Balancing is the most commonplace word in the South Caucasus. This is how the three states approach the war Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine reverberates across the world, the South Caucasus region is especially susceptible to the dark geopolitical mood music. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are balancing between potential Russian reprisals and the need, near necessity, to stand together with Ukraine.
Georgia is the most threatened. Invaded and partially occupied by Russia in 2008, it has sent mixed signals over the past two weeks. The country applied for EU membership early last month, but has also largely abstained from publicly criticizing Russia. The population, however, has expressed overwhelming support— a poll suggested 88% sided with Ukraine and 1% with Russia. There have been large demonstrations in central Tbilisi, a constant flow of humanitarian aid is being sent, and a number of Georgian military volunteers have fought (and died) in Ukraine.
The likely explanation for the chasm between the government and its citizens is that the ruling Georgian Dream party is unwilling to take a position until the war’s outcome is clear. A Russian victory would augur badly for Georgia, which is the other country named in Russia’s original list of demands to NATO and the US in December, which sought a new security deal for Europe. A victorious Russia would be in a very strong position to demand obedience from Georgia regarding the alliance’s 14 year old promise to make the country a member.
But the government’s balancing game is becoming increasingly untenable. Pressure from inside is uncomfortable, as are the calls to do more from international partners. While the logic of Georgia’s behavior is cautious and acknowledges the disparity of power with Russia, the idea that the Kremlin might be less challenging toward Georgia is premature. Russia continues to occupy Georgia’s territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and is unlikely to change. There is no indication that Vladimir Putin’s regime will smile favorably on Georgia when its stated goals are expansionist and uncompromising.
In Azerbaijan, Russia will continue its highly successful transactional approach. The recent agreement on allied cooperation underlined this. Moreover, it also means that Russia has probably laid the groundwork for a continuing military presence in Azerbaijan post-2025, one of its key aims in the region which ensures that all three South Caucasus countries have Russian troops inside their internationally recognized borders. Like Georgia’s leaders, Azeri ministers have avoided openly criticizing Russia, as they too fear potential Russian reprisals. In a way, Azerbaijan, sandwiched between Russia and Iran, has little room for maneuver. Even its alliance with Turkey cannot protect the country from a Russian threat.
Armenia is perhaps least shaken by the war in Ukraine. The trauma of 2020 and how the West was largely absent from its defeat in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war and its fallout thereafter have made angry consideration and support for Ukrainian independence. Like its small neighbors, Armenia simply has very little freedom of maneuver, and its decision to support Russia, or abstain, during votes in international organizations since the war began underlines the growing limits it faces, especially following the 2020 war.
So, while each has its own national considerations, they also have one key concern in common: avoidance of Russian reprisals.
Meanwhile, other developments unrelated to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are also shaping the region’s future. Armenia and Turkey, which have for years been on less-than-friendly terms, are moving toward a comprehensive improvement of bilateral relations. The opening of their long-closed border as well as the restoration of diplomatic ties are under serious discussion. If implemented, this would have tremendous effects on the geopolitics of the region. The opening of the otherwise geographically closed region, which has been mostly dependent on Russia for infrastructure in recent decades, would open up and give Turkey a bigger stake in the region’s fate.
Armenia and Azerbaijan too, though continuously embroiled in flare-ups along their contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh, seem to be heading toward a significant breakthrough in their decades-long conundrum, which dates back at least to the first Nagorno-Karabakh war from 1992-94. Various hints from the Armenian side indicate that they might agree to regard Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan in exchange expect some sort of autonomy and guarantees for the Armenian population in the enclave.
The third major development is the indication that a proposed railway revival project is unlikely to move ahead under Russia’s auspices. Azerbaijan and Iran recently signed an agreement whereby the Islamic Republic will play a role in transit projects between Azerbaijan proper and Nakhichevan, its detached territory beyond Armenia.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
Russia-Ukraine Crisis: Can Multipolar BRICS-11 Ensure Global Peace and Stability?
