BY ALEXANDER GALITSKY (op-ed contributor)
The foreign policy of Azerbaijan since its independence 25 years ago has been to exploit its advantageous geopolitical position through the construction and consolidation of a precarious network of regional alliances. However, Azerbaijan’s favorable geography is undermined by regional volatility. Its ethno-political alignment with Turkey, historical-cultural ties with Iran, its economic-military relationship with Russia, and its integration into the Western politico-strategic order have produced a series of unsustainable and irreconcilable regional objectives which have called into question Azerbaijan’s enduring stability. With tensions between Russia and Turkey rising, Azerbaijan has become a zone of contest for both powers seeking to consolidate their influence in the South Caucasus. Iran, capitalizing on the paralytic stalemate between regional leaders, has attempted to promote its regional aspirations; manipulating the oil price in an attempt to weaken the neutrality and independence of Azerbaijan. The West, to prevent Iran’s disruption of the regional status-quo, has itself exerted pressure on Baku by attempting to exploit its dependency on European capital in order to effect behavioral change. Azerbaijan’s overvaluation of its capacity to balance the conflicting demands of its partners has resulted in its over-extension. As these competing ties continue to produce a misalignment of political, ideological, and strategic interests, the momentary illusion of indispensability which enabled Azerbaijan’s regional rise to power will invariably come to an end.
Russia, Turkey, Iran and the U.S. all seek to capitalize on the volatility of the Middle East to remake the region in their own image. The means through which each has sought to achieve those goals has differed substantially. For the United States, the dissemination of democracy, the institutionalization of economic liberalism, and the consolidation of political alliances with friendly regimes, has served as an ongoing strategic platform for the projection of soft power throughout the Middle East. For Russia, a nation reticent to exert direct influence beyond its own backyard, the South Caucasus has been prioritized as a crucial geopolitical bridge through which it can project its ideological, economic and military power throughout the Middle East, and foster the development of a network of great powers . For Iran, the projection of political power has accompanied the projection of religious authority with its regional strategy reliant on its ability to consolidate the political influence of regional Shia communities and regimes . And finally, Turkey’s strategy has been dependent on its ability to balance the complex duality of its Western alignment with the maintenance of its credibility as a Sunni majority state.
The zero-sum logic of the battle for supremacy in the Middle East has entailed the involvement of great powers in the control and denial of the political and economic resources necessary for the projection of power throughout the region. As a regional crossroad and important trade conduit linking great powers, Transcaucasia has become a zone of struggle for these competing forces. Azerbaijan, given its Caspian access and situation between Russia and Iran, has been considered a crucial node in emerging regional networks; a vital component of the U.S. “West-East axis” seeking to control energy trade from Central Asia to Turkey, and Russia’s “North-South axis”, seeking to establish multimodal transit from Europe to Asia . As such, Azerbaijan is strategically crucial for both the West and revisionist power blocs as both a means of bolstering regional influence, and denying regional access to ideological rivals.
Jack of All Trades, Master of None
Azerbaijan’s eagerness to rely entirely on its geopolitically and geoeconomically advantageous position as a central and unchanging feature of its foreign policy has resulted in its over-extension. When major shocks to the international system redefine the relations between members of Azerbaijan’s trade network, there is little Azerbaijan is able or willing to do in order to influence those conditions which necessarily dictate its behavior. Instead, Azerbaijan has opted for strategic obliviousness when it comes to the competitive relations of its allies, refusing to change its behavior out of hope that these issues will resolve themselves and restore the status-quo favorable to Azerbaijani interests. What has happened in reality is that the evolution of the regional environment has outpaced Azerbaijan’s strategic development. Realizing this, Azerbaijan’s partners have increasingly been approaching bilateral relations with skepticism and ambivalence.
Tensions between Turkey and Russia have complicated Moscow’s relationship with Baku. Russia-Azerbaijan relations are founded primarily on an economic and military foundation; with Russia being Azerbaijan’s largest import partner after Turkey , the driving force behind numerous trade projects in the region (such as the North-South Transport Corridor), and the primary arms supplier of the former Soviet state . The relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan, while also economically oriented, are based on shared Turkic identity and political ideology; seen by both as “one nation” comprised of “two states” . In the context of escalating regional rivalry, close ties with Turkey have raised questions concerning Azerbaijan’s reliability as a core node in Russia’s pivot to the Middle East. However, this does not mean Turkey can take its relations with Azerbaijan for granted. The falling oil price, the West’s growing aversion to its authoritarianism, the threats to secularism in the region and the fears of militant Islamism have increased Azerbaijan’s reliance on Russia for both the maintenance of domestic and economic security, and the continued legitimization of its political regime .
