A View from Baku: How Azerbaijan perceives the Russia-Ukraine conflict

President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev make statements for the press following Russian-Azerbaijani talks, February 22, 2022 (Photo: Kremlin)

As the “frozen conflict” with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) persists, the Ukrainian crisis poses a different challenge for Azerbaijan. “Neutrality” appears to be the watchword as Baku seeks to preserve its ties with both Moscow and Kyiv. While Baku is concerned about the developing situation, it potentially stands to benefit from the trouble with its gas exports to Europe. Given Azerbaijan’s strategic partnership with Russia after the war on Nagorno-Karabakh and its friendly relations with Ukraine (not to mention its significant gas reserves), some may think that Baku is in a prime position to benefit from the looming energy crisis presented by the region’s unrest. However, not all Azerbaijani analysts and politicians support this claim, as many have expressed their concerns over the Russia-Azerbaijan statement of “allied cooperation” and the impact of the outcome of the war in Ukraine on the South Caucasus.

Baku’s “balancing act” was highlighted in January 2022, as Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s border was in full swing. President Ilham Aliyev visited President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv and reaffirmed Baku’s support for the country’s territorial integrity. On February 22 – just two days before Russia announced “military operations” in Ukraine – Aliyev was in Moscow to sign a treaty of “alliance” with President Vladimir Putin. For now, Baku will try to gain additional points against Armenia given the unstable international and regional order. 

Reactions from Baku over the “Allied Cooperation”

There were mixed reactions from Azerbaijan regarding the signing of the “allied cooperation” agreement with Russia. Some praised it and attributed it to President Aliyev’s “balanced” foreign policy, while others argued that this would have repercussions on Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and legitimize Moscow’s leverage over Baku.

According to Fuad Shahbazov, a policy analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus, the main agenda of Aliyev’s visit was to sign a new declaration that upgraded the two countries’ relationship to “allied cooperation.” The 43-point agreement covers bilateral cooperation in a variety of spheres, but it is in the foreign policy and military realms that it carries its greatest implications. “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,” added Shahbazov.

However, the timing of the declaration’s signature was not welcomed in Azerbaijan, where many interpreted the document as sacrificing Baku’s long-term strategy of balanced foreign policy in favor of Moscow. But, the outreach to Russia should not come as a surprise. Baku has long pursued a balanced foreign policy between Moscow and the West, maneuvering as best it can to prevent Azerbaijan from falling under the influence of either. Notably, the new declaration came just days after the European Union’s energy commissioner visited Baku and NATO’s chief Jens Stoltenberg called Aliyev to thank Azerbaijan for being “a reliable gas supplier of Europe and for increasing gas exports.” As the West was seeking increased natural gas deliveries to make up for potential shortfalls in the event Russia cuts off supplies as part of the standoff over Ukraine, Baku was granting the request.

From Aliyev’s perspective, this declaration is particularly important in light of the ongoing uncertainties around Nagorno-Karabakh and the Russian peacekeeping mission deployed in the region. According to Shahbazov, the “(peacekeeping) mission still lacks a clear mandate, and although the new declaration does not directly address the issue, Baku seems to think it could eventually lead to more clarity on Russia’s role in (Nagorno-) Karabakh.” Many believe that the document was a win-win scenario for both sides. As for Moscow, it ensured that Baku would not join the Western-led sanctions against Russia.

MP Cavid Osmanov from the ruling New Azerbaijan Party says that today’s events in Ukraine once again confirm the correct and well-thought-out policy of Azerbaijan. Ilgar Mammadov, the chairman of the opposition Real Party, praised the agreement and said that it strengthened Azerbaijan’s power in the region and that Baku would benefit from this choice in its foreign diplomacy. He noted that “NATO will not save Ukraine, and Azerbaijan must draw conclusions” which meant “strengthening the armed forces and the alliance with Turkey” and balancing its relations with Russia.

For Baku, the document binds both countries to recognize each other’s territorial integrity. According to Kamal Makili-Aliyev, an Azerbaijani expert on international law, this means that Moscow sees Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory, which Russia has previously declined to formally do. “Russia has never, at the top level, officially and explicitly confirmed Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity on any occasion, not even in multilateral contexts,” Makili-Aliyev told Eurasianet.

