Since February 24, 2022, the world’s attention has been focused on the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and the US and European Union (EU) sanctions imposed on Russia. Politicians, experts and academicians are seeking to understand how and when the war will stop and what will be the short and midterm implications of Western sanctions on Russia and beyond. Armenia is not an exclusion, and debate is underway on the war’s potential political and economic implications on Armenia. However, the Russia-Ukraine war is not the only issue hotly debated in Armenia.
On February 22, just a day after the recognition of Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics’ independence and two days before the launch of the Russian special military operation, Russia and Azerbaijan signed a declaration on allied interaction in Moscow. Given the existence of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh after the 2020 Karabakh war and the alliance between Russia and Armenia, the declaration on Russia-Azerbaijan allied interaction raised questions and concerns in Armenia. Article one of the declaration states that the Russian Federation and the Republic of Azerbaijan build their relations on the basis of allied interaction, mutual respect for independence, state sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of the state borders of the two countries. The critical question raised by Armenian experts touches upon the implications of this wording on the future of Nagorno Karabakh.
Meanwhile, to better understand what was signed by the two presidents and what implications it may have on South Caucasus regional geopolitics, it is worthy to briefly analyze the bilateral Russia-Azerbaijan relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the first president of independent Azerbaijan Ayaz Mutalibov sought to maintain good relations with Russia, the second president Abulfaz Elchibey, who came to power in the summer of 1992, pursued an overt anti-Russian and pro-Turkish foreign policy based on the ideology of pan-Turkism. Elchibey’s foreign policy was a source of concern for Russia and Iran.
After the military coup ousted Elchibey in June 1993, the longtime leader of Soviet Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, returned to power. He sought to normalize relations with Russia, hoping to get Kremlin support in the war against the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. Azerbaijan joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in 1993; however, it did not help Azerbaijan gain significant successes during its December 1993 major offensive in Karabakh. After the May 1994 ceasefire agreement, President Aliyev pursued balanced foreign policy. He deepened Azerbaijan’s connections with Western energy giants by signing a “Contract of the Century” in September 1994. However, Aliyev was smart enough to include Russian Lukoil in these deals.
In 1997, Azerbaijan joined Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to establish GUAM, which was perceived as an organization to balance Russian influence in the post-Soviet space. As another manifestation of its balanced foreign policy, Azerbaijan signed a treaty of friendship, partnership and mutual security with Russia in the same year. The treaty’s first article declared that countries would base their relations on the principles of respect of territorial integrity and inviolability of borders, almost identical to the wording used in the February 2022 declaration. In 1999, Azerbaijan did not renew its participation in the Collective Security Treaty with Russia and some other post-Soviet states.
Azerbaijan-Russia relations entered a new phase after the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000. In January 2001, Russia and Azerbaijan signed a Baku declaration during President Putin’s visit to Azerbaijan. They declared their intention to raise bilateral relations to the level of strategic partnership. The declaration mentioned the two states’ intention to develop long-term military and military-technical cooperation and again emphasized that Russia and Azerbaijan will base their relations on the principles of territorial integrity and inviolability of borders. Another essential step in bilateral relations was the January 2002 statement of presidents. Speaking about the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, Russia and Azerbaijan emphasized that regional conflicts should be solved based on the principles of international law and, first of all, on the principles of territorial integrity and inviolability of the internationally recognized borders of states.
President Ilham Aliyev sought to continue the balanced foreign policy of Azerbaijan. The launch of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines provided a solid base for rapid economic growth for Azerbaijan. In the early 2010s, Azerbaijan rejected signing an Association Agreement with the EU or joining the Eurasian Economic Union. Baku used its oil money to buy weapons from Russia, while the crackdown on Azerbaijani civil society in 2013-2014 negatively impacted Azerbaijan-West relations. The growing assertiveness of Russia in the post-Soviet space, the results of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, 2014 events in Ukraine, the shift of US focus to the Asia Pacific, and the changes in Russia-Turkey relations since 2016 towards more cooperation and less competition have created an impression in Azerbaijan that Russian influence will increase in the region and that Baku should adapt to that reality. The 2020 Karabakh war was another demonstration that regional players such as Russia and Turkey would play a growing role in defining the parameters of the regional security architecture, while the US, NATO and EU influence will continue to decrease.
The February 2022 declaration of allied interaction is another element of Azerbaijan’s strategy of adaptation to this reality. As we can see, the wording about territorial integrity, inviolability of borders and military and military-technical cooperation has been in bilateral relations since 1997. The only novelty of the declaration, besides symbolically raising the bilateral relations from strategic partnership to alliance level, perhaps is the provision stating that parties will deepen interaction between the armed forces, including holding joint operational and combat training activities and developing other areas of bilateral military cooperation. Another significant issue is the provision, according to which Russia and Azerbaijan may consider the possibility of providing each other with military assistance based on the UN Charter, separate international treaties, and taking into account the existing international legal obligations of each of the parties.
How may this declaration impact Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia? Azerbaijan and Russia made a tacit deal: Russia recognizes Nagorno Karabakh de jure as part of Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijan accepts de facto control of Russia over the small portion of Karabakh not invaded by Azerbaijan during the 2020 war. This declaration sends a clear signal that, most probably, Azerbaijan will not demand the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Karabakh in 2025. Does this mean that Russia will never recognize Karabakh independence? No. The situation in and around Karabakh resembles the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the mid-1990s until 2008, or the situation in Donetsk and Lugansk between February 2015-February 2022. In both cases, Russia de jure recognized these territories as part of Georgia and Ukraine while de facto controlling them. However, this does not prevent Russia from recognizing these entities’ independence due to the changing geopolitical environment. Thus, the task of Armenia and Armenians as a nation remains the same. Armenia should do its best to secure foreign military deployment in Nagorno Karabakh for at least the next 10 to 15 years. Another significant task is to increase the number of Armenians living there by at least 25 to 30 percent for the same period and modernize the Armenian economy and armed forces to protect Nagorno Karabakh without foreign forces if such a scenario becomes a reality.