At the United Nations General Assembly high-level meetings held in New York, a number of global leaders including those from Africa vehemently called for global peace and sustainable development. Russia and South Africa, both members of BRICS association attended the September meetings, and as it was during previous summits and conferences have renewed their commitment for ensuring peace within the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
“As we gather here, much of humanity is confronted by war and conflict. Solidarity and trust between states is being eroded. At the moment when every human effort should be directed towards the realisation of Agenda 2030, our attention and our energies have once again been diverted by the scourge of war,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said during his speech delivered there in New York.
Ramaphosa added that South Africa has consistently advocated for dialogue, negotiation and diplomacy to prevent and end conflict and achieve lasting peace. From the experience of his country’s own journey from apartheid to democracy, South Africa highly values the importance of engaging all parties to conflicts to achieve peaceful, just and enduring resolutions.
It is these principles that inform South Africa’s participation in the African Peace Initiative, which seeks a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In this conflict, as in all conflicts, and that the UN Charter’s principle of respect for the territorial integrity of every country should be upheld.
South Africa supports the urgent call by the UN Secretary-General in the New Agenda for Peace for Member States to provide more sustainable and predictable financing to peacebuilding efforts. It is South Africa’s desire to see an end to the suffering of those most directly affected by the conflict in Ukraine.
Ahead of the Johannesburg summit that was August 20, Ramaphosa in a speech to the nation indicated that South Africa participated in the African initiative to seek peace in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
Through this African Peace Initiative, he said emphatically: “We firmly believe that dialogue, mediation and diplomacy is the only viable path to end the current conflict and achieve a durable peace. We support the principle of respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states and peoples.”
South Africa’s foreign policy has been based on what forebears inscribed in the Freedom Charter in 1955 that “South Africa shall be a fully independent state which respects the rights and the sovereignty of all nations; South Africa shall strive to maintain world peace and the settlement of all international disputes by negotiation – not war.”
Brazilian Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s return to the presidency in January 2023 has paved the way for a revival of an ambitious and assertive foreign policy set out by the leader during his first term in office between 2003 and 2010. He has been voicing for global peace as well as practical development with geopolitical partners, especially in the Global South.
China insisted on dialogue for conflict resolution. It has also presented its Ukrainean peace plan which Russia keeps on hold. Despite criticisms that it has lured Africa into debts, China is tremendously contributing to Africa’s infrastructure development. China appreciably brings “new opportunities” for diverse cooperation, and has unveiled five new development plans for Africa at the last BRICS summit in Johannesburg.
Even at the end of the 15th BRICS summit, the document adopted encapsulates significant viewpoints on matters of global significance including peace and development. In this document, the BRICS leaders expressed their highest and sentimental concern “to enhance its strategic partnership for the benefit of its people through the promotion of peace.”
It further states… “We reiterate the need for all countries to cooperate in promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms under the principles of equality and mutual respect. We agree to continue to treat all human rights.”
“We agree to strengthen cooperation on issues of common interests both within BRICS and in multilateral fora including the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council. We call for the respect of democracy and human rights,” the BRICS declaration (slightly shortened for space) says.
Records show that Kenya is not a member of BRICS. But in a similar direction together with a few African leaders at UNGA, Kenyan President William Ruto also made reference to the proactive commitment to peace, which is not limited to the continent; African Union was inspired to dispatch the African Peace Delegation, consisting of six African heads of states to Moscow and Kiev with a ten-point peace plan, beginning with efforts to initiate a mediation process to resolve the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Although the delegation encountered significant challenges in their mission, Kenya and for the matter the entire Africa remain very proud that the peace delegation showed up. The African Peace Initiative group headed by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, made serious efforts for recognition as peace brokers.
The delegation included the current Chairperson of the African Union and Comoros president, Azali Assoumani; President of Senegal, Macky Sall; President of Zambia, Hakainde Hichilema and Prime Minister of Egypt, Mostafa Madbouly. In addition, the delegation included representatives of Uganda and Congo.
