Special for the Armenian Weekly
Over the course of the past seven years, the influence of the West has waned in the South Caucasus, as its attention has shifted away from the wider region. In turn, Russia’s moves to consolidate the North and South Caucasus have proceeded unabated with each year. Moscow has bolstered its military positions and pushed to re-establish itself as the supreme power in the area. Azerbaijan stands to lose from this geopolitical development. Baku has realized that its duplicitous policy of feigning close ties with all major poles of power only served to isolate it from others without paying lasting dividends. While some in the West may still view the Aliyev regime as a useful tool against Russia or Iran, the actual utility of Azerbaijan has diminished with the changing priorities of “friends” both old and new.
The Russo-Georgian War of 2008 showed that Moscow was serious in defending its stated national security goals, including the encroachment of NATO upon Russia’s near abroad or sphere of influence. The West demonstrated that its support is moral rather than martial. Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev took notice but continued to feign closer ties with the West. Feign is the key word here because in reality, Azerbaijan does not wish to be attached too closely to any one center or centers of power. Its strategy is non-alignment with East or West, but with the pretense of alignment when dealing with the respective sides. For the West, this included serving as a transit route to Afghanistan (Northern Distribution Network) for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and claiming to be a crucial partner for NATO’s operations in Afghanistan. This was in addition to the older policy of overinflating its hydrocarbon reserves for the EU’s energy diversification goals—backed by Washington.
Even its closest ally, Turkey, realizes that Azerbaijan has an undesirable influence on Turkish foreign policy. For example, when Ankara and Yerevan signed the 2009 Zurich Protocols, Azerbaijan threatened to raise the price Turkey paid for natural gas if the Turks did not cancel their purported plan to open the closed border with Armenia. And it is well known that Aliyev, a staunch secular and apostate Muslim, is distrustful of the Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In regards to Russia, the Aliyev regime allowed the Russian oil major, Lukoil, to participate in Azerbaijan’s oil and gas sector. Baku also became a major buyer of Russian arms. But now the ISAF mission has ended, Iran and the West are seemingly on the verge of a historic rapprochement, oil prices have tanked, and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union is operational with Armenia as its newest member. In other words, the geopolitical stock of Azerbaijan has dropped significantly.
That said, last year’s events in Ukraine, specifically the Russian annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in the Donbas region, further highlighted Russia’s willingness to fight for its core national interests. While Moscow has been busy dealing with Ukraine, it has not forgotten the South Caucasus. In November 2014, the Kremlin announced a far-reaching military agreement with Abkhazia. As part of the treaty, a Russian commander will lead a new joint force of Russian and Abkhaz troops. Abkhazia also agreed to integrate its foreign and defense policies with Moscow’s. The Russians are very close to signing a similar and even more expansive “Treaty of Alliance and Integration” with South Ossetia. The agreement will provide Russia a dominant role in the partially recognized statelet’s military and economic policy. As usual, the West will not take any concrete actions but will issue statements in support of Georgian territorial integrity. Such proclamations only serve to emphasize the reality that Azerbaijan has no allies outside of Turkey to call to its aid should its sovereignty be at risk.
Following in Turkey’s steps and getting close to Moscow will mean that Aliyev will have to refrain from hostilities directed against the Republic of Artsakh (Karabagh) and Armenia, for fear of upsetting the Russian-backed status quo. That is a policy change he can ill afford particularly since his legitimacy, or what little there is of it, rests upon continued statements that Azerbaijan will ‘regain her lost territories.’
