Azerbaijan-Russia Ties Face Increasing Challenges
Russia-Azerbaijan ties face increased challenges as Baku accused Moscow of purposefully stoking the conflict by providing arms to Armenia. It is notable that this rhetoric develops when Turkey is particularly vocal in its military support for Azerbaijan. Though it still remains to be seen whether these signs evolve into a concrete policy shift in Azerbaijan, hopes for diplomatic solution of Nagorno Karabakh conflict recede, and Turkey and Russia up their military support for Baku and Yerevan.
Azerbaijan-Russia relations face increasing challenges as the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus evolves. A series of events tested the bilateral ties and there is an increasing amount of evidence that some reconsideration of foreign policy on Azerbaijan’s part could be taking place.
The first challenge was the July fighting on Armenia-Azerbaijan frontier, far from the actual source of conflict – Nagorno Karabakh. What could have been a relatively unnoticed confrontation, it drew international attention due to the geostrategic infrastructure which runs near the fighting zone in Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region. Those are:
- Baku-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines, which deliver Caspian oil to the Black and the Mediterranean Seas;
- South Caucasus natural gas pipeline, which will send Azerbaijani gas to the EU and plays a key component in Turkey’s emerging strategy of positioning itself as regional energy hub.
In addition, the region also has the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars (BTAK) railroad (unveiled in 2017) and rarely mentioned the fiber-optic cables linking Europe with Central Asia. The Tovuz corridor also has a crucial Azerbaijan-Georgia highway, which allows Azerbaijan to connect to the Black Sea.
Thus in July Azerbaijan faced a threat to its major income. Damage to the infrastructure would also diminish the country’s geopolitical weight as a safe source of oil and gas. While fighting in or around Nagorno Karabakh takes place occasionally and at times reaches a serious level, such as in 2016, it nevertheless fits into the overall narrative of more or less predictable military scenarios which military and political leaders in Baku would expect. The Tovuz fighting, on the other hand, goes against most military narratives and required Baku’s tougher reaction. This is how the ties with Russia, Armenia’s major economic and military ally, come under intense scrutiny in Baku.
It is has always been a long-term challenge for Azerbaijan. Baku occasionally expresses its concerns on Russia’s military support for Armenia, but the criticism has usually been aired though newspapers and media rather than by high-level political figures. This changed following the July fighting.
Reasons are multiple. First, Russia (using its 102rd military base in Gyumri) and Armenia launched snap combat drills on July 17-20, just as the fighting in Tovuz region was still unfolding. Second, a series of flights of Russian military cargo planes to Armenia took place right after the July fighting.
In a notable change of tone the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev surprisingly publicly complained to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, stating that the recent reports on allegedly increasing Russian military support (400 tons of military hardware) for Armenia raise concerns and questions in Azerbaijani society. Perhaps as a reaction to growing bilateral differences, the Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu visited Baku to assure the Azerbaijani public that the flights were not of a military nature, but rather transported materials for the 102nd military base.
However, the affair did not end there as a senior adviser to Aliyev, Hikmet Hajiyev, on August 29, following Shoigu’s visit, claimed that “the explanation by the Russian side is not entirely satisfactory.” This effectively meant publicly refuting the Russian defense minister’s statements, further aggravating differences between the two states.
A September 1 article by Nezavisimaya Gazeta claimed that Azerbaijan had readied 500 Syrian militants in preparation for a “blitzkrieg against Armenia” and that Turkey has its troops on Azerbaijani soil. Baku vehemently criticized the report calling it “slander and [a] dirty campaign against our country.”
Yet another sign of troubled ties is the September 6th decision by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry opting out the Russia-led “Caucasus-2020” military drills (planned to be held in the southwest of Russia). Only two servicemen will be sent as observers. Though officially no concrete reasons for the withdrawal were given, it is possible to link the decision to Azerbaijan’s recent grievances at Russia.
Some larger reasons too might be at play motivating a change in Azerbaijan’s rhetoric. The Minsk Group, the body that aims to facilitate the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan is faltering. No concrete way to resolve the stand-off is present and the July fighting has just showed that diplomatic tools are receding. A vacuum is being created for regional powers to fill in. This is how Turkey comes to play an increasingly larger role in Baku’s strategic calculus.