The group put forward a 10-point proposal was presented in Kyiv and St. Petersburg. The key aim of the African peace mission primarily to propose “confidence-building measures” in order to facilitate peace between the two countries. It was to seek a peaceful settlement of the conflict which began late February 2022.
At the United Nations, Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov afresh offered the signal that “Russia can’t give up goals of special military operation in Ukraine.” From several official documents, Russia underlined the reason as – “to de-militarize and de-nazify” Ukraine.
Quoting President Vladimir Putin, Lavrov said the West was “truly an empire of lies” which even during the battle against Nazism in World War Two, had plotted an offensive against their Soviet allies.
Soviet and then Russian leaders “were given concrete political assurances regarding the non-expansion of the NATO military alliance to the east”, which turned out to be pure deception.
Washington and Brussels have ceaselessly sought to expand their interests and alliances to subordinate the Global South and East, rejecting Russia’s desire for mutual security guarantees, he stated, and closed his case with an appeal for compromise, saying “humanity is at a crossroads…It is in our shared interest to prevent a downward spiral into large scale war.”
He invoked the Secretary-General’s call for world leaders to meet and negotiate in the spirit of compromise at this year’s UN General Assembly, “when designing our common future for our common good” and concluded that it was an excellent response to those who divide the world up into democracies and autocracies and dictate their neocolonial rules to others.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the Security Council session spoke assertively in reference to children who have gone missing, been abducted, are being concealed and starved. Lavrov called them allegations, issues without substantiation.
Lavrov, later at the media conference, attributed the conflict in his country’s backyard to the West’s years-long efforts to transform Ukraine into anti-Russia, while stressing Russia’s policy in a multipolar architecture and, in principle, that strictly seeks adherence for global peace and respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Putin Decrees ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine
On 24 February 2022, Russian President declared the ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine. In his nation-wide address, Putin emphasized that over the past 30 years have been patiently trying to come to an agreement with the leading NATO countries regarding the principles of equal and indivisible security in Europe.
In the middle of the long speech that February 24, Putin indicated that one could say, with good reason and confidence, that the whole so-called Western bloc formed by the United States in its own image and likeness, in its entirety, the very same “empire of lies.”
“Despite all that, in December 2021, we made yet another attempt to reach agreement with the United States and its allies on the principles of European security and NATO’s non-expansion. The United States has not changed its position. It does not believe it necessary to agree with Russia on a matter that is critical for us. The United States is pursuing its own objectives, while neglecting our interests,” Putin stressed.
He further pointed; “As for military affairs, even after the dissolution of the USSR and losing a considerable part of its capabilities, today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states. Moreover, it has a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons. In this context, there should be no doubt for anyone that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack on Russia.”
For the United States and its allies, it is a policy of containing Russia, with obvious geopolitical dividends. For Russia, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of historical future as a nation. This is not an exaggeration; this is a fact. It is not only a very real threat to Russia’s interests but to the very existence of the state and to its sovereignty. It is the red line. They have crossed it.
In this context, in accordance with Article 51 (Chapter VII) of the UN Charter, with permission of Russia’s Federation Council, and in execution of the treaties of friendship and mutual assistance with the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, ratified by the Federal Assembly on February 22, I made a decision to carry out a special military operation, Putin declared ‘Special Military Operation’ on Ukriane.
The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime. To this end, Russia would seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation. The officers of Russia’s Armed Forces would perform their duty with professionalism and courage. It is not Russia’s plan to occupy the Ukrainian territory.
Cost of Russia’s ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine
Forbes media has reported that Russia already spent over US$167 billion on war against Ukraine. “In a year and a half since the start of its full-scale invasion, Russia spent about US$167.3 billion on the war against Ukraine, of which US$34 billion worth of equipment were destroyed by Ukraine’s Armed Forces alone,” it reported.