Baku now has to contend with a rapidly evolving regional security environment that favors Russia and her ally Armenia. Turkey, Azerbaijan’s sole ally, is already hedging its bets vis-à-vis the West. Ankara has been loath to criticize Russia too much and is deepening its energy cooperation with Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas giant. But following in Turkey’s steps and getting close to Moscow will mean that Aliyev will have to refrain from hostilities directed against the Republic of Artsakh (Karabagh) and Armenia, for fear of upsetting the Russian-backed status quo. That is a policy change he can ill afford particularly since his legitimacy, or what little there is of it, rests upon continued statements that Azerbaijan will “regain her lost territories.” This partially explains why Azerbaijani forces along the Line of Contact (LoC) with Artsakh have brazenly escalated the range and scope of their attacks. The aim is to draw the Armenians into a renewed war by conducting incrementally more subversive activities to provoke an overreaction. Azerbaijan would then claim that Armenia is the aggressor. Viewed in the wider context of the Arab Spring and Euromaidan protests, Aliyev does not want to cause waves that may pull his regime from the seat of power. Saber-rattling is his solution for now.
It is important to note that on the one hand, Aliyev sees the Euromaidan as a Western-inspired and CIA-executed regime change, one which he fears may occur in his fiefdom now that the West no longer places a strategic value upon Azerbaijan. On the other hand, he cannot accept Russia redrawing international borders and annexing Crimea. Baku voted for UN General Assembly Resolution 68/262, which affirmed the United Nations’ commitment to recognize Crimea within Ukraine’s international borders and underscored the invalidity of the 2014 Crimean referendum. But just a few months after the vote, an advisor to Aliyev, Ali Hasanov, claimed that the American ambassador’s interview to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was an attempt to foment a “Maidan” in Azerbaijan. What Ambassador Richard Morningstar had pointed out was that the U.S. government does talk about democracy and human rights with officials in Baku. Ironically, the woman who interviewed him, Khadija Ismayilova, is now behind bars on trumped-up charges.
The Azerbaijani regime’s fears of Western-inspired coups are overblown, but they are correct to assume that the West will not provide assistance should a Maidan-style movement oust Aliyev.
The Azerbaijani regime’s fears of Western-inspired coups are overblown, but they are correct to assume that the West will not provide assistance should a Maidan-style movement oust Aliyev. The Jan. 21 meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Aliyev was designed to soothe bruised egos on the Azerbaijani side, which is why human rights abuses were barely mentioned. Instead Merkel paid lip service to Azerbaijan’s role in helping diversify Europe’s energy supplies. The German leader mentioned that she supports the Southern Gas Corridor project of importing Azerbaijani gas from the Shah Deniz offshore field to Europe via the planned Trans-Anatolian (TANAP) pipeline through Turkey and the Trans-Adriatic (TAP) pipeline via Greece and Albania to Italy. An interconnector in Greece is planned to bring the gas to Bulgaria and perhaps further north. Never mind that realistically Azerbaijan cannot supply more than 2 percent of the annual natural gas needs of the EU.
Baku’s facade as a serious gas supplier was dealt a blow last month when Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Turkey. He announced the cancellation of South Stream and the possible re-routing of the pipeline to Turkey instead. Soon thereafter, Gazprom confirmed that the new pipeline would have an annual capacity of 63 billion cubic meters (bcm) and include a specially constructed hub on the Turkish-Greek border for customers in southern Europe. After Germany, Turkey is Gazprom’s largest customer in Europe. It was also announced that Turkey will receive more gas from Russia, and at a discount. Initially a total of 14 bcm will be delivered to Turkey by December 2016. This is in contrast to the TANAP, which is not going to be operational until at least 2018. In one fell swoop, Putin increased Turkey’s dependence on Russian energy supplies and undercut the importance of Azerbaijani gas for the Turks and, hence, Baku’s leverage over Turkey. The isolation of Azerbaijan will only increase and the Aliyev regime will remain vulnerable without Ankara’s political backing.
Russia will further consolidate its influence in the South Caucasus, mostly through Eurasian integration agendas (of which Armenia is a viable part). Turkey will continue to drift away from the West. And Azerbaijan will find that its room for movement has been significantly constrained on the international front. Domestically, Baku can only tighten the screws of repression for so long before something gives. A last-ditch effort to ignite a war against Artsakh may well backfire and result in the permanent shattering of Azerbaijani statehood.
Vilen Khlgatyan is the vice chairman of the Political Developments Research Center (PDRC). He specializes in the geopolitics of energy and non-kinetic warfare with an emphasis on the Caucasus.