On September 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a working visit to Baku. During the trip, he attended the world judo championship, took part in the plenary session of the 9th Russian-Azerbaijani interregional forum and held a meeting with Ilham Aliyev. These talks followed the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in New York, which made the Russian-Azerbaijani talks more intriguing. Read about the new round of diplomatic competition between Yerevan and Baku, as well as the agreements between Aliyev and Putin, in the article on Eurasia.Expert.
Armenian-Azerbaijani diplomatic competition
The visits of the President and other highest representatives of Russia to Azerbaijan inevitably attract attention not only in regard to the bilateral relations of these countries. As a rule, they are viewed in comparison with similar visits to Armenia.
For many years, the two Transcaucasian republics have been fighting for Nagorno-Karabakh, and Moscow’s position not only in Baku and Yerevan, but also in Washington and Brussels, is considered – if not particularly decisive in the peace process – rather significant. Both Armenian and Azerbaijani politicians closely follow the statements by Russian representatives on the situation in Transcaucasia and the agreements that are signed by the parties. How did the recent Baku visit of Vladimir Putin stand out against this background?
First of all, one should note intense contacts between the presidents of Russia and Azerbaijan. In September, Putin and Aliyev met twice, if we consider only the bilateral negotiation format. At first glance, Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan can hardly complain about lack of attention from the Head of Russia. After being confirmed in office, he has met with the Russian leader for three times (he had one more meeting in St. Petersburg with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev). His recent visit to Moscow resulted in an arrangement that Putin will arrive in Yerevan. However, the specific dates of this visit are not known yet, and this topic was not discussed during the brief meeting of the Russian President and the Prime Minister of Armenia at the CIS summit in Dushanbe.
Disagreeing in assessing the causes and consequences of the Armenia’s “velvet revolution”, experts tend to agree that serious domestic political changes in Yerevan cause Moscow’s concern.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also outlined this position. At the same time, there has been no ‘concern’ on the Azerbaijani track. On the contrary, Moscow and Baku stress positive dynamics in bilateral economic relations and talk about such a common success story as the signing of the Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, although fairly it should also be shared with the other three participants of the Caspian Five (Kazakhstan, Iran and Turkmenistan). Moreover, on the eve of the Sochi talks between Putin and Aliyev on September 1, the media discussed actively Azerbaijan’s possible membership in the CSTO. So, the question inevitably arises – does the intensification of Russian-Azerbaijani relations mean a change in Moscow’s priorities? Can it be interpreted as the beginning of some kind of foreign policy shift of Russia or at least a revision of the old approaches?
Without geopolitical shifts
The answers to the questions posed above have a tactical and strategic dimension. In the first case, one shall look onto the agenda of the Sochi and Baku talks and take a note that the Nagorno-Karabakh theme was not a central topic there. Moreover, there were no calls to speed up the resolution of the conflict, to speed up the negotiations, no concrete plans offered or discussed. On the contrary, there is an obvious dominance of socio-economic issues.
In his speech at the Russian-Azerbaijani interregional forum, Aliyev particularly stressed that Russia is Azerbaijan’s partner number one for import and export of non-oil products. Diversification of the national economy has been a priority for Baku for several years. At the same time, in the context of increasing sanctions by the West, Moscow is interested in expanding ties with various partners in Eurasia, not only in the format of integration associations, but also on a bilateral basis. In my opinion, some distance from the Karabakh issue is not accidental. It is extremely important for Moscow to go beyond the narrow scope of this topic, which both Russian-Azerbaijani and Russian-Armenian relations are often reduced to.
Complicating the agenda of bilateral relations, thus, will help to find certain clues in order to use interest in partnership as an argument for de-escalation in case of possible crisis scenarios.
It should be borne in mind that, no matter how much Moscow is appreciated in Baku, there are many obstacles to further rapprochement between the two countries. Here we are not talking about meetings and talks, but about strategy. The Azerbaijani foreign policy is fundamentally based on the balance of interests and the refusal to strictly bind to integration projects. In Baku they prefer a model of bilateral relations. It has worked well not only with Russia, but above all Turkey, as well as Iran, Israel and the USA. Although, relationship between all the above countries is extremely difficult, they show interest in Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan in them. And something is unlikely to break this line. Therefore, Baku will not reconsider the “contract of the century” and strategic partnership with Western energy giants, as it will not abandon its ‘non-alignment’ policy.
In this context, there is no subject for discussion about geopolitical shifts in Transcaucasia. Whatever concerns Moscow has expressed about Yerevan, it is clear to Moscow that refusal from a strategic alliance with Yerevan today in favor of unobvious benefits from changing landmarks tomorrow will not strengthen Russia’s positions in the strategically significant region of Eurasia. Moreover, even if we imagine such a shift, it is unlikely to lead to a principled revision of the alliance between Baku and Ankara (Turkey is an important member of NATO) or to a revision of the “contract of the century” in favor of the hypothetical “contract of the millennium” with Rosneft or Gazprom.
Why is balancing inevitable?
But if this is so, then the next question is inevitable: why then does Moscow need such a hard balancing between Baku and Yerevan? It is clear that Armenia is a strategic ally here and now, and Azerbaijan follows the “Sinatra Doctrine”, using the successful metaphor of a Soviet diplomat and expert Gennady Gerasimov, that is, it pursues its own special foreign policy. Of course, the problem of supplying Russian weapons to Azerbaijan, a country that has never concealed its plans for Nagorno-Karabakh, comes in first place. Azerbaijan is the state, which is not hypothetically in the future, but already today is involved in armed incidents with Armenia along their common border.
All the above arguments are correct. However, one should not forget that no matter how valuable Armenia is to Russia, official Azerbaijan does not view Russia as its enemy.
Yes, there are different moods within the Azerbaijani society, including sharply critical ones towards Moscow, but the authorities do not view Russia as an ‘aggressive empire’, but on the contrary, see it as a key mediator in the Karabakh settlement and a reliable partner.
Obviously, that would be unwise to create a new enemy with your own hands (and even considering its ties with Turkey). Having lost its influence on Georgia after the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow cannot allow the repetition of such a scenario in Azerbaijan, with which there is a common border in the Dagestan sector and the common Caspian Sea.
If we talk about weapons from Russia, then they make up only a fifth in general imports to Azerbaijan, and besides Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and Israel also play in this market. The economic situation of the Caspian republic is such that problems with other sources of arms imports will not arise. Moreover, Russia has been supplying weapons to Azerbaijan since 2006. And to view it as an exclusive source of escalation during the “four-day war” would be deliberate oversimplification. Ideas to take revenge for Karabakh were part of the official Azerbaijani discourse long before 2016. They existed even when Russia did not supply weapons to Azerbaijan. Another issue would be the range of supplied weapons, as well as new impulses in the Russian-Armenian cooperation, including military-technical format. By the way, Moscow is extremely important not to be limited by the Karabakh framework in relations with Armenia. Otherwise, the largely artificial dilemma of the “Russian weapon” against the “high European standards” will intensify, which will in no way contribute to the strengthening of bilateral strategic relations between Moscow and Yerevan.
Sergey Markedonov, Associate Professor, Department of Regional Studies and Foreign Policy, Russian State University for the Humanities
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