Source: Forbes calculations based on data from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Details: According to Forbes, Russia spends about US$300 million a day on its war against Ukraine.
Direct military spending and the cost of Russia’s lost equipment over 18 months of the war (from 24 February 2022 to 24 August 2023) is about US$167.3 billion. This estimate does not include constant defence spending not related to military operations, as well as economic losses of the aggressor country.
The largest items of expenditure: ensuring military operations (US$51.3 billion), salaries of the servicemen (US$35.1 billion), compensation to the families of the dead (US$25.6 billion) and wounded (US$21 billion) and the cost of destroyed equipment (US$34 billion).
After the rapid fall of the ruble, the “cost” of the Russian soldier for the budget of the Russian Federation decreased significantly. If for 2022 the total payments per one serviceman were about US$200 per day, now it is about US$120 per day.
The level of Russian losses in recent months has remained at a significantly higher level than last year, according to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Accordingly, Russia is forced to spend more on compensation to the families. The cost of compensation to the family of the deceased in the Russian Federation was about US$110,000, now it is only about US$65,000. The amount of compensation to the wounded, respectively, decreased from US$45,000 to US$27,000.
The main item of expenditure of the Russian Federation on the war in Ukraine is ammunition and military support of the army. The total cost of this is US$51.34 billion. At the same time, the Russians spent over US$9 billion on providing for Russian artillery in a year and a half of the great war. The total cost of missiles fired on the territory of Ukraine has already reached a hefty sum of more than US$21.1 billion.
In September 2022, the State Duma (lower house of Russia’s parliament) and the Federation Council (upper house) approved legislation on ratifying treaties, as well as federal constitutional laws on the accession of the four regions to Russia.
On February 24, Russian President Putin said in a televised address that in response to a request by the heads of the Donbass republics he had decided to carry out a special military operation to protect people “who have been suffering from abuse and genocide by the Kiev regime for eight years” and Putin explained – “demilitarization and denazification” in Ukraine, approved by the State Duma and Federation Council of the Russian Federation.
The Solution to Ending the War in Ukraine Lies in the Ability to Get the Other Side’s Point of View
This is so simple, so obvious, that anyone ought to see the truth of it at a glance, yet we ignore it. The key to solving the conflict lies in the ability to see things from a person or nation’s angle as well as from your own. If there is any chance to end this bloody and devastating war where billions of treasures are spent to bend the arc of history and new military alliances are evolving and responsible to prolong the loss of life, then one ought to think in terms of the opposing side’s point of view.
So, the only way on earth to influence the opposing nations is to determine what each leader seeks and show them how to get it. Instead of the never-ending condemnation of each other, let’s try to understand and figure out why they do what they do. That is more beneficial and intriguing than criticism that only breeds resentment and pride rather than tolerance and perhaps a level of sympathy. Simply put, God himself does not propose to judge man until the end of his days. Why should you and me?
Taking a tip from Benjamin Franklin where his success in diplomacy was to speak ill of no man and to speak all the good, I know of everybody. Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain -and most fools do. It takes character and self-control to be understanding.
First, it is important to understand the recently annexed Donbas regions in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea are just as much the historical homelands to both Russia as Ukraine over centuries of war, political upheaval, and shifting control. Fast forward to 1918, troops loyal to the Ukrainian People’s Republic took control of parts of the Donbas with the help of its German ally. Then in 1932, millions of Ukrainians died of starvation when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin confiscated their land.
WW II witnessed further upheaval when Germany occupied the region for resources and forced labor until the Red Army offensive in 1943 returned the Donbas to the Soviet Union. By 1959, there was 2.5 million Russians living in the Donbas; resulting in educational reforms and attempts to eliminate the Ukrainian language. More recently the economy collapsed through the 1990’s where divisions have since escalated with Ukrainians seeking closer ties to the West and Russian separatists taking over key government buildings and declaring a republic.
