The past several years of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy were quite eventful. Its relations with the three big players, Iran, Turkey, and Russia, have been transformed changing many aspects of Baku’s position in the South Caucasus.
It has long been argued that the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war could bring an end to Azerbaijan’s multi-vector foreign policy. Signs were there. The Shusha Declaration signed with Turkey cemented an official alliance between the two states. Russia’s military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh caused grievances and fears in Baku over Moscow’s intentions to prolong its stay beyond 2025 when the peacekeeping mission’s first term ends. Moreover, Baku often alluded to the Russian peacekeepers’ suspicious behavior in Nagorno-Karabakh or even unwillingness to play a stabilizing power. Russian troops too occasionally accused Azerbaijani troops violating the status quo, which usually caused negative sentiments in Baku.
To the south, Azerbaijan experienced pressure from Iran when the Islamic Republic staged massive military drills near Azerbaijan’s borders. Through the true reason was most likely Ankara’s growing clout in the South Caucasus, Tehran pushed the narrative of alleged Israeli and Western influence to the north of its borders. The end result of the diplomatic and military escalation with Tehran was Baku’s realization of the need for ever greater cooperation with Ankara.
These developments, so it was thought, would cause a major shift in Baku’s thinking – greater reliance on Turkey which, in turn, would cause tensions with Moscow and Tehran. To many, the end of a multi-vector foreign policy Azerbaijan has so assiduously worked to develop seemed imminent.
That is why Baku’s February 2022 agreement with Moscow, which coincided with the Kremlin’s decision to recognize two Donbas entities of Ukraine, surprised many. The document is about building intensive cooperation in virtually every aspect of bilateral relations. But what is more interesting are the clauses on foreign policy coordination. The two countries agreed to avoid making foreign policy moves that would endanger each other’s interests.
The new agreement underscored the transactional nature of Azerbaijani-Russian ties. Officially the countries have not been allies or even partners, but both have not been geopolitical competitors either. This added flexibility to the bilateral relations which helped stabilize the ties when they appeared to be deteriorating.
Moreover, the two states’ leaders have good personal ties and Azerbaijan seems to understand vital Russian concerns on the matters of foreign policy such as Western military and security influence in Moscow’s immediate neighborhood.
But perhaps a major rationale behind the agreement could have been the growing need in Azerbaijan to reassure Russia that the ever closer ties with Turkey are not necessarily directed against Moscow’s influence. It also partially soothes Moscow’s fears that in 2025 Baku could demand the withdrawal of the peacekeepers from Nagorno-Karabakh.
The agreement could in a way lessen the dangers Russia could pose, though it is also well understood in Baku that Moscow is notorious for fleeting the rules of international relations and signed agreements.
On a broader Eurasia-wide geopolitical level Baku’s thinking was also based on hard facts of the last several years. Before the Russian aggression against Ukraine in February Moscow seemed powerful. The collective West was striving to find avenues for cooperation with Russia whether in energy or security. Divisions within the trans-Atlantic community, though not as palpable as during Trump’s presidency, nevertheless diluted the salience of this military and economic space. No veritable resistance to Russia’s moves in its immediate neighborhood seemed realistic. This sentiment was also well reflected in how the West distanced itself from the developments which led to the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and especially during the post-war period when Turkey (indirectly) and Russia dominated the diplomatic process.
Thus, a mixture of necessity and inevitability drove Azerbaijan into closer cooperation with Russia. Increasingly reliant on military tools in keeping the South Caucasus under its influence, Moscow needed an agreement which would add a flavor of diplomacy, soft power, and most of all prestige it has been lacking. The agreement is a success for Russia because it could help Moscow to lay the ground for post-2025 peacekeeping presence in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The signed agreement does not, however, mean that in the longer run relations between Azerbaijan and Russia are going to be stable. Tensions will be there as it is deeply uncomfortable for Baku to have Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh. The contact line is the area where mutual accusations and even limited military escalation could be taking place.
On a wider level the core reason is that Russia is suspected of not being interested in pushing for a real, long-lasting peace in the South Caucasus. The railway revival project championed by Moscow following the November 2020 ceasefire agreement is not progressing sufficiently. Nor are Armenia-Azerbaijan talks are producing expected results. As a reflection of the stalled negotiations on connectivity, Azerbaijan and Iran recently signed an agreement which essentially expands the transit through the Iranian territory between Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan proper.
Moreover, despite the February agreement, Russia will remain highly sensitive about Baku’s allied relationship with Ankara. This will make Russian-Turkish competition more intense, albeit always covered under seemingly diplomatic coordination as the region’s two big powers. The Kremlin understands that the Shusha Declaration is more concrete in its essence than the February agreement.
Russia has some options to counter the saliency of Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance. And it is not only about Armenia-Russia allied ties, but increasingly so about the potential Iran-Russia cooperation as both fear Ankara’s influence in the South Caucasus.
Thus, Azerbaijan is now back to some kind of normalcy in its foreign policy. Multi-vectorism remains an effective tool, though the tilt toward closer ties with Turkey is more salient than before. Ties with Russia will remain close, but it will be increasingly difficult to navigate them amid signs (however early they might be at the moment) that trust between the two states might be eroding.
Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch