Walking a Delicate Geostrategic Line: Azerbaijan’s Role to the U.S. and Russia

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Although the Cold War is long over there has still been a large degree of geopolitical competition between the West and Russia. This geopolitical battle is now being waged on the coast of the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is in a unique position in that the West and Russia are both vying to gain influence in it. The desire for this influence goes far beyond the potential for access to natural gas. The West is seeking to deny Russia any allies in the area while Russia is trying to retain its traditional sphere of influence. Through Azerbaijan the West will also significantly reduce its energy dependence upon Russia. Through an analysis of recent Azeri relations with the West and Russia, the West has an opportunity to gain this new geostrategic ally.

After the end of the Cold War, Western states immediately began expanding their influence eastward into traditional Russian-allied states and former Soviet Republics. This was meant to provide two geostrategic benefits to both Western states and their new allies in the east. The ‘West’ benefited by gaining access to these new economies and by shortening the list of Russian allies. The ‘East’ benefited by being able to integrate economically with the West and begin gaining security guarantees, particularly Eastern states trying to join NATO, not dependent on Russia. Over 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union this has been the standard Western policy position. Therefore it is logical that this policy would be aimed into the Caspian Sea region with Azerbaijan.

Despite the policy of geopolitically isolating Russia, European countries have become somewhat dependent on Russian natural resources. This is in reference to large-scale Russian gas exports to Europe which represent around a third of its natural gas needs. This economic interdependence with Russia has made responding to Russian initiatives such as the Ukraine crisis very difficult. With new resources ripe for extraction in the Azeri Caspian, Azerbaijan is a prime target for courting by the West to reduce energy dependence with Russia and continue the policy of denying Russia regional influence.

The West already has its foot in the door in regards to building a security relationship with Azerbaijan. As with many other former East European Soviet states which joined NATO, this could be the beginning step of Azeri entry into NATO as well as closer economic relationships with the EU, both of which Russia naturally opposes. Azerbaijan has participated in various NATO military operations with troop deployments in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Azerbaijan has also hosted NATO military exercises despite not being an official member. The US in particular has begun aiding the Azeri military with new supplies from small arms all the way to upgrading its navy.

Perhaps the most substantial future extension of the West’s military foot in the Azeri door comes from Turkey’s relationship with the country. Turkey has its own ambitions in the Caucasus region, trying to expand its influence into Azerbaijan. This is in alignment with overarching Western policy, which seeks to deny Russian influence and expand economically. Turkey would greatly benefit from access to Azeri natural resources in the Caspian Sea. Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan recently joined in a military alliance with one another which includes joint exercises. Being that Turkey is vying for influence in this region, its clear targets are the other two major regional powers, Russia and Iran. With Turkey being a member of NATO and now militarily-linked with Azerbaijan, the West has a new foot in the door, gaining access perhaps to Azeri natural resources in return for lessening its dependence on Russian ‘security.’

The West is also trying to bring Azerbaijan closer to its economic orbit and away from Russian monetary/trade influence. Many Western companies are already in the Azeri Caspian region extracting natural gas. The major energy player, BP, just expanded its scope and length of stay in Azeri Caspian waters. Although there are already numerous and diverse Western companies involved in Azerbaijan, the main economic goal is the creation of a pipeline from Azerbaijan to the West, with the West willing to foot the bill for it. However, despite this shared benefit and interest, there is much resistance from Azerbaijan’s former benefactor as it seeks to keep it away from Western influence. Azerbaijan is of high importance to Russia due to the economic benefits it provides. Keeping Azerbaijan in its orbit will result in these Caspian Sea resources going towards the Russian economy and will prevent them from benefitting the West, thereby keeping Europe mostly dependent upon Russian natural gas. However, disputes over the legality of and boundaries within the Caspian Sea, plus the attractiveness of the West overall, makes Russia’s attempt to retain exclusive influence in Azerbaijan quite difficult.

The 2008 Georgia War, with its ongoing disputes, and the Ukraine crisis presently highlights the dangers when leaving Russia’s orbit to move towards the West. However, Russia’s relationship with the former Soviet Republic Armenia is of particular concern to Azerbaijan. Armenia was supported militarily by Russia during a brutal war with Azerbaijan from the late 1980s until the mid 1990s. Russia continues to maintain a large military presence in Armenia, even as tensions and skirmishes persist to this day. Russia’s support of Azerbaijan’s old problem (and the concern it may one day again be a ‘new’ problem) will undoubtedly be taken into consideration as it decides how much to align with the West or not and how much to keep Russia within its interests and objectives.

Post-Cold War Western policy has and continues to seek to deny Russia its traditional allies militarily and economically, which in turn benefits the West by militarily softening Russian coercion and economically steering these Caspian economies away. Azerbaijan is in the West’s sights exactly for this reason. It will also hurt the Russian economy through loss of access to Azeri resources and the loss of Western business. The West has much to offer Azerbaijan, which it has thus far readily accepted with military ties, equipment, and even a security guarantee from NATO-member Turkey. Russia on the other hand is somewhat feeling backed into a corner with little to offer Azerbaijan other than not taking military action. The one foreseeable problem with this trend, however, could be what happened in Ukraine: not the idea of military aggression or civil unrest, but the under-emphasized aspect of EU promises to Ukraine being far more long-term and unrealized when compared to Russian proposals that were more immediately lucrative and short-term. Russia may not have as many diverse resources for negotiation with Azerbaijan compared to the West, but it likely does have a higher motivation level to make those negotiations more favorable in the present-day to Azeris. This could prove quite impactful, as Azerbaijan tries to steer a very delicate middle balance between the two: wanting to be more part of the West economically while still in Russia’s good favor geostrategically. This might end up being the REAL Azeri foreign policy, one that neither Russia nor the West is ready to fully engage but will likely have to before long.

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