azerbaijani analysts and politicians are urging Baku to capitalize on current geopolitical developments by shifting away from Russia’s influence.
Altay Goyushov, head of the Baku Research Institute, says that “signing an agreement with Moscow, two days before the assault on Ukraine, was a shame,” and claims that “Aliyev is apparently afraid of him [Putin]: he let the Russian army inside the country and therefore signed the agreement, not knowing what to do now.”
Some experts have further noted that the alliance document pledges parties to “refrain from carrying out any economic activity that causes direct or indirect damage to the interests of the other party,” which suggests Moscow will have a say in Azerbaijan’s future energy projects.
For, Leyla Aliyeva, a former Soviet Union expert at Oxford University, the agreement compromises Azerbaijan’s sovereignty to Russia. She argues that 30 years after independence, Russia has finally installed its troops inside Azerbaijan, a move that has strengthened Moscow’s hand not only in Nagorno-Karabakh but also in the decision-making corridors of the Zuğulba Presidential Palace.
And Azerbaijani analyst Shahin Caferli let loose in a Facebook post about the alliance’s repercussions: “Now it’s not clear who will protect us from whom. From what danger will Russia protect us? What threat will Turkey protect us from? What will happen when the interests of these two countries collide? What will Baku do when Ankara wants to cooperate with us against the interests of Moscow, and Moscow wants to cooperate with Ankara on any issue?”
The Ukraine factor
Azerbaijan is closely monitoring military developments in Ukraine to assess its impact on South Caucasus. Undoubtedly, Baku sees the crisis as an opportunity to pressure Armenia into signing a ‘peace treaty’ over Nagorno-Karabakh – on Azerbaijan’s terms.
For now, the Armenian side is resisting an agreement that would lead to the expulsion of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, undermine the legitimacy of Russian peacekeepers in the region, and increase Turkey’s influence exponentially.
Officially, Baku’s line on Ukraine seems to be to stay out of the fray as much as possible. In response to Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, President Aliyev’s senior foreign policy adviser Hikmat Hajiyev told state television that the events in Ukraine “should be solved by dialogue.”
Interestingly, while Baku officially recognizes Ukraine’s territorial integrity and has announced that it will join western sanctions against Moscow, it has also avoided labeling Russian actions as a ‘war’ or ‘invasion.’
Last month, however, following close ally Turkey’s example, Azerbaijan closed its airspace to Russian military aircraft. According to the Azeri Times, the move was intended to prevent Russia from sending weapons-bearing military aircraft to Armenia. This forced the Russians to fly over Iran airspace and the Caspian Sea on their way back to Rostov-on-Don.
Despite Baku’s desire to maintain a ‘balanced’ foreign policy, a number of officials close to the government as well as state television channels have often stridently voiced support for Ukraine. Azerbaijan’s former foreign minister Tofig Zulfugarov claims Russia has committed a crime and predicts that an “inevitable decline of the Putin era has begun.” Igbal Agazadeh, deputy of the Azerbaijani Parliament, posted on Facebook that Azerbaijan stands with Ukraine, and Natiq Jafarli, a leader of the opposition Republican Alternative party compared Putin’s actions to those of Adolf Hitler.
Azerbaijan has also sent about six million US dollars in humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the beginning of the war.
Political observer Rasim Mirzoev links Baku’s stance on the war in Ukraine with Turkish interests. For Mirzoev, Turkey as “a NATO member, is trying to call on the parties to the conflict to a diplomatic solution and has repeatedly offered a platform for negotiations. Turkey is Azerbaijan’s primary ally. Even if our country has several different allies, fraternal relations with Turkey cannot be compared with them.”
“There is also the British factor,” Mirzoev points out. “We all know that the British oil company BP is engaged in oil and gas production in the Caspian. The same company is one of the main shareholders of the Southern Gas Corridor linking Azerbaijan, Turkey, and European countries. Aliyev’s personal relations with Great Britain are also important from this point of view. For these reasons, Azerbaijan is obliged to support Ukraine in this war.”
Will Azerbaijan become a NATO pawn?
Azerbaijan has been capitalizing on the world’s preoccupation with Ukraine to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to its own advantage. However, to do so, Baku has to challenge the Russian peacekeeping forces stationed in the region.
According to the trilateral statement signed on 9 November, 2020 between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia, the Russian peacekeepers will be stationed there for five years – renewable for an additional five years upon mutual agreement.
US and EU-supported peace talks between Yerevan and Baku seek to challenge this state of affairs, aiming to diplomatically resolve the conflict and push the Russians out of the region. Such a move would not only put an end to the Armenian presence in Nagorno-Karabakh but also would make NATO-member Turkey the main actor in Russia’s backyard.
A lesson learned is a lesson earned
In March, Russia openly accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh and attacking peaceful Armenian residents. Azerbaijan’s rationale behind this is, arguably, to test the resolve of the Russian peacekeepers while exerting psychological pressure on the Armenian government.
These provocations followed as some western commentators and retired generals from NATO member-states called for the opening of a second front against Russia in the South Caucasus.
For now, though – knowing that the EU needs its energy resources, and that Russia, the main deal broker in South Caucasus is busy in Ukraine – Azerbaijan will continue exerting pressure on Armenia to sign a conditional and humiliating “peace deal” with Baku.
The main question is whether Baku will fall into NATO’s trap and try to provoke Russia in its own backyard. President Aliyev knows that this is a risky gamble. The Georgian war of August 2008 will still be fresh in his memory, while Ukraine’s uphill struggle serves as a daily reminder against such political folly as backstabbing Moscow.