Russia’s Parity Policy in the South Caucasus and Azerbaijan’s Eurasian Prospects

Russia’s Parity Policy in the South Caucasus and Azerbaijan’s Eurasian Prospects

The attention of outside forces to the largest South Caucasus republic is growing steadily, with the US, the European Union and Russia all seeking to win over Azerbaijan. Events in Ukraine and the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU) have raised the stakes in the game codenamed «winning the sympathy of Baku». Among the noted players targeting Azerbaijan, the US is the least consistent, and the political elite in the Caspian republic continue to regard its American partners with suspicion… The latter reciprocates, periodically addressing the subject of human rights violations in Azerbaijan and the presence of political prisoners in the country. Official Washington commentators often make great leaps in their evaluations and prognoses. Fairly recently, the United States Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar made a number of controversial statements against local authorities. While discussing Azerbaijan’s development prospects, the American diplomat pointed out the lack of solidity in the republic’s leadership. According to Morningstar, whose opinions should not be taken lightly bearing in mind the functionary’s track record of work in positions of responsibility in the US State Department, there are a variety of points of view represented among Azerbaijan’s prominent policy makers regarding the priorities of the country’s foreign policy. Some of the higher bureaucracy hold pro-Western sentiments, while others see Azerbaijan’s future in strengthening ties with Russia in every possible area of building intergovernmental relations.

Essentially, the Americans are offering Baku nothing besides a moralising tone, and America’s plans in the South Caucasus are of a distinctly anti-Russian and anti-Iranian nature, with all that that implies. Azerbaijan’s place in their plans is also quite clear – Baku will remain in a state of permanent tension with its two neighbours to the north and south. Azerbaijan’s links with the European Union are being determined by the republic’s oil and gas potential. Europeans are interested in the republic, which is rich in natural resources, under the prism of the supply of comparatively large volumes of hydrocarbons to the West. European-registered transnational corporations dominate Azerbaijan’s fuel and energy market, and only a small share of the republic’s oil and gas is directed towards Russia and Iran. In the latter case, the volume of cooperation is relatively insignificant: Azerbaijan exports gas to Iran’s northern provinces in exchange for reverse flows of Iranian «blue fuel» to the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. Europe needs Caspian oil and gas, but all the talk of Azerbaijan’s possible integration into Western clubs is nothing more than a non-committal diplomatic balancing act. 

The general directive of the West’s policy regarding the oil-rich republic is that Azerbaijan must not fall under the controlling influence of Russia and Iran. America has openly declared that neither Azerbaijan’s oil nor its gas is of economic interest to them. In addition, the assessments of Azerbaijan’s export potential being voiced by the Europeans themselves, the biggest benefactors of the energy routes being established from Central Asia and the South Caucasus to the Old World that bypass Russia, reveal the political motivation of Brussels to play on the «European sentiments» of the Azerbaijani elite. The republic will only be able to satisfy a small fraction of Europe’s needs. In January 2014, the British newspaper Financial Times, noting the impressive amount of investment in the «Shah Deniz 2» project (nearly $45 billion), concluded that Azerbaijani gas covers just 2 percent of Europe’s current gas requirements. By the time of the estimated commissioning of the Trans Anadolu and Trans Adriatic pipelines, the gap between the Europe-wide demand for «blue fuel» and the realistic possibility of Azerbaijan competing with Russian pipeline gas will only widen. In terms of Caspian oil from the Azerbaijani shelf, meanwhile, bearing in mind that its main recipients are Turkey and Israel, the «substitutability» factor for Europeans is even more lamentable.

Against this confused background of American and European policies regarding Azerbaijan, Russia’s approach is looking much more thought out. Relations between Moscow and Baku are not completely devoid of difficulties, however. Far from it. The most pressing issues between the neighbours along the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus are still being refracted through the Karabakh conflict. It is precisely from this point of view that Baku is keeping a close eye on Russia’s Caucasus policy. 

Moscow is doing everything it can to try not to build relations with Armenia to the detriment of Azerbaijan’s interests. Russia is being guided by a parity policy in the advancement of its own positions in the conflict-prone region, where the intensity of the confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan leaves virtually no room to find mutually beneficial compromises. There is no military solution to the Karabakh conflict, while a political settlement in the foreseeable future would be extremely difficult. The reasons for this are diverse in nature, but they all inevitably hinder the development of equal relations between Moscow and Yerevan and Moscow and Baku. This does not mean that the peace initiatives in the conflict region and Russia’s policy to maintain regional balance will inevitably fail, however. The West and its Caucasian agents from among fervent critics of Russia are trying to find any pretext to cause serious damage to Moscow’s position in the region, provoking anti-Russian sentiments in both Yerevan and Baku. Russia’s delivery of T-90S military tanks to Azerbaijan, for example, revitalised those in Armenia who advocate a rapprochement with the West. A simple calculation of the balance of Moscow’s arms deliveries to its Caucasian partners shows, however, that its CSTO ally is not missing out. In terms of certain types of weapons and military technologies being supplied by Russia, in fact, it is far ahead of its opponent in the Karabakh conflict.

Russia does not have a ready-made key to resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, but certain factors can be highlighted. The creation of the EaEU opens up new opportunities to remove the «stress» from the South Caucasus conflict. Azerbaijan’s accession to a deeply integrated economic bloc in the former Soviet Union from today’s perspective comes across as something rather abstract. A quick look at the interests of the local elite to maintain close business ties with their Western partners, as well as the factor of extremely advanced relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey, would make even the most irrepressible optimists turn to pragmatism. If Russia does not build relations with Armenia to the detriment of Azerbaijan, then a similar set-up will also be evident in the foreign policy of the Caspian republic. The country is trying to form «flexible alliances» with every outside force without alienating anybody, but without allowing them to get too close either. Quite reasonably, Baku believes that an equidistance from regional and global centres of power is the only right solution. A different question is how the Azerbaijani authorities will manage to promote this complementary «elasticity» indefinitely. Before Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Baku on 17-18 June, a signal came from the Baku corridors of power that the republic’s leadership had no intention of joining the EaEU.

Azerbaijan has already reached a high level of trade and economic cooperation with two of the EaEU’s current members, the strengthening of which will lead to the complementarity of the Russian, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijani economies. Membership in the EaEU would give the republic additional opportunities to sell its own non-oil and gas products, and Azerbaijan’s oil and gas exports to the West could also continue without any kind of restrictions. The consideration of Azerbaijan’s associate membership in the EaEU seems promising, prior to which the required package of innovations in the Union’s charter needs to be approved. 

The republic’s integration in Eurasia would also lay the foundations for more than purely economic dividends. Drawing Armenia and Azerbaijan into a single economic space would offer completely new possibilities for settling the Karabakh conflict. It would give both sides of the decades-long conflict a unique chance to build mutual trust and, through the renewal of economic ties and humanitarian contacts, reach a whole new level of relations.

(1) According to a report submitted by Russia to the UN Register for Conventional Arms for 2013, 10 military tanks were exported to Azerbaijan and 35 to Armenia. In the category of «armoured combat vehicles», Russia stated that it had supplied 10 vehicles to Azerbaijan and 110 to Armenia.

Tags: Armenia  Azerbaijan  Caucasus  Russia  US