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also represents a challenge to Azerbaijan’s regional relationships. Russia maintains a military base in Armenia which projects its offensive capabilities and provides a credible anti-access/area-denial nexus near the Turkish border . While Russia does not officially endorse the territorial claims made by either party to the conflict, Armenia’s commitment to Russia’s vision of regional order, which led to its abandonment of association negotiations with the EU in 2013 to pursue European Economic Union membership, has ensured a degree of reliability that Azerbaijan cannot offer . Russia’s trust in Azerbaijan is seriously undermined by the prospects of its strategic military position being threatened by Turkey’s engagement in the region should conflict escalation continue.
Beyond Russia and Turkey, Azerbaijan is also engaged in a competitive relationship with Iran. Ironically, it is the closeness of Azerbaijan’s cultural, religious and historical ties with Iran which has been the greatest source of enmity between the states. As an aspiring regional hegemon, Iran has been eager take advantage of its shared identity with its northern neighbor to consolidate the political power of Shia forces and exert its ideological authority in the secular Azerbaijani republic . However, the pan-Turkic aspirations of the Azerbaijani people, who constitute a fifth of Iran’s population, has been a constant source of consternation for the Islamic Republic . As such, both Azerbaijan and Iran have engaged in activities attempting to undermine the security of the other. Azerbaijan has been courting the West by toying with NATO membership, cooperating closely with the U.S. in matters of regional strategy, and establishing military ties with Israel. With both Israel and Azerbaijan sharing the common perception of existential threat emanating from Iran, cooperation between the two has been extensive; with Israel providing Azerbaijan with advanced weaponry usually denied to it due to Baku’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and Azerbaijan providing Israel with a geopolitically crucial site from which it can monitor Iranian activities . In response, Iran has attempted to maintain the regional status-quo in the South Caucasus; shifting the regional balance of power away from Azerbaijan by supporting Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to ensure the prolongation of the destabilization of the region and establish an obstacle to Azerbaijan’s further integration into the Western political order .
Azerbaijan’s aspirations to regional power status rest on a fundamental presumption of indispensability. To an extent, this has succeeded. The tolerance of the U.S. for Azerbaijan’s devolving domestic conditions has been prolonged by its fears that Russia’s continued domination of Azerbaijan could facilitate the consolidation of a Moscow-Tehran axis . Russia’s trust in Azerbaijan has been tested, due to its South Caucasian provocations and support for Russia’s major regional competitor, but has been maintained in the short term due to the risk of Turkey’s escalating involvement in the region should Russia’s support for Azerbaijan collapse. For Iran, Azerbaijan’s escalating alliance with Western powers, particularly Israel, has severely undermined the political relations between the two states; however, with Iran disadvantaged by its decades of exclusion from the international political economic order, Azerbaijan’s role as a bridge to Europe, and its crucial role in Caspian trade projects, will necessitate ambivalent bilateral cooperation in the short term to reestablish Iran’s regional legitimization . Turkey’s disappointment in Azerbaijan’s unwillingness to support its attempts to balance against Russia, and its failure to legitimize Turkey’s strategy in Syria, have strained historically close relations ; but Azerbaijan’s political and ideological affinity with Turkey, in addition to providing Turkey secure access to the Caspian and facilitating the projection of Turkish influence to Central Asia, will ensure that alliance persists.
However, the maintenance of this precarious status-quo is highly contingent upon Azerbaijan’s internal stability. What has allowed Azerbaijan to remain insulated from the devolving regional relations around it has been the neutrality it has fostered due to its status as a stable and impartial regional actor. Declining energy prices have undermined the certainty of its stability by threatening the collapse of Baku’s regime. Investment into pipeline and energy trade projects, one of the primary means by which Baku has been able to project Azerbaijani influence and ensure its regional independence, can no longer be ensured due to rapid currency depreciation and deteriorating economic conditions . Domestic economic turmoil has produced considerable animosity towards President Aliyev, prompting the government to crackdown harshly on protesters, activists, journalists and other internal agitators . As domestic conditions steadily devolve, the U.S. and EU’s ability to tolerate Azerbaijan’s clear disregard for the democratic principles the Western powers hope to foster in the region presents itself as an obstacle to the maintenance of current arrangements. Azerbaijan was once able to dictate the terms of trade with Europe due to the EU’s dependency on oil import diversification and Azerbaijan’s strong economic standing . The neutrality and independence of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy which has made it such a valuable partner in the highly contested region is betrayed by the economic crisis and its growing position of dependence. In other words, as the desperation of its economic situation escalates, Azerbaijan needs its partners much more than its partners need it – leaving it increasingly vulnerable to external influence.