Indeed, as the July fighting unfolded Turkey has been especially supportive of Azerbaijan. For instance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted “Turkey will never hesitate to stand against any attack on the rights and lands of Azerbaijan, with which it has deep-rooted friendly ties and brotherly relations.” Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar even warned that Armenia will be “brought to account” for its “attack” on Azerbaijan. Then large Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises followed.
Turkey’s calculus here is clear as the country needs to defend the vital oil, gas and railway infrastructure coming from Azerbaijan. And considering how far has diplomacy receded around Nagorno Karabakh issue, Turkey and Russia are set to play an even larger military and economic role in the South Caucasus. For the moment open rivalry will be avoided, but for Moscow and Ankara the region represents yet another area of covert competition along with Syria and Libya.
However, casting Azerbaijan-Russia relations as deteriorating is not entirely correct. Intensive cooperation still exists between the states. Azerbaijan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jeyhun Bayramov, paid an official visit to Russia on August 26 at the invitation of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov.
In late August-early September Azerbaijani servicemen participated in the “Tank Biathlon” and also won the Sea Cup competition – both held as part of the “International Army Games – 2020” organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
It is still hard to see whether Azerbaijan’s changing rhetoric towards Russia is more than just a temporary, tactical maneuver. It could be a clever diplomatic game Azerbaijan has always pursued since 1990s – namely, facing its larger neighbors against one another. Nevertheless, the rhetoric and recent political decision signal a search for reconsideration of some basic elements in Baku’s strategic vision. Turkey’s bigger role is likely to be sought more intensively, while hopes for a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict would further recede.
Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch
Untouchable U.S. troops in Lithuania
This month the Pentagon has been accused of blocking the sharing of U.S. intelligence with the international criminal court (ICC).
Located in The Hague, Netherlands, and created by a treaty called the Rome Statute first brought before the United Nations, the International Criminal Court operates independently.
Most countries on Earth – 123 of them – are parties to the treaty, but there are very large and notable exceptions, including Russia and the U.S.
It is interesting, that the Biden White House and State Department have been a proponent of cooperation with the Hague-based ICC, as a means of holding Russian forces accountable for war crimes, but the Defense Department is firmly opposed on the grounds that the precedent could eventually be turned against U.S. soldiers.
U.S. opponents of the court argued that it could be used to prosecute U.S. soldiers fighting in foreign wars, despite safeguards written into the statute stating that the international court would only have jurisdiction if the courts in a suspect’s home country were unwilling or unable to prosecute.
Anyone accused of a crime in the jurisdiction of the court, which includes countries that are members of the ICC, can be tried. Though the court tries people, not countries, and focuses on those who hold the most responsibility: leaders and officials.
And the Pentagon has really something to fear.
The U.S. has sent some 20,000 additional troops to Europe as part of an effort to bolster NATO’s defenses, assist Ukraine’s war efforts and deter Russia. This includes additional deployments to Poland, the Baltic countries and to Romania, bringing current total to more than 100,000 service members across Europe.
According to David Vine, professor at the American University in Washington, DC, the U.S. had around 750 bases in at least 80 countries as of July 2021. The actual number may be even higher as not all data is published by the Pentagon.
The U.S. government attracts people to the Armed Forces by introducing a large number of various benefits and preferences to military personnel.
Since the support for military is very popular in the United States, congressmen and senators, gaining political benefits, actively vote for further expanding the aid package and legal guarantees.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, “We recognize the service and sacrifice of our military and their families, and dedicate resources, services, policies and programs to support the more than 2 million uniformed service members and 2.6 million family members across the globe.”
Thus, the law on civil assistance for military personnel protects them from prosecution during military service and for a year after its completion, as a result of which a soldier cannot be evicted from his home or bankrupt. The law also limits the interest rate for the military – its size when buying a home, a car or using a credit card cannot exceed 6%.
The authorities also provide tax incentives to organizations that employ the wives of military personnel, and oblige them to provide them with a 30-day free vacation once a year. In addition, for family members of military personnel there is a discount in grocery stores, as well as preferential travel on public transport, on trains and on airplanes. In addition, active military personnel and veterans are entitled to lifelong medical insurance, through which they can pay for any medical care.