Furthermore, the history behind the annexation of Crimea by Russia is not short of its own upheavals. With NATO threatening to expand into Ukraine following missile systems set up in Poland and Romania within striking distance of Russian cities, President Putin made a national security decision to annex Crimea. Sevastopol, the Crimean port city where the Russian Black Sea Fleet calls home is a strategic harbor patrolling the shipping routes from Russia and the Don River to Turkey and Southeastern Europe. Russia reclaimed Crimea from Germany in 1944; and a decade afterwards in 1954; the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev handed over Crimea to Ukraine on the 300-year anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine. Understandably, Putin reclaimed Crimea and its Russian speaking population; and could not permit the Sevastopol Naval base to fall into the control of NATO.
This current war in Ukraine is yet another pivotal moment in a lengthy and tumultuous history that will be added to a long list of regional conflicts that now has the added global component of NATO-creep with the American-led West injecting itself into the conflict followed by Iran, North Korea, and China bolstering the Russians.
So, what does Ukraine and President Zelensky want? Russia to pull its military from Ukrainian territory, they seek to join NATO, and assurances that Russia will not invade in the future. What does Russia and Putin want? No American offensive weapon systems in eastern NATO countries threatening Russia -not dissimilar to Soviet missiles staged in Cuba and minutes away from taking out major American cities. No NATO expansion to include Ukraine where the alliance would be knocking on the door of Moscow. Addressing the wellbeing and future of the ethnic Russians throughout the Donbass and maintaining sovereignty over Crimea which has been in Russian control for nearly a decade and was not a major point of contention prior to the war in Ukraine. Lastly, the lifting of sanctions against Russia.
What does Europe want at this time in the conflict. The ending of this war and a return to greater peace and security on the continent that includes the ongoing fear of nuclear weapons being used in region. The free flow of energy from Russia to provide for their needs, and assurances that Russia has no further intentions to escalate the war into neighboring EU countries. What does the United States and President Biden want? NATO expansion to include Ukraine, Putin put on trial, removed, and Russian forces decimated, and willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to fund the continuation of fighting to the last Ukrainian standing.
Perhaps it is a bit presumptuous to provide solutions to what each party seeks. Here’s what a framework might look like.
- No NATO membership for Ukraine in the near future and to be reviewed in ten years, however immediate enrollment if Russia decides to re-invade. Membership is not off the table and Russia can breathe.
- A total Russian military withdraws from eastern Ukrainian territory in the Donbas. A UN security force is inserted and has oversight of a regional referendum in three years to determine if the inhabitants in the Donbas want to remain in Ukraine or become part of Russia. Western leaders speak highly of preserving democracy, and self-determination upholds this claim.
- Energy needs of Europe to be addressed with a percentage of Russian oil and gas revenues being allocated as reparations to rebuild Ukraine’s destroyed infrastructure.
- The removal of offensive missile systems in Romania and Poland facing Russian cities in staged timelines to coincide with Russian alignment on the total package.
- An international effort to rebuild Ukraine under the lead of France, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Turkey with the priority on grain and food shipments from Ukrainian ports; including oversight on the reduction of sanctions to coincide with Russia’s alignment and behavior. This would include the removal of arrest warrants for Putin.
- Crimea remains in Russian territory.
Each party should gain from the negotiations. We must demonstrate what can be accomplished and what can be avoided. Zelensky and Putin can both walk away with wins. Rest assured, the leaders in this conflict will all walk away lonely and perhaps despised in history if they cannot agree on a path forward. Scolding, threatening, shaming, and reiterating your final position without understanding the perspective from the opposite point of view will not stop this war.
The world’s leaders failed when they allowed this conflict to escalate out of control. We still have the opportunity to act before this crisis becomes wildly out of control and spreads further under the threat of nuclear war. Stay on the same path and we will only be fools in history and a great failure to the next generation over the pain and wasted treasure that could have been allocated to solutions on poverty, famine, and those truly in need in the most unfortunate circumstances such as the Moroccan earthquake and the victims clinging to life following the Libyan flood.
