Russia seeks to strengthen ties with Azerbaijan

Russia seeks to strengthen ties with Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia – the South Caucasus – continue to be an area of contention between the East and West. This area is of growing importance as the post-Soviet region becomes increasingly split along pro-Russian and pro-Western lines.

On the 27th June, Georgia signed an association agreement with the European Union (along with Ukraine and Moldova). This was a significant event for a country that faced a war against Russia in August 2008 in which Russian troops poured into the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

At the same time, Armenia has sought closer ties with Russia and was set to sign the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) treaty on 1st July. There has been a delay with Armenia’s accession to the EEU of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan with this date being pushed back. However, Armenia continues to be in the ‘Russian camp’.

While Armenia’s foreign policy is pro-Russian and Georgia has strengthened ties with the West, Azerbaijan has maintained a neutral stance. Due to its geopolitically significant position, Russia has sought closer ties with the country.

This is important because of Azerbaijan’s significant energy capacity, especially in light of the heightened tensions between the West and Russia due to the crisis in Ukraine.

Azerbaijan straddles the West and East, with Moscow having limited ways to exert pressure on the capital, Baku. Azerbaijan does not have a large ethnic Russian minority or military bases and has no Russian-controlled economic assets that could give Moscow influence.

Military and security interests have historically dominated the Russian and Soviet approach to the Caucasus region. Historically, it was an unsecured frontier but became attractive as a ‘colony’ for economic exploitation and link to Middle East trade. Later, the area became a key source of oil and gas.

During the Putin-Medvedev years, there has been a clear push to re-establish influence in the region and to try prevent, or at least contain, the influence of any other international actor – the United States, Europe, NATO, Iran, or Turkey. This has had mixed success.

Recently, Russia has tried to deepen its ties with Azerbaijan. The 5th Azerbaijani-Russian interregional forum, entitled “Interregional Cooperation: New Opportunities For Growth” took place on June 23-24. Azerbaijan’s Economy and Industry Minister Shahin Mustafayev said the forum is an example of successful cooperation between the two countries with the trade turnover between them amounting to $2.6 billion.

A number of Russian ministers and high-level officials visited Azerbaijan in June. The envoy included Russian Economic Minister Alexei Ulyukayev who discussed economic cooperation and invited Azerbaijan to join the Eurasian Economic Union, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who discussed a number of bilateral, strategic issues. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, Development Minister Irog Slyunayev and State Duma Speaker Sergei Narishkin all visited in the most recent attempt of the Kremlin to woo Baku.

This is not the first time that important Russian officials seek to strengthen ties between the countries and it is too early to tell what impact these meetings will have on Azerbaijan’s policies. However, what is significant is the number of high-profile visits in a short period of time.

This reflects the importance that Russia attaches to its relations with Azerbaijan. Moreover, Moscow wants its South Caucasian neighbor to refrain from offering assistance to Ukraine, with Lavrov admitting that the crisis in Ukraine was one of the topics he had discussed on his visit.

Azerbaijan has shown no interest in joining the Eurasian Economic Union, with its trade turnover with the countries that make up the EEU amounting to less than 10 percent of the country’s foreign trade.

While Russia continues to exert significant influence, the crisis in Ukraine is a reminder that Moscow is willing to resort to military action as it did in the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008.

Another key issue is Azerbaijan’s plan to ship gas to Europe through Turkey and the Balkans through the Southern Gas Corridor. Increasing the capacity of the Southern Corridor would undermine Russia’s position in the market, especially with the EU’s pressure to prevent the South Stream pipeline, which aims to deliver Russian gas along a competing route while bypassing Ukraine.

Russia’s Caucasian policy has revolved around its long-term interest in re-establishing its influence over the South Caucasus. With Georgia moving towards the West, Azerbaijan has become increasingly important to Moscow. With its large natural gas reserves, Azerbaijan’s importance will grow especially as energy politics become more contentious between Russia and the EU.

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