Moscow-Baku Rapprochement Continues—But With Tests Ahead
More than 20 years ago, Baku-based commentator Wafa Galuzade pointed out to this author that, for Russia in the South Caucasus, Georgia is the way and Armenia is the tool, but Azerbaijan is the prize. Yet, at some point, he added, Moscow would turn on Armenia to win Azerbaijan and reap the geo-economic and geopolitical benefits—albeit with the loss of Yerevan as a lever against Baku (see EDM, July 19, 2016). And now, each new set of problems between Moscow and Yerevan, combined with each new example of apparent rapprochement between Moscow and Baku, inevitably raises the question: has that day finally arrived?
Since the revolution in Armenia brought Nikol Pashinyan to power in the spring of 2018, relations between Moscow and Yerevan have been rocky, with Russia openly defending the new Armenian leader’s opponents and even playing an increasingly independent role in the Karabakh dispute (see EDM, May 30, 2018 and June 5, 2019). Meanwhile, Moscow’s relations with Baku have warmed, with expanded trade, an increased number of high-level visits, and an upswing in regional and international cooperation.
The Azerbaijani government has been more than pleased to exploit the latest tensions between Moscow and Yerevan (Aze.az, September 16). And some in Baku, in recent weeks, have been talking about a Russian tilt toward Baku that will lead to a resolution of the Karabakh dispute in Azerbaijan’s favor—that is, by requiring the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Karabakh and the seven adjoining oblasts of Azerbaijan, thus restoring Baku’s sovereignty over all of its territory as now recognized by the international community (Aze.az, September 6). Some have undoubtedly been intrigued by an idea floated in Moscow a month ago: a Steinmeier-type (see EDM, September 17, 24, 25, 26, October 3) arrangement for Karabakh that would square the differences between Azerbaijan and Armenia (Regnum, October 3).
On the one hand, all of this is likely a continuation of the policy Moscow has favored over the last two decades: alternately backing Armenia or Azerbaijan at varying times to ensure it achieves its objectives with both while neither feels able to shift decisively away from Russia, lest Moscow redouble its support for the other. Indeed, Armenia seems so frightened by the prospect Russia will back Azerbaijan (Aze.az, September 13) that Pashinyan told the United Nations General Assembly at the end of September that Moscow is “the chief strategic partner of Yerevan” (Armeniasputnik.am, September 26).
On the other hand, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s participation in this year’s Valdai Conference (September 30–October 3) and his two high-profile interviews with Russian state-owned television channels (Regnum, October 6) have led some in Baku to conclude that this time, unlike in the past, the bilateral rapprochement reflects far more than just immediate developments in the South Caucasus. Rather, in their view, it has gone further, showing that Russia has shifted to Azerbaijan’s side not only because of its current problems with Armenia but also because of larger calculations concerning relations with Iran and the West. Indeed, such observers believe Azerbaijan has the advantage in this shift because of the implicit threat it can make: if Moscow does not move in Baku’s direction, Azerbaijan always retains the option to shift its geopolitical position against Russian interests. Perhaps the clearest articulation of these hopes and expectations comes from Kavkaz Omarov, the editor of the online portal New Era directed at Azerbaijanis, in a piece entitled “We Have Been Moving in This Direction for 27 Years! The Strategy of Azerbaijan, the Position of Russia, and the Hysteria of the Armenians” (New Era, October 7).
Noting that the theme of the Valdai Club meeting this year was “The Dawn of the East,” Omarov says this is significant for Azerbaijan and Russia since both of lie along the border between Europe and Asia. That provided the occasion for Aliyev to restate the balanced foreign policy he, like his father before him, has pursued (albeit in ways that underline the manner in which Baku has been far more supportive of Moscow than Yerevan has been). Azerbaijan has not joined the West’s sanctions regime against Russia, the Azerbaijani leader said, because the relationship is not dependent on outside influences, has stood the test of time, and “recently has become much more effective and qualitative” (New Era, October 7).
Russia and Azerbaijan are now cooperating in so many spheres—including promoting the north-south trade route, addressing mutual security concerns and acting together in international forums—that “it is eas[ier] to name those spheres where we are not cooperating,” the Azerbaijani president asserted. Omarov observes that this makes Azerbaijan a far more important and loyal partner to Russia not only in the South Caucasus but in the greater Middle East and beyond. The New Era editor further notes that “now Putin and his entourage understand what Armenia means for Russia: a place the Russian Empire in fact created on the historical lands of Azerbaijan” as part of its divide-and-rule policies—and that has consequences for the future of Karabakh talks.
The Azerbaijani author writes, “Moscow understands perfectly well that if, in the future, the Kremlin blocks the resolution of the Karabakh problem within the framework of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, such a policy will, sooner or later, force Baku to seek other geopolitical partners, leading to a situation in which Russia will irreversibly lose the Caucasus.” In short, Moscow has turned to Azerbaijan because it is in Russia’s interests; but now, it is time for the Russian leadership to do even more if it wants the current rapprochement to last. If it does not, Omarov implies, all that Moscow has achieved in Baku could be lost—and not lost as part of the game Russia has played over the last two decades, but lost in a far more definitive sense. Nothing Armenia might offer could compare with that.