On the other hand, the Azerbaijani opposition and some experts shared some concerns. Altay Goyushov, head of the Baku Research Institute, said that “signing an agreement with Moscow, two days before the assault on Ukraine, was a shame.” Goyushov argued, “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.” Many Azerbaijanis also noted that the document pledges parties to “refrain from carrying out any economic activity that causes direct or indirect damage to the interests of the other party.” This seems to give Moscow a say in Azerbaijan’s future energy projects. For Leyla Aliyeva, a former Soviet Union expert at Oxford University, Azerbaijan compromised its sovereignty to Russia. She said that after 30 years since independence, Russia finally installed its troops inside Azerbaijan, a move that strengthened Moscow’s hand not only in Nagorno-Karabakh but also in the decision-making process in Baku.

The Azerbaijani opposition also raised alarms. Ali Karimli, the head of the opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, asked the people, “Did you read it carefully?” On Facebook, he wrote: “One of the parties (Russia) can decide by itself that an activity of the other party (Azerbaijan) “damages allied relations. And then we have to refrain from that activity. With this point alone, we have given Russia the authority to supervise all our activities and make us refrain from any activity.” He concludes: “All of these ‘if necessary’ creates legal means for Russia’s intervention in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs.” Another Azerbaijani analyst, Shahin Caferli, commented on the Russian-Azerbaijani document writing in a Facebook post: “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?”

How does Azerbaijan view the developments in Ukraine?

On February 25, after President Putin announced his “military operations” in Ukraine, President Aliyev’s senior foreign policy adviser Hikmat Hajiyev told state television that the events happening around Ukraine were “disturbing processes and should be solved by dialogue.” Interestingly, official Baku, while recognizing Ukraine’s territorial integrity, avoided labeling the Russian actions as a “war” or “invasion.” Moreover, when the Azerbaijani consulate in Kharkiv was hit by shelling, no official comments were issued, and the diplomatic staff was quietly evacuated from the city. Azerbaijani authorities have not indicated they will join the Western sanctions against Moscow.

Despite the authorities’ “balanced” foreign policy, figures close to the government as well as state television channels have voiced their support for Ukraine. On February 28, Azerbaijanis went to the streets in Baku and gathered outside the Ukrainian embassy, chanting ‘No to war,’ ‘Reject Putin,’ ‘Putin, get out’ and ‘Russia without Putin.’ According to official figures, Azerbaijan has sent about six million US dollars of humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the beginning of the war. Gas stations in Ukraine belonging to Azerbaijan’s state oil company SOCAR have provided free fuel to ambulances and emergency services vehicles. On March 6, Azerbaijan suspended all flights with Russia.

Azerbaijani analysts and some politicians have harshly reacted to the war in Ukraine and expressed their support to Kyiv. Some even went beyond and assessed the impact and the possible outcome of the conflict on the region.

Politicians such as Azerbaijan’s former foreign minister Tofig Zulfugarov and Igbal Agazadeh, deputy of the Azerbaijani Parliament, expressed their support for Ukraine. Zulfugarov said that Russia has committed a crime, and the “inevitable decline of the Putin era has begun.” On Facebook, Agazadeh said that in this war, Azerbaijan stands with Ukraine. On the other hand, Natiq Jafarli, one of the leaders of the opposition Republican Alternative party, went to the extreme and compared Putin’s actions to that of the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler: “The world is put to the test. The Russian bear will occupy most of Ukraine and set up a negotiating table. If the West sits down at that table and recognizes some of the results of the occupation, shows the same concessions that it showed Hitler in 1938 after the annexation of the Sudetenland, (then) the situation will become even more complicated.”

Political observer Rasim Mirzoev links the position of the Azerbaijani authorities about the war in Ukraine to the Turkish factor. “Turkey, a NATO member, is trying to call on the parties to the conflict for a diplomatic solution and has repeatedly offered a platform for negotiations in recent days,” says Mirzoev. “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. 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.” On the other hand, Azer Gasimly, director of the Institute of Political Management, wrote on social media that President Putin trapped himself with wrong decisions and steps. “Now he can’t stand it any longer. Gradually, the swamp pulls it deeper,” added Gasimly. He also wrote that Aliyev is afraid of the post-Putin regional order and the potential of a democratic wave that may oust him from power.

