The war in Ukraine is a test for relations between Azerbaijan and Russia

On February 22, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev visited Moscow at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin at a delicate time, just a day after Moscow officially recognized the independence of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern Ukraine, and a day before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the country.

The main agenda of Aliyev’s visit was to sign a new declaration that upgraded the two countries’ relations to “allied cooperation”. The statement expresses the intention of the two parties to strengthen cooperation in a wide range of areas, including regional security issues, military ties, energy and trade, while calling for mutual consultations on joint efforts. within international organizations, in order “to protect the interests of Azerbaijan and Russia. It builds on two previous agreements signed between the two countries in 1997 and 2008 that elevated their relationship to a strategic partnership.

Unsurprisingly, the timing of the declaration’s signing was poorly received in Azerbaijan, where many interpreted the document as sacrificing Baku’s long-term strategy of a balanced and independent foreign policy. It also sparked speculation and public debate in the country as well as in the Russian media as to whether this decision was imposed by Moscow or whether it represented another pragmatic step by Baku to secure its national interests in a European geopolitical environment in rapid evolution.

From Azerbaijan’s perspective, however, the openness to Russia should come as no 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 statement came just weeks after the European Union’s energy commissioner visited Baku to seek increased natural gas deliveries to offset potential shortages in the event Russia cuts. supplies as part of the standoff over Ukraine, a request Baku granted. Nor is it the first allied cooperation agreement of this type that Moscow has concluded with states in the region: in 2000, Russia signed a similar document with Armenia to strengthen “bilateral cooperation between the two Partner States in the defence, economic and social fields”.

However, the new statement is particularly important for Azerbaijan in light of the continuing uncertainties surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and the Russian peacekeeping mission deployed in the breakaway region – which is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory but is partly controlled by ethnic Armenians – since the ceasefire agreement that ended the most recent fighting in November 2020. This mission still lacks a clear mandate, and although the new statement does not directly address the question, Baku seems to think it could eventually lead to more clarity on Russia’s role in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Although framed as an alliance, the new declaration is written in general language ensuring Baku’s friendly attitude towards Russia, but does not define the specific obligations of either party. For Moscow, this was probably aimed at ensuring that Azerbaijan refrained from Western efforts to isolate Russia, including sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, following the invasion of Ukraine. .

Despite the perspective of Aliyev’s visit against the background of the invasion of Ukraine, Azerbaijan’s main concern in deepening cooperation with Moscow remains Nagorno-Karabakh.

Besides these more general points, there are also a few new articles in the document outlining closer defense and military cooperation. Concretely, this means that Baku is likely to continue to import Russian weapons, to participate in joint programs for the modernization of certain types of Soviet-era weapons, including helicopters and planes, and to cooperate with Moscow on issues related to regional security.

By signing an agreement guaranteeing its “close military partnership”, Baku also avoided having to join the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, which Moscow sought, and Baku avoided, for many years. many years. For Baku, joining the CSTO alongside Armenia has long been unacceptable. But membership would also entail difficult obligations as well as negative consequences for its relations with the West.

During the signing of the agreement, some critics expressed fears that Baku might also give in to Russian pressure to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk. But while Baku has so far refrained from making any public statements of support for Kiev since Russia began its invasion, Azerbaijan has already made its position clear regarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity: in January , when tensions between Ukraine and Russia had reached a fever pitch, Aliyev flew to Kyiv, where he and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed energy cooperation agreements as well as a joint statement reaffirming the will of the two parties to, according to Zelensky, “provide mutual support for the sovereignty, territorial integrity of [their states] within internationally recognized borders. Once the Russian invasion began, Azerbaijan quickly reacted by sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine and agreeing to provide free fuel through its national oil company, SOCAR, for Ukrainian ambulances and fire trucks.

Nevertheless, despite the perspective of Aliev’s visit against the background of the invasion of Ukraine, Azerbaijan’s main concern in deepening dialogue and cooperation with Moscow remains Nagorno-Karabakh and the separatist regime. de facto who still controls him on the pitch. Baku insisted on including additional points in the statement that reaffirm its position on the region and call for the unblocking of regional transport links, such as rail links and the Nakhchivan land corridor linking Azerbaijan to Turkey. In doing so, Baku made it clear that closer ties with Moscow would not come at the expense of its own national security interests and red lines.

The document could also be a first step towards a deeper dialogue to establish the ground rules for the Russian peacekeeping mission stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh, with only three years until its withdrawal, as foreseen in the ceasefire agreement. -fire of November 2020. In particular, Azerbaijan has its sights set on post-conflict reconstruction and a definitive political resolution of the conflict with Armenia as soon as possible, which would make the deployment of Russian forces unnecessary of peacekeeping.

Notwithstanding the statement’s calls for enhanced defense and security cooperation, in all likelihood Baku will continue to rely on Turkey and Israel rather than Russia for military support, due to their advanced military technology and the mutual trust that has developed in these bilateral relations over the past decade through frequent joint military exercises and military contracts. Azerbaijan also recently entered into a comprehensive regional security partnership with Turkey – whose military support was critical to Baku’s battlefield victory against Armenian forces in the 2020 war – in the form of the Choucha Declaration, which was signed in June 2021 and recently ratified by parliaments. on both sides.

In this light, the recent declaration signed with Russia can be seen more as a guarantee of Azerbaijan’s neutrality in the face of Moscow’s conflict with the West than as its support. In return, it serves as an investment to secure Russian cooperation in efforts to reach a final peace agreement to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This reflects that, for now, Baku will continue to seek a balance between Russia and the West to secure its own interests. But this balance could become more difficult to maintain as Moscow becomes increasingly isolated and all states in the region, including Azerbaijan, begin to feel the economic and political costs.

Fuad Shahbazov is a political analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus. He is a former research fellow at the Azerbaijan Center for Strategic Studies and a former senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Communications, also in Azerbaijan. He was a visiting scholar at the Daniel Morgan School of National Security in Washington. Currently, he is an MA candidate in Defense and Diplomacy at Durham University in the UK. He can be found on Twitter at @fuadshahbazov.