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Azerbaijan - Russia Relations

Russian influence in Azerbaijan has declined since independence, in large part because of Azerbaijan's ability to leverage its oil and gas into increased cooperation with the West and its suspicion of Russia as the former imperial and Soviet center of power. Azerbaijan's self-sufficiency in energy increases its independence from Moscow in comparison to the other states in the South Caucasus. Nagorno-Karabakh and energy remain the key stumbling blocks for any improvement in the Azerbaijan-Russia relationship.

The continued presence of Russian forces in Azerbaijan became problematic when Russian troops were alleged to have assisted Armenians in an attack that killed hundreds of civilians in the town of Khodzhaly, in southwestern Azerbaijan, in February 1992. In the face of widespread demands from the political opposition in Baku, components of a 62,000-member Russian force began to withdraw from Azerbaijan almost immediately. Striking a contrast to the protracted withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltic states, the last Russian unit, the 104th Airborne Division, withdrew from Azerbaijan in May 1993, about a year ahead of the schedule that the two countries had set in 1992.

Since the mid-1990s Azerbaijan has pursued a delicate balancing act with Russia, pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration as a means to safeguard its independence while carefully avoiding actions that could unnecessarily provoke its powerful neighbor. For example, while Azerbaijan maintained membership in the CIS, it assiduously avoided Russian overtures for closer security ties such as through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Similarly, although privately officials will stress that they support increased integration with organizations like the EU and NATO, publicly they often claim that they are satisfied with the current level of cooperation with NATO and are not interested in membership now.

President Heydar Aliev sought to increase Azerbaijan's independence from Russia, and declined to accept Russian bases or border guards. A new warming in ties between Baku and Moscow partly stemmed from visits to Baku by President Putin in 2001 and 2006. Good relations with Russia are essential for a settlement to the N-K conflict. Bilateral agreements have been reached between Azerbaijan, Russia and Khazakhstan on delimitation of national territorial waters in the Caspian Sea. President Ilham Aliev visited Moscow several times since October 2003, and expressed his wish for good bilateral relations on trade and international security.

Azerbaijani officials believe that this cautious approach is necessary to protect Azerbaijan's sovereignty and often are privately critical of Georgia's more confrontational approach to Russia. Azerbaijan always tried to stay a step behind Georgia on issues related to Euro-Atlantic integration, letting the Georgians test the waters in terms of Russia's response. Yet Baku stood with Tbilisi as it tried to curb Russian dominance of the South Caucasus, and Azerbaijan put all of its hopes in Georgia's success in Euro-Atlantic integration.

The Qabala radar station was used by Russia to monitor the greater Middle East and Indian Ocean region, and was raised by Russia for consideration by the USG or others as a possible missile defense post. The government supported utilizing the Russian-controlled Qabala radar station to ease tensions over missile defense, likely hoping to help bridge differences between the United States and Russia while increasing Azerbaijan's strategic importance. The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed on 11 December 2012 that the Russian army will no longer rent the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan.

Most Baku-based political analysts cite Russian support to Armenia and the perception that Moscow works to block resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh as the most serious impediments to improved relations. The government believes that Moscow benefits from the protracted conflict in NK because it increases Yerevan's reliance on Moscow while simultaneously providing a serious roadblock on Azerbaijan's path to Euro-Atlantic integration. The government does not consider Russia to be an honest broker in the Minsk Group process, based on the perception that it actively works against a solution and certainly favors Armenia in the negotiations.

Energy policy has been a point of dispute between Azerbaijan and Russia for over a decade. Since winter 2006-07, Azerbaijan has been independent of Russian gas imports, and President Aliyev is proud of Azerbaijan's ability to not cave into what he publicly referred to as Russian "commercial blackmail." Without a gas pipeline in place to carry Azerbaijani gas to Europe, the likelihood that Azerbaijan would become a transit country for Central Asian gas would also decrease, increasing Russia's hold on the European market and Central Asian supplies.