We can choose to continue to weaponize our scathing words, inundate the theatre of war with mass destruction, and witness young men and boys soaking the soil in their blood on our perches from afar or step forward to see things through the other side’s lenses and understand what each side wants. It would not seem sensible that people are afraid to say something sensible before the whole of humanity collapses.
How is Iran’s growing paranoia affect its relations with Azerbaijan?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former Soviet republics tried to search for their place in the new global structure. It was necessary to discover new neighbours who had been separated for many decades by the “Iron Curtain.” Hence, since regaining independence, Azerbaijan’s relations with nearly all regional states have undergone a tumultuous period. Although the diplomatic relations of Azerbaijan with other regional actors gradually stabilized, the dialogue with Shi’a Iran remained uneasy.
For Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not just an ordinary country. First, Iran is one of the biggest neighbours in the south, with about 618 kilometres of land borders. Tehran’s long-standing destructive hybrid warfare strategy toward its immediate neighbourhood and beyond for many years has had a negative impact on relations with Baku and irritated the latter.
Nevertheless, Baku and Tehran established a pragmatic partnership entailing various regional infrastructure projects, particularly transit links. However, 2020-2023 marked the most heightened tensions in Iran-Azerbaijan relations, with deadly consequences for both sides.
Azerbaijan’s Threat balancing
Azerbaijani-Iranian relations have been strained since Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war with Armenia, with both sides accusing each other of engaging in terrorism and espionage. The deteriorating relations between Iran and Azerbaijan garner significant attention, raising concerns about the potential impact on the South Caucasus region. The possible consequences of escalating tensions include economic disruptions and border clashes with the involvement of regional and non-regional actors like Turkey, Russia, Israel and possibly the West.
From the Iranian point of view, several important catalysts led to the deterioration of relations with Azerbaijan, such as the claims of Baku harbouring Israeli intelligence on its soil and the strengthening of the Baku-Ankara axis at its doorstep. As such, in an attempt by Tehran to flex its muscles and intimidate Azerbaijan, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted large-scale military drills on the border with Azerbaijan in October 2022. Unlike previous years, the exercises provoked an uneasy reaction within Azerbaijan and triggered anti-Iranian sentiments throughout the country. During the military drills in October, codenamed Mighty Iran, Iranian forces practised setting up pontoon bridges and crossing the Aras River, part of which forms a section of the border between the two countries. It marked the first time that Iranian forces had conducted such exercises. Moreover, the tensions reached a critical level when the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran came under attack by an armed man, leaving one dead and others injured. As a result, Azerbaijan put diplomatic relations on halt and shut down its embassy, and shortly after, expelled several Iranian diplomats from the country, citing their “undiplomatic activities” in the country.
Although Iran’s MFA denied that it bore responsibility for these incidents, Azerbaijan demonstrated that it would no longer buy Iran’s excuses and took action both rhetorically through official statements and with arrests. While Iran deemed the attack merely an individual acting on a personal vendetta, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev rejected Iran’s explanation and called it a “terrorist attack.” With denials of involvement in all of these provocations from the Iranian government being flimsy at best, Azerbaijan has demonstrated that it will no longer give Iran the benefit of the doubt, and with this, has ushered in a new chapter of open tension between the two countries.
Notably, Iran’s main criticism of Azerbaijan can be attributed to its concerns regarding the potential border shifts in the South Caucasus, thus diminishing Iran’s already weakened soft power influence. In addition, Iranian aggression toward Azerbaijan is undoubtedly a symptom of a reshuffling of alliances in the region and a shifting of global dynamics, resulting in new partnership blocs.