Reflecting on the Russian-Turkish relations in relation to Ukraine, Azerbaijani political analyst Ahmad Alili tweeted that the relations between these two countries will also affect the regional power status of each in the South Caucasus, since the role of the Russian-Turkish tandem in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war is prominent. The analyst argues that a new balance in the region will emerge. He also continued that this should not “misuse the opportunity” and “replace the Russian peacekeepers, although a UN-mandated peacekeeping mission would be excellent for this case. It is worth waiting for Baku for the new realities in Russia-Turkey relations to sink into the Karabakh realities.”

Finally, the Azerbaijani government appeared to try to downplay the criticism against Russia. MP Elman Nasirov told local news outlet Pravda.az that the rally organized in Baku was not directed against Russia. Authorities are being cautious; on the day Putin announced the start of military operations, the Azerbaijani police detained activist Elman Guliyev outside the Russian embassy in Baku where he read a statement denouncing Russia’s actions.

Assessment and Conclusion 

Azerbaijan continues to utilize the preoccupation of the international community with the war in Ukraine to pursue its long-term policy of ethnic cleansing against the indigenous Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh, by cutting off gas supplies and harassing the people, as well as achieving certain tactical gains on the ground through military means.

By doing so, Azerbaijan is also testing the limits of the Russian peacekeepers and exerting psychological pressure on the Armenian government. On March 14, Azerbaijani opposition Meydan TV published Azerbaijan’s official conditions submitted to Yerevan for “normalizing relations with Armenia.” These conditions included:

– Mutual recognition of each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, inviolability of international borders and political independence;

– Mutual confirmation of the absence of territorial claims of states against each other and taking legal obligation that such claims will not be raised in the future;

– Avoiding threatening each other’s safety in interstate relations, using threats and force against political independence and territorial integrity, and avoiding other situations that are not in accordance with the objectives of the UN objectives;

– Delimitation and demarcation of the state border and the establishment of diplomatic relations;

– Opening of transport and communications, the establishment of other relevant communications and establishment of cooperation in other areas of mutual interest.

Under pressure from the opposition, Yerevan responded. During a sitting of the Armenian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Standing Committee, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said that “there is nothing by and large unacceptable in the proposals Azerbaijan has sent to us.” “It is another thing that these issues do not completely address the Armenia-Azerbaijan comprehensive peace agenda. In our response, we consider the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh and the addressing of the status of Nagorno Karabakh to be fundamental,” Mirzoyan added. Moreover, as Moscow welcomed the countries’ “readiness to engage in the preparation of a peace treaty,” Yerevan stated it had applied to the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs (Russia, the US and France) to organize Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations. Baku has so far refused any negotiations without addressing its conditions.

Knowing that the EU needs its energy resources and Russia is busy in Ukraine, Azerbaijan will continue exerting additional pressure on Armenia to sign a conditional and humiliating “peace deal” with Baku. It’s a questionable matter of proactive diplomacy whether or not Armenia can postpone Azerbaijan’s actions by playing the “negotiations card” with Turkey to win some time and soften Ankara’s approach towards Yerevan with respect to Nagorno-Karabakh. What is clear is that everyone is waiting for the outcome of the crisis, and its impact in the long run may shift or consolidate the current status quo in the South Caucasus. 

Yeghia Tashjian

Yeghia Tashjian

Yeghia Tashjian is a regional analyst and researcher. He has graduated from the American University of Beirut in Public Policy and International Affairs. He pursued his BA at Haigazian University in political science in 2013. In 2010, he founded the New Eastern Politics forum/blog. He was a research assistant at the Armenian Diaspora Research Center at Haigazian University. Currently, he is the regional officer of Women in War, a gender-based think tank. He has participated in international conferences in Frankfurt, Vienna, Uppsala, New Delhi and Yerevan. He has presented various topics from minority rights to regional security issues. His thesis topic was on China’s geopolitical and energy security interests in Iran and the Persian Gulf. He is a contributor to various local and regional newspapers and a presenter of the “Turkey Today” program for Radio Voice of Van. Recently he has been appointed as associate fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and Middle East-South Caucasus expert in the European Geopolitical Forum.
Yeghia Tashjian

@yeghig

Regional analyst & researcher. PPIA graduate @AUB_lebanon. Associate Fellow @IFI_AUB co @ArmenianWeekly #MiddleEast #Caucasus #Geopolitics #EnergySecurity
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