As for those U.S. troops who serve abroad, there are agreement on status of U.S. troops and their families. Such documents make American soldiers just untouchable. Thus, Lithuania and the U.S. signed agreement on status of US troops and their families in 2017. The agreement gives the U.S. jurisdiction over crimes committed by its military personnel. The document also gives the U.S. the right to use certain military facilities.
Though all these deployments raise separate questions about the nature of the various missions. American troops are often accused of serious human rights abuses.
These cases very often are hidden from the society and known only among those who are close to the Armed Forces. Nobody in the U.S. cares of Baltic States’ local population which expresses dissatisfaction or even scared of foreign soldiers in their territories. The U.S. authorities made their best to protect its military personnel. The Lithuanian authorities in their turn do nothing to protect population from foreign soldiers’ criminal behaviour.
The Ukraine War and Great Power Competition
The term Great Power competition (GPC) can be used as a framework to analyze interstate relations, such as those between the United States and the Russian Federation. GPC eras existed prior to World War II, during the Cold War, and in the post-Soviet period. They feature multiple powerful states competing for relative status, position, power, and influence. The primary rivalry during the Cold War was between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the USSR, there was nearly a 20-year period where the United States was arguably the only super power. Since the 2010’s, however, both the Russian Federation and China have emerged as great powers pursuing interests conflicting with those of the United States. At least since 2018, the United States National Defense Strategy has identified China and Russia as the primary threats to U.S. prosperity.
Great Power Competition is said to exist when powerful nations compete for the authority to shape global security architectures, drawing other countries into their orbit. The competitors also vie for the ability to set the norms and practices of economics, trade, and investment. Additionally, GPC involves countries competing to control the flow of information, as well as the development and regulation of new technology. Competition does not have to mean conflict, however. The U.S. competes with its partners in the E.U., particularly with Germany, as well as with Japan, but this is healthy competition which in the end, improves the competitive environment of the global economy. True global power competition is more of a zero-sum game, whereby the winner will be more powerful and the looser less powerful. GPC often results in war between two great powers, but war, including proxy wars and limited wars, even between actors other than the most powerful nations, can be the symptom of a great power competition.
The Ukraine war, has the markings of great power competition between the U.S.-led western bloc and the Russian-led bloc. The U.S. side includes NATO, the E.U. the rest of Europe, and close U.S. allies in Asia, such as Japan. On the other side are Russia and its allies, Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Serbia, and China.
Destabilization from Europe to Asia
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for the second time in less than ten years, is clearly an act of power projection and an attempt to change the world order. The Russian annexation of the Crimea, in 2014, was an attempt at destabilizing Ukraine while creating problems and challenges for the broader European community and the United States. The fact that Russia did not suffer any significant repercussions for its actions in 2014, emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine in 2022. Both the 2014 and 2022 incursions in Ukraine can be seen as extensions of the Cold War and both were attempts by Russia to disrupt the international order.
The Ukraine War is taking place during a period of intense competition between the United States and China. Beijing has refused to condemn the invasion at the UN Security Council or the G-20 meetings. China does not participate in western sanctions. In fact, China is helping Russia circumvent sanctions. As a result, this conflict involves the world’s three largest military powers, threatening the global order from Europe all the way to Asia.
The intensified strategic rivalry between the United States and China carries severe implications for security in the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific region. Russia and China are collaborating to support the military junta which seized control of Myanmar. China provides money, while Russia provides weapons and oil. The western-led democracies have condemned the coup, but the Russia-China bloc are supporting it, drawing Myanmar into the axis opposing the U.S. and the West. Similarly, both Russia and China are supporting the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan.
Propaganda and Information War
Wars are not only fought in military terms but also across a wide array of domains, including information. Both the Ukraine and Russia have created a narrative. Ukraine has broadcast the message that they are defending their homeland, a sovereign nation, suffering a foreign invasion. Russia claims to be annexing a historically Russian piece of land. Putin has stated that he is reuniting Ukrainians and Russians which have always been one people. He also maintains that his fight is necessary for the preservation of Russia, as he accused the west of wanting to erase Russia from the map. The west has portrayed the war as a battle against authoritarianism and for the preservation of democracy. The White House issued a statement in February, reconfirming the U.S. support for Ukraine, citing territorial integrity, democracy, dignity, human rights, and “the UN Charter that unites the whole world.”
