While most analyses in foreign media focus on how the Russian-Armenian relationship has been affected by developments in Nagorno-Karabakh, little has been said about the Russian-Azerbaijani relationship. Rasmus Canbäck explains how Azerbaijan is approaching Russia.
Av Rasmus Canbäck 12 oktober, 2023
After the war on September 19-20, which was followed by an ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, international media and analysts have turned their attention to the Russian-Armenian relationship.
This is not surprising. In 1992, Armenia joined the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia’s counterpart to NATO, and in 2015, Armenia joined the Eurasian Economic Union. This followed Armenia’s advanced negotiations with the EU to join the European Customs Union, which were withdrawn at the last minute.
This happened at the same time that other countries like Moldova and Ukraine chose the European path, which, in Ukraine’s case, was one of the factors leading to the Euromaidan revolution and ultimately the Russian invasion of the country in 2014.
In recent months, the Russian-Armenian relationship has rapidly deteriorated as Armenia expressed disappointment over Russia’s failure to fulfill its security commitments. In the weeks before the Azerbaijani offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia declared that its parliament intended to vote on the ratification of the Rome Statute, which entails joining the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In theory, this could mean that Armenia becomes obligated to arrest Vladimir Putin during a state visit. In practice, there might be a different story where exceptions can be made, as international law expert Sheila Paylan discusses in the Armenian based EVN Media Report.
To further escalate tensions with Russia, Armenia also sent its first aid shipment to Ukraine in September, held joint military exercises with the United States through NATO (not the first), and openly stated that Russia cannot be trusted from a security perspective.
All of this has been well-documented for those following the conflict, as well as Russia’s strong reaction to Armenia. When Azerbaijan initiated the offensive, Russia was far from active in its dealings with the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Russian Foreign Ministry argued that Armenia’s own diplomatic missteps, such as recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, set the stage for the ethnic cleansing. Russian media was also instructed by the Kremlin to blame Armenia for the events.
Since then, Armenia has freezed its membership in CSTO to reassess its security policy.
The Russian-Azerbaijani Relationship
While much has been said about the shift in relations between Armenia and Russia, less has been said about Azerbaijan’s approach to Russia.
After the 2020 war, 2,000 Russian peacekeeping troops were deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh to ensure the ceasefire and the security of Armenians. They have been criticized by Armenia for failing in their mission, including allowing the illegal Azerbaijani blockade of the region. However, they have also caused general discontent in Azerbaijan, which believes they stood in the way of restoring the country’s territorial integrity.
In fact, in a survey among the country’s youth conducted by the Azerbaijani think tank Agora Analytical Collective in early 2023, a larger percentage believed that Russia (77%) is the country’s biggest security threat, not Armenia (73%).
This was the first time that Armenia was not considered the biggest security threat.
As the Armenian-Russian relationship has been questioned and deteriorated, Azerbaijan’s president, despite internal dissatisfaction with Russia, has taken significant steps to get closer to Moscow.
On February 22, 2022 – the same day Russia launched the major invasion of Ukraine – Ilham Aliyev and Vladimir Putin signed a new alliance agreement. It contains 43 points covering everything from security to energy policy. Some of the points regulate Russia’s priority in energy sector investments in Azerbaijan.
These provisions may have been added because Russia was anticipating that the EU, following the invasion of Ukraine, would quickly try to diversify its gas imports away from Russia.
Controversial Gas Deals
Thoughts of diversifying away from Russia first emerged in 2008 when the European Commission decided to explore the possibility of investing in a new gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to Europe. The work intensified after the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and in 2015, financiers were sought for the project.
For Russia, the new gas pipeline represented more of an opportunity than a threat to diversification. Russian Lukoil currently owns 20 % of Azerbaijan’s largest gas field, Shah Deniz, and shares in the gas pipeline. Iran is also a major stakeholder in the gas fields.
Ironically, the EU’s prestige project has become a way for the two authoritarian powers, Russia and Iran, to circumvent sanctions against them. Notably, the EU’s new gas agreements with Azerbaijan, from the summer of 2022, have also opened the door for Russia to export Russian gas through Azerbaijan to Europe.