Despite Tehran’s claims that it maintains the leading regional power, its influence over Azerbaijan and the region gradually declined even before the 2020 events. Moreover, Iran appeared to be comfortable with the long-term status quo on Azerbaijani borders and uncontrolled territories in Karabakh for three decades, as it actively used the war-torn region as a major corridor for drug trafficking, oil smuggling and other sanctions-busting activities that helped alleviate economic pressure on the Islamic Republic. It was also apparently used to send Russian weapons to Armenia via Iran.
Tehran is cautious that in the post-war period, the Azerbaijan-Turkey-Israel trio will do everything to fence off Iran from the region, thus establishing new red lines. As Baku and Ankara fill the void in the South Caucasus that Russia is leaving behind, Iran is left with Armenia as its key regional partner. For instance, in October 2022, Israel’s then-defence minister, Benny Gantz, visited Azerbaijan, and the two countries signed several military and security agreements, which angered Iran and caused a flood of criticism toward Baku in the Iranian state-run media.
The situation further ignited when Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, ahead of a trip to Turkmenistan, visited Azerbaijan in April 2023 to open Israel’s first embassy in the country, located just 20 km from the Iranian border. Cohen’s remarks regarding the “close partnership between Tel Aviv and Baku against Iran” inevitably triggered harsh rhetoric in Tehran. However, this time, official Baku largely ignored all threats from Iran. Baku’s attempt to reinvigorate regional alliances with the Turkic world in Central Asia and establish new transit routes bypassing Iran reinforced the latter’s preexistence fears about the potential irredentist minority groups. While Iran has many minorities, of greatest importance to regime stability are Azeris, Turkmens and Kurds. The ethnic Kurds are in a latent rebellion against the regime, while the Azeris and Turkmens have remained relatively pacified.
On the other hand, the potential shifting borders in the South Caucasus would come with a cost for Iran, as it may lose its leverage over Azerbaijan as the only land route linking it with Turkey. In the post-war period, Azerbaijan proposed establishing a land corridor with Nakhchivan via Armenia’s Syunik province, thus circumventing Iran. Undoubtedly, such perspectives angered isolated and politically unstable Iran.
Consequently, Iran gained very little from the deliberate escalation of diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan, as the latter is an important trade partner of Tehran and a key country in terms of connectivity and infrastructure projects, particularly within the North-South Transit Route.
Iran – Azerbaijan partnership: Trade amid war of words
The diplomatic standoff between Tehran and Baku came in light of the unprecedented violent riots against the Islamic regime after the security forces tortured and killed Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurd. The violent uprising reached nearly all Iranian provinces and still has not fully died down. Iran’s population comprises many ethnic minorities, and these protests have demonstrated the discontentment of many of these communities.
The political and economic instability ignited dramatically when conservative president Ebrahim Raisi assumed office in 2020. The absence of a pragmatic visionary and long-term strategy of Raisi’s hardliner government led to the deterioration of political relations with the immediate neighbourhood, including Azerbaijan. However, despite diplomatic escalation with the neighbourhood, Iran increased trade volumes with several countries in the region, highlighting the long-established IR system control that economic and political ties are developing separately. Thus, despite existing turmoil with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, Iran traded 58.25 million tons of goods worth $35.11 billion with the Persian Gulf’s six littoral states, namely Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, registering a 10.05% rise in value compared with the previous year’s corresponding period.
As in the case of Azerbaijan, Baku has long been standing as Tehran’s leading trade partner amid its struggle with harsh inflation and mounting unemployment rates. According to the Azerbaijani media, the trade turnover between Azerbaijan and Iran in January-May 2023 amounted to $212,612,000, up 7.6 per cent from the same period in 2022. During the reported period, the exports from Azerbaijan to Iran made up $7,558,000, and from Iran to Azerbaijan – $205,053,000, respectively.