In its attempt to control the narrative, the Kremlin has shut down newspapers and other media, killed or intimidated journalists, and jailed or otherwise silenced critics and protesters. However, these information warfare efforts have failed, as the U.S. and western allies have managed to present the world with a different picture, painting Russia in a worse light.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) working together with their Ukrainian partner, the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), have determined that since the war began, 12,000 Ukrainian and foreign journalists have been accredited to cover the war, exposing frequent Russian bombardment of and deliberate targeting of civilians and journalists. So far, eight journalists have been killed. Twenty-six have been specifically targeted, and 19 have been injured. Russian forces have targeted 16 TV towers, and committed 42 cyber-crimes against media, while shutting down 217 media.
Despite Russian efforts to the contrary, Reporters Without Borders has managed to continue supporting journalists. They have supplied 750 journalists with protective equipment, 91 media with power sources, 28 media with funding, 288 journalists with training, and 129 with financial assistance.
In addition to the official press, social media has also played a tremendous role in this war. Ukrainians have uploaded images of their suffering and published photos and videos of Russian failures. These social media efforts have attracted western support for Kyiv, while encouraging Ukrainians to keep fighting. In the blurred world between cyber and real life, U.S. companies, such as Microsoft, have been able to nullify some of Russia’s advantages in space and telecommunications. Russian entities were kicked off many internet platforms and social media, further detracting from Moscow’s ability to control the story. Furthermore, the largest, most widely read media are owned by the Americans and the Brits. And so, they were able to tailor the message coming out of the war.
Sanctions as Weapons
Although there are two combatants in the Ukraine war, many more countries are involved politically, diplomatically, and economically. Some are providing weapons and training. Others help with intelligence, allowing Ukraine to use their satellite guidance systems. Additionally, the U.S. and its allies are waging economic war against Russia by bringing sanctions.
Not only governments, but also private businesses have joined in the fight by organizing their own boycotts and bans on commerce with Russia. McDonalds and other corporations have pulled out of Russia. Visa, Master Card, and Paypal have suspended service in Russia, making it difficult for Russian entities to conduct international business or to send or receive payments.
The official sanctions, naming high ranking government officials as well as specific companies, are meant to disrupt Moscow’s ability to finance the war. To this end, the foreign currency reserves and other assets of the Russian government and oligarchs have been frozen in foreign banks. Specific sectors of the economy have been completely cutoff from trade with allied nations. The most damaging blow to the Russian economy has been a price-cap imposed on the export of Russian oil. Allied nations have prohibited their ships and insurers from engaging in trade of Russian oil which exceeds the cap price of $60 per barrel. Together, these sanctions limit Moscow’s access to hard currency in a world where the ruble is effectively useless in international trade.
On the opposing side, Moscow’s allies, as well as officially unaligned countries, Turkey, India, and Vietnam, continue to trade with Russia. The non-convertibility of the ruble and the inability to use major international payment systems, however, has complicated this trade. Furthermore, in order to convince countries to violate sanctions, Russia has to offer oil at below market prices. Shipping to India adds about $11 per barrel to the cost, nullifying Russia’s additional profits when the world price of oil dips below $70 per barrel.
Rewriting the International Security Architecture
The Ukraine War has caused the realignment of the world’s nations into three categories: the U.S. camp, the Russian camp, and those who refuse to take sides, remaining non-aligned. NATO and the U.S. sided against Russia immediately. This was to be expected, given the U.S. leadership of NATO and that NATO was formed to prevent the expansion of the USSR. However, European nations who were not NATO members also joined the western bloc. The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of a resolution condemning the invasion. Among the Asian countries that voted with the western bloc were Singapore, South Korea, and Japan.