In response to the proliferation of domestic dissent, Baku orchestrated an attempted “blitzkrieg” against Nagorno-Karabakh in April of 2016 with the goal of distracting its population from domestic economic instability . Russia currently walks a fine line with the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh; on the one hand prospering from its arms trade with Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh’s patron, Armenia, but on the other hand perturbed by the possibility of Turkish interference in the region. With Armenia, a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization with Russia, indicating its willingness to provide direct military support to Nagorno-Karabakh in the wake of the April 1 confrontation – Russia’s ability to play both sides will necessarily be diminished . Another flashpoint in the conflict may prompt the involvement of either Armenia or Turkey, likely both should either declare their intentions of engagement, giving Russia no choice but to oppose any move which would see Turkey encroach upon its sphere of influence . With Azerbaijan now more prepared than ever to use the sporadic conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh to ensure the longevity of its faltering regime, the continued alignment of Azerbaijani-Russian interests is entirely unpredictable, necessitating caution. Indicative of its interests to reduce its dependence on Azerbaijan for the realization of its pivot to the Middle East, Russia has demonstrated its preparedness to fund an Armenia-Iran rail link, providing the shortest land route from the Black Sea (through Georgia) to the Persian Gulf .
Despite the improvement of relations between Azerbaijan and Iran following Rouhani’s election and the recent move towards Iran’s integration into the global economic order, there remain structural challenges to the development of ties between the nations. It is true Iran has been eager to attract investment and that it sees Azerbaijan’s close cooperation with the EU in the energy sector as a possible entry point to the European market. However, Iran is not willing to play a secondary role to Azerbaijan in the region, particularly when the South Caucasian state presents an obstacle to Iran’s domination of the Caspian and threatens the encroachment of Western powers and regional rivals into the sphere of influence it seeks to carve for itself . In addition to these strategic barriers to ongoing cooperation, there are numerous ideological barriers. In response to the moral deviations from the order Iran wishes to establish in the region, the Islamic Republic has actively sponsored Islamist Shia elements within the secular Azerbaijani republic in order to project both its political and moral authority throughout the region . While these threats have been (often ruthlessly) contained by Baku, the weakened grasp of the Aliyev regime amidst its own domestic security crises raises the prospects of further Iranian attempts to infiltrate Azerbaijan’s political sphere . Iran has also shown its willingness to expedite this process of regional destabilization by refusing to freeze its oil production amidst declining oil prices . Iran’s global isolation developed internal resilience to the pressures of the international economy and a strong determination to disrupt the regional status-quo and establish market domination . Looking beyond the short term, Azerbaijan’s attempts to foster a “free competition arena” in the Caucasus as a means of ensuring its enduring independence and multilateral indispensability are entirely incompatible with Iran’s regional aspirations .
In attempting to exploit its geopolitical position as a trade conduit linking North to South, and East to West, Azerbaijan constructed an unsustainable and often contradictory set of alliances which necessitate the maintenance of an uncertain status-quo. However, a number of recent foreign policy miscalculations have demonstrated Azerbaijan to be fundamentally incapable of meeting the needs of its allies. While Azerbaijani provocations in Nagorno-Karabakh were once tolerated by its powerful neighbors, the growing assertiveness of Turkey’s regional aspirations which threaten both Russian and Iranian interests has heightened the stakes of the contest in the South Caucasus and undermined perceptions of Azerbaijan’s reliability. Azerbaijan’s continued and escalating human rights abuses which were once tolerated by the West have now become increasingly untenable as Azerbaijan’s bargaining power decreases, and its dependency on Western markets is made more obvious. Its defiance of Iran once a guarantee for security by Western powers in the context of its international exile is now a long term threat in the context of Iran’s resurgence. By bringing Western powers and regional rivals into the backyard of both Iran and Russia, and by firmly refusing to alter its behavior to appease its Western partners, Azerbaijan has demonstrated its inability to adapt to the evolution of its regional environment, and its strategic incapacity to maintain the integrity of the network it has built. With its geoeconomic advantage withering, and its stability, neutrality and independence undermined as a result, Azerbaijan’s indispensable illusion is coming to an end.
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