Bilateral economic links have declined since independence, but Russia remained a significant trade partner. Azerbaijanis continue to cross the border in search of higher wages, with an estimated one to two million Azerbaijani citizens working in Russia and sending money back home to Azerbaijan. These workers tend to be from Azerbaijan's rural areas, and they benefit from the common Soviet experience and familiarity with the Russian language. This migration could become a serious problem because it makes Azerbaijan dependent to some degree on Russia.

Political commentators frequently claim that Russia exerts influence in Azerbaijan through secret or nefarious means. These charges usually focus on Russian support for a particular party, politician, publication, or ethnic minority, such as the Lezgin population in the north that has links across the border in Dagestan. These claims however are rarely backed with substantive proof, but the fact that they are voiced suggests that Azerbaijanis retain a great amount of respect for Russian power and believe that it is used behind the scenes.

Azerbaijan routinely accuses Russia of supplying Armenia with weapons and pointedly absents itself from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), while participating in GUAM. At the same time, Aliyev constantly played up his relations with President Medvedev with frequent visits and has kept open the channels of negotiation on energy issues, concluding a small but symbolically important agreement with Gazprom to supply gas to Dagestan. He is assertive enough to defend Azerbaijan's prerogative for an independent policy, but discreet enough that he is in no danger of joining Saakashvili on Moscow's hit list.

Many high-ranking Azerbaijani officials saw Russia's 2008 actions in Georgia with a view to energy exports and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, critical interests for Azerbaijan. From Baku's perspective, Moscow's main objective was control of Caspian energy resources, with Georgia being the chokepoint on non-Russia access to markets via Turkey or the Black Sea. Observers worried that Russia's military action in Georgia and subsequent recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia strengthened the hand of the Armenians, and weakened Azerbaijan's leverage over Yerevan at the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiating table.

Moscow's forces consolidated positions in Georgia in buffer zones that are in close proximity to key energy transport facilities, including the railroad, Azerbaijani facilities at the port of Kulevi, and pipelines crossing Georgia, which would give them effective control over energy transport. Given its history with the Russians, Azerbaijan had always known they could do something like this, and for this reason, Azerbaijan had always been prudent in its dealings with Russia. Russia in recent times had been very irritated by Azerbaijan's support for Nabucco and the Odessa-Brody-Plotsk-Gdansk pipelines. Considering that the Russians sent troops to massacre Azerbaijani citizens in 1990 when there was nothing here that threatened Russia's vital interests, it seemed entirely possible that they would take strong steps to protect their interests today, given Azerbaijan's role as an independent energy supplier.

Medvedev and Putin were united and firm in their desire to re-establish Russian influence in the Caucasus, and this was increasingly evident in their interactions with Azerbaijan. Although Russia had not made any direct threats to Azerbaijan after Georgia, Azerbaijan read Putin's and Medvedev's comments that what happened to Georgia could happen to Azerbaijan, and that "the South Caucasus belong to us," as clearly directed at Azerbaijan.

Despite the disagreements with Moscow over Nagorno-Karabakh and energy, Azerbaijan's political elite have significant ties to Russia dating back to the Soviet period. The details of these personal relationships remain murky to those outside the government, but political analysts suggest that President Aliyev is friendly with a number of wealthy Azerbaijanis who live in Moscow. His daughter, Leyla, married the son of an Azerbaijani oligarch who lived in Moscow, and several prominent Azerbaijani businessmen retain dual citizenship. Russian Ambassador to Baku Vasily Istratov often boasted that he mentored many of Azerbaijan's elites - including Presidential Advisor Ali Hasanov - during his days as a professor at Moscow State University.

Although there is no significant pro-Russian political party in Azerbaijan, the ruling New Azerbaijan Party consists of a number of ex-nomenklatura who "look with Russian eyes," even if they have differing foreign policy interests than their counterparts in Moscow. This similar outlook is propelling Azerbaijan to follow a similar political path as Russia. Azerbaijan is beginning to follow the Russian political model, where the ruling party works to limit civil society and drastically weaken the opposition. As the political models in the two countries converge, the relationship between Moscow and Baku could improve.




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