Azerbaijan’s Balancing Act between Russia and Ukraine

With Russian peacekeepers in Nagorny Karabakh, the region is Baku’s Achilles’ heel.

Azerbaijan’s Balancing Act between Russia and Ukraine

With Russian peacekeepers in Nagorny Karabakh, the region is Baku’s Achilles’ heel.

Friday, 18 March, 2022

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, Baku is under ever more pressure to maintain good relations with both Moscow and Kyiv.

In January, as Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s border was in full swing, President Ilham Aliyev visited President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv and reaffirmed Baku’s support for the country’s territorial integrity. On February 22 – just two days before the invasion - he was in Moscow to sign a treaty alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At a February 24 meeting of the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Azerbaijan recognised Ukraine’s territorial integrity but avoided labeling the Russian assault as a “war” or “invasion”. At least seven Azerbaijani citizens have been killed in Ukraine since the start of the war but Baku has kept silent. When the Azerbaijani consulate in Kharkiv was hit by shelling, no official comments were issued and diplomatic staff were quietly evacuated from the city. The Azerbaijani authorities have not indicated they will join the sanctions.

Baku has well-grounded reasons to hold back.  Russian troops have effectively been manning the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorny Karabakh since Moscow brokered a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia in November 2020.

On March 17, Moscow welcomed Armenia and Azerbaijan’s readiness to engage in the preparation of a peace treaty. Yerevan stated it had applied to the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs - Russia, the US and France - to organise Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations and that Baku had submitted a five-point proposal to Yerevan to normalize relations.

The region remains an acutely sensitive issue for Baku and the Kremlin has used it as a card to pressure the Azerbaijani government. Baku has a long-held fear that Moscow, which has strong ties with Armenia where it maintains a large military base, would recognise the region’s independence. Karbakh is internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan.

The agreement Aliyev signed with Putin on February 22, a day after Moscow recognised the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as independent states, raised concerns that the Kremlin wanted to nail Azerbaijan down.

“Signing an agreement with Moscow, two days before the assault on Ukraine, was a shame,” Altay Goyushov, head of the Baku Research Institute, told IWPR. “Aliyev is apparently afraid of him [Putin], he let the Russian army inside the country and therefore signed the agreement, not knowing what to do now.”

While providing Azerbaijan with some guarantees, including its territorial integrity and adherence to the principles of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, “the optics were horrendous for Aliyev,” noted Thomas De Waal, senior fellow with the Carnegie Europe think tank.

De Waal added that the references to economic cooperation “could make Azerbaijan an escape hatch for Russian companies trying to avoid Western sanctions.

“And there is a pledge to ‘refrain from carrying out any economic activity that causes direct or indirect damage to the interests of the other party’ that, on paper at least, seems to give Moscow a say in Azerbaijan’s future energy projects”.

Ilgar Mammadov, chairman of the opposition Real Party, said that the agreement strengthened Azerbaijan’s power in the region and that Baku would benefit by this choice in its foreign diplomacy. He noted that “NATO will not save Ukraine, and Azerbaijan must draw conclusions” which meant “strengthening the armed forces and the alliance with Turkey”.

Josep Borrell, EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy admitted in an interview with LCI TV channel that the West made a mistake by promising Ukraine NATO membership.  

“Baku cannot afford to fall out with Russia particularly after the recent war in Karabakh,” Leyla Aliyeva, a former Soviet Union expert at Oxford Univeristy, told IWPR. “After 30 years [since independence] Russia finally installed its troops inside Azerbaijan, a move that strengthened Moscow’s hand not only in Karabakh but also in the regulation of Baku’s domestic politics.”

While opposition political figures like Cavid Osmanov warned that “what happened in Ukraine today could happen to Azerbaijan,” Goyushov maintained that Turkey remained the country’s security guarantor and that Moscow would not dare to turn militarily against Baku and damage its ties with Ankara at a time of deep global isolation.

“We have very good, long-lasting relations with both Russia and Ukraine. Taking this opportunity, Turkey and Azerbaijan have taken steps in the direction of a diplomatic solution by keeping in touch with both sides,” Azerbaijan’s foreign minister Ceyhun Bayramov said during the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in Turkey, making it clear that Baku intended to pursue a cautious, multi-dimensional policy.

Despite the authorities’ silence, figures close to the government as well as state television channels have voiced their support for Ukraine. On March 6, Azerbaijan suspended all flights with Russia.

According to official figures, Azerbaijan has sent about six million US dollars of humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the beginning of the war. Gas stations in Ukraine belonging to Azerbaijan’s state oil company SOCAR have provided free fuel to ambulances and emergency services vehicles.

In Baku, where unsanctioned protests are usually dispersed by police, crowds held rallies in front of Ukrainian diplomatic representations.

Private donations soared as the Ukrainian embassy in Baku launched a campaign calling for Azerbaijanis “having shared the similar war in their territories" to aid Ukrainians “sharing the same fate”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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