On October 6, Lukoil also announced that they had signed a new oil agreement with the Azerbaijani state-owned energy company, Socar, worth 1.5 billion dollars.
However, with the ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia has had to reorient its position in the South Caucasus. The Russian peacekeeping troops, which were previously a lever against Armenia’s dependence on Russia, have lost their function.
While for Armenia and Russia, this could eventually mean a painful end to a formal alliance, it seems likely that it opens the door to an increasingly better relationship between Azerbaijan and Russia.
A Common View of the World Order
Ilham Aliyev and Vladimir Putin seem to understand each other in a way that Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan hasn’t. Both the Azerbaijani and Russian leaders believe in totalitarian methods to enforce their will, and both are dissatisfied with how the world order has functioned since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Vladimir Putin, with the war in Ukraine, has repeatedly expressed that international laws don’t apply to Russia, and the country is building a new order. Similarly, Ilham Aliyev has deviated from peace negotiations in Nagorno-Karabakh to resolve the conflict through force, a strategy that appears to work as the international community has done little more than condemn Azerbaijan’s actions.
In 2022, Freedom House highlighted Azerbaijan’s military solution in Nagorno-Karabakh as a precursor to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
”Aliyev’s clear success in using military aggression to strengthen his regime may have contributed to Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Putin himself has utilized such tools several times in the past, and now there was reason to believe that it would work again.”
In early October, after the offensive that led to the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia sent a delegation to Armenia to discuss the future.
However, even before that, Russia had already declared that the decision regarding the troops’ future no longer involved Armenia, despite the agreement from the end of the 2020 war stipulating that all three parties (including Azerbaijan) should be involved. According to Russia, it’s now only a matter between them and Azerbaijan.
Peace Talks Like a Smorgasbord
Perhaps it’s not surprising. From the perspective of maintaining a good relationship with Russia, unlike Nikol Pashinyan, Ilham Aliyev has played his cards right. In May 2023, Aliyev emphasized that the relationship with Russia is not “just a de facto alliance but also de jure.”
This was reiterated on October 11 when Aliyev criticized Armenia for not wanting to join new peace talks with Russia in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Just as in May 2023, he once again emphasized the country’s alliance with Russia.
Ilham Aliyev canceled his attendance at an EU-led summit in Granada on October 5, which was to be the first peace talk since the offensive on September 19-20. The most advanced peace talks since the 2020 war have been in what’s called the “Brussels Format.” This time, in addition to the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, both France and Germany were to attend.
Azerbaijan believed that without Turkey’s presence, the format would be “anti-Azerbaijani,” and has since presented two alternative formats. One through Georgia, which is generally considered to be supportive of Azerbaijan regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, and one that continues with Russia’s presence.
Since Azerbaijan abandoned internationally recognized peace negotiations in 2020, it appears that Azerbaijan treats dialogue with Armenia as a classic Swedish smorgasbord. When a format does not suit Azerbaijan’s wishes at the moment, Ilham Aliyev abandons it to push through a shift according to his own agenda. So far, this approach has worked for him.
Lack of an EU Strategy
As early as August 2022, after the EU had signed new gas agreements with Azerbaijan, analyst Maximilian Hess at the Foreign Policy Research Center criticized the EU Commission for lacking a clear direction on how to handle Azerbaijan.
The same criticism was echoed in an unusually comprehensive resolution by the EU Parliament on October 5, which criticized the EU Commission for a failure in dealing with Azerbaijan. The resolution highlights Azerbaijan’s diplomatic relations and trade ties with Russia as critical points.
In fact, this was the second resolution proposing sanctions against Azerbaijan in just a month. The first one was related to the detention of political prisoner Gubad Ibadoghlu, who has been imprisoned in Azerbaijan since the end of July.
Similar to Russia, Azerbaijan, after plans to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by force, has arrested significant numbers of peace activists.
For Azerbaijan, the country finds itself in a geopolitical situation where its friendship with Russia allows it to potentially block resolutions in the UN Security Council.
At the same time, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has been resolved in a way that leaves no Armenians, and the gas agreements with the EU continue to expand. The absence of a peace agreement means that Ilham Aliyev can still claim that there is an external enemy to rally the people behind.
Top photo: Ilham Aliyev on the left and Vladimir Putin on the right.