Thirty-five countries, however, abstained from a vote of condemnation, three of which were British Commonwealth states South Africa, Pakistan, and India. All the BRICS countries abstained from the vote, including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
Western countries, along with western aligned allies in Asia and elsewhere, feel that the west is maintaining a global, rules-based order. Finland and Sweden have asked to join NATO, while the Balkan States have shifted even more towards the western orbit. Many Asian and African countries, however, found it better to remain unaligned, so they could continue to trade with Russia. These nations are not, however, rallying with overt support for the Russian side.
With its chip bans and other restrictions on the sale of technology to Russia, the U.S. is rewriting the rules on Russia’s use of technology and most likely impacting Russia’s future technological development. Drones have played a significant role in the war so far and now it seems that Russia has deployed hypersonic missiles. The chips and other technological inputs needed to manufacture and maintain these technologies are all covered by the U.S. sanctions. At the same time satellites are proving critical as they are being used for imaging and directing fire. Moscow has threatened to attack U.S. satellites aiding Ukraine. Meanwhile, the EU has officially ended its cooperation with the Russian Space Agency. These and other sanctions are expected to cripple the long-term development of Russia’s space program.
Great Power Competition
What started out as a simple conflict between two states over the control of territory, became a great power competition between the U.S.-led west and the Russian Federation. Without firing a shot at one another, the two actors are battling for hearts and minds, to control the narrative, to win-over new supporters, and to establish which is the greater power. Even more, both sides believe that losing would mean a permanent loss of power.
Applying the definition of great power competition: The Ukraine war involves two large nations, the U.S. and Russia, competing for the authority to shape the global security architecture. The U.S. has built a coalition, including NATO, the EU, and far away allies, rewriting the existing global security architecture. In great power competition, two powerful nations compete to set the norms and practices of trade and investment. By organizing a coalition and bringing sanctions, the U.S. has is now dictating the norms and practices of trade with Russia and controlling Russia’s trade with most of the world.
Another aspect of GFC is competition for the development and regulation of new technology. The Russian Spacey Agency has been banned from cooperation with Europe, and Moscow’s access to chips has bas been restricted. Effectively, the U.S. is controlling the development and regulation of Russia’s technology. Therefore, it can be concluded that the Ukraine War is a great power competition which will most likely set the tone for all future conflicts.
Lithuania is on a slippery slope hosting NATO troops
As Lithuania not only calls on NATO partners to increase military presence on its territory, the authorities also allocate large sum of money to develop national military infrastructure.
Thus, the Ministry of National Defence is implementing an infrastructure development project in preparation for hosting the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. The contract was signed by the NATO Support and Procurement Agency as the project coordinator and Merko Statyba UAB.
As a result, 10 buildings will be constructed to house barracks, mess-hall, vehicle repair facility, helipads, multipurpose facility, etc. The work is planned to be completed by 2026. The assessed worth of the contract is over EUR 110 million.
According to Minister of National Defence Arvydas Anušauskas, Lithuania is developing infrastructure to strengthen deterrence and defence.
But this large-scale project does not look like a defensive one. Completion of the project will make the Pabradė Training Area capable of hosting up to 3 thousand military personnel and one of the most developed military ranges in the Baltics! It will ensure good conditions for training activities and resting, as well as logistical and technical support.
It is just one of the several Lithuanian Armed Forces modernization projects the Ministry of National Defence is implementing with coordination by the NATO Support and Procurement Agency.
The question arises if Lithuania considers the Ukrainian crisis lasts for 3 more years or authorities try to hide the real purpose of the modernization efforts.
In fact such plans will not help Lithuania to defend itself in near future because the project to be finished only by 2026.
The more so, at the end of February Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis confirmed that there is no direct military threat at Lithuania’s border.
It could be concluded that Lithuania or its NATO partners considers Lithuania’s military infrastructure as a starting point for any offensive operations, which could jeopardize complex relationships with neigbours.
It is well known that most interstate wars are fought or begin between neighbors. These steps will make it harder for Lithuania to improve relations and even could re-start an arms race and threaten seriously the stability of the region. It is quite evident that ordinary residents do not need such consequences of political decisions. On the other hand, authorities insist on further militarization of Lithuania and thus complicate the prospects for normalizing relations with neighbors bring the war closer.
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