Consequently, trade is not the only determinant factor in Azerbaijan-Iran relations, as both countries were intensively engaged in several regional infrastructure projects, particularly railway links and new highways at the border areas. In this vein, Azerbaijan played a crucial role in linking Iran to Russia within the INSTC framework. In May 2023, Russia and Iran agreed to complete a railroad that would link Russia with ports on the Persian Gulf, providing a transportation lifeline – via Azerbaijan as a critical link – for the two sanctions-hit countries. Due to insufficient funds, Russia is set to be the project’s main sponsor. However, in the wake of diplomatic tensions, the response from Azerbaijan has been quiet. The local governmental bodies preferred not to comment much on this deal, thus signalling that the INSTC-related projects are not a priority for Baku anymore, which instead touting its growing role on another key transit route – the Middle Corridor, shipping goods between Europe and Asia while bypassing Russia and Iran.
Indeed, the Republic of Azerbaijan is a vital part of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), Iran’s main route for transit and trade with the densely populated western regions of Russia, Georgia, and Belarus. The Astara border crossing is the main transit route between Iran, the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Russia; on average, a truck crosses the border at Astara every seven minutes. The Azerbaijan-Iran transit route has become even more important recently as a result of the Ukraine war, the extensive Western sanctions against Russia, and the preferential trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that is being upgraded to a free trade agreement.
As this paper discussed, trade and communication occupied a central place in Iran – Azerbaijan partnership in recent years. Therefore, even at the beginning of diplomatic escalation in 2022, Baku and Tehran signed another important agreement that envisioned establishing a new transport and electricity supply link connecting mainland Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan via Iran. According to the memorandum, the two countries planned to establish a new railway, highway, communication, and energy supply lines connecting Azerbaijan’s East Zangazur economic region and the Nakhchivan region through the territory of Iran. In addition, four bridges will be built over the Araz River, including two motorways and two railway lines on them.
Despite the significance of the agreement’s scope, the further deterioration of relations halted this agreement. Consequently, Tehran’s staunch anti-Azerbaijani rhetoric that became more vocal since 2021 caused costly delays and setbacks in terms of economic partnership and regional connectivity, while Baku established new interregional partnership formats to diversify its portfolio.
Hence, Iran decided to take a step back and return to the diplomacy track as a part of the broader strategy of reconciliation with the immediate neighbourhood. Thus, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrived in Baku on July 5, 2023, to attend the high-level meeting of the Non-Align Movement (NAM), where he managed to hold a vis-à-vis meeting with President Ilham Aliyev at the sidelines of the event. While the meeting was concluded with positive remarks, it became a good start for Baku and Tehran to rekindle the bilateral relations after months of confrontation.
Shortly after Abdollahian visited Baku, the Deputy of the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan, Shahin Mustafayev and Minister of Roads and Urban Development of Iran, Mehrdad Bazrpash, reached a new agreement to complete the construction of a road bridge across the Astarachay River and put into operation within the next four months. The foundation of a new bridge across the Astarachay River was laid on the border of Azerbaijan and Iran on January 25, 2022.
Moreover, on September 14, 2023, Prosecutor general of Iran paid an official visit to Baku and his Azerbaijani counterpart Kamran Aliyev to discuss the investigation into the armed attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran. The visit of a high ranking Iranian governmental official was also a positive signal in terms diplomatic thaw.
In this spite, the aide of President of Azerbaijan Hikmat Hajiyev acknowledged that Baku is receiving positive signals from Tehran, thus confirming the news of the ongoing diplomatic normalization.
Domestic turmoil in Iran, mounting international pressure and isolation, and the shifting geopolitical landscape in the South Caucasus have added further complexity to the tense relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran in the last three years. Although minor de-escalation recently occurred in Baku-Tehran relations, a smooth intraregional partnership based on mutual trust is yet to be achieved. As such, factors like economic and trade partnerships could be game-changer factors for re-establishing regional dialogue and restoring the pragmatic partnership.
However, if not successful, Iran’s bellicose rhetoric against Azerbaijan could force the latter to take additional strict measures in order to protect its borders and regional stability, which in turn could prompt a military response from Iran with the aim of securing its borderline with Armenia, as this is the only crucial leverage of Tehran over Baku.
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