BACKGROUND: For several years few took Azerbaijan’s strategic capabilities seriously and the country was thought of in the U.S. largely as a stopover on the road to Afghanistan. However, these new moves underscore the vision behind Azerbaijan’s energy policies and the possibilities offered by those policies, without directly confronting Moscow and Gazprom, to find alternative ways of providing Europe with energy. Azerbaijan profits thereby and gains considerable status as an investor in Balkan security and stability.
Similarly for years there was virtually no movement by the U.S. on the “frozen conflict” over Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. Yet, Azerbaijan’s press reports that Ambassador Morningstar has become increasingly active in working to find a political solution to this conflict and the U.S. Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, Ambassador James Warlick, has also called for full scale talks, apparently including the “government” of Nagorno-Karabakh in these talks.
All these moves signify a dawning realization abroad that Azerbaijan has now attained significant and influential capabilities in its own neighborhood as an investor and energy supplier. Moreover, foreign governments now see that they stand to benefit, not least economically, from an expansion of ties with Azerbaijan. From a U.S. standpoint, heightened ties to Baku not only make it harder for Russia to dominate the Caucasus and energy flow to Europe, or Russian machinations in the Middle East, they also provide a basis for moving forward on conflict resolution regarding Nagorno-Karabakh.
And should the negotiations with Iran progress to a mutually acceptable agreement, we could see an easing of Iranian-Azerbaijani tensions, a potential end to the disputes preventing the realization of the Caspian Sea’s legal demarcation, and even Iran’s entry into the Southern Gas Corridor, possibly through the TANAP-TAP connection or through AGRI.
IMPLICATIONS: As demonstrated by the Ukrainian and Middle East crises, the status quo is ultimately not tenable across much of Eurasia without significant reforms. Russia’s efforts to reinvigorate a new kind of neo-imperial policy have already proven to be beyond its objective capabilities though Moscow may not yet be reconciled to that fact. Likewise, new players are making their own regional moves. Turkey has done so for several years and now, albeit on a smaller scale, Azerbaijan is following suit.
Therefore it behooves the great powers to attempt to defuse points of conflict like Nagorno-Karabakh, Iran, and issues like Caspian demarcation. It also is equally important to continue to sustain Georgia economically and politically against ongoing Russian threats and pressure. Azerbaijan will not directly confront Moscow but it will pursue its own interests that cut against Russian imperial designs in the Caucasus and the Balkans if not the Middle East. And it clearly wants to be in the West.
Progress on resolving all the disputed issues discussed here is very much in the West’s collective interest, for the U.S., Europe, as well as for Azerbaijan. The U.S. and Europe should therefore welcome these initiatives and keep them going even if they encounter resistance. Only by displaying sufficient attention to resolving these problems can we enhance regional security and stability in the Balkans and the Levant even if doing so takes several years. Failure to seize the moment in these zones leads to outcomes resembling that of Ukraine, where failure to adjust to reality and to the superior attractiveness of the European choice has led to an unnecessarily bitter, protracted, and ultimately violent crisis whose end is only beginning to come into sight. Supporting Azerbaijani initiatives and conflict resolution is therefore strategically justified on several grounds even if we should not lose sight of the problems along the path.
Yet, if the West acquiesces in the detaching of Crimea from Ukraine, then this analysis will be vitiated as nobody will be able to trust Western guarantees or assurances. Russia has demonstrated that not only does it regard treaties as a mere scrap of paper and that the integrity and sovereignty of its neighbors is merely a contingent factor, it also has proven other gravely disturbing consequences. The invasion of Crimea confirms that for Putin and his entourage, their state cannot survive other than as an empire entailing the diminished sovereignty of all of its post-Soviet neighbors and also – and this is crucial – the former members of the Warsaw Pact.
It is equally clear that unless the West, acting under U.S. leadership and through institutions like the EU and NATO, resist Russia forcefully (this does not mean using force preemptively but does mean displaying credible deterrence) the gains of the last 25 years regarding European security will have been lost and we will return to the bipolar confrontation that was the primary cause of the Cold War.
Moscow cannot induce consent except through force, it commands no legitimate authority beyond its borders, it cannot sustain an empire economically, and most importantly, the peoples it targets neither want a Russian empire nor will they accept it. For the U.S. whose main concern has hitherto been democracy and Azerbaijan whose main concern is security, the opportunity for a rewarding strategic dialogue and process is clearly within reach. But unless the U.S. and Europe stand up to Russia in Ukraine, this opportunity will be lost and Azerbaijan will, like other post-Soviet states, realize that it is essentially alone vis-à-vis Russia.
CONCLUSIONS: The strategic consequences of that outcome should be obvious. For both sides to draw maximum benefit from their relations, both sides must listen to the other side’s concerns and move to respond to them. This means that Baku must take the lesson of Ukraine to heart and reform while it can. The growing unwillingness to reform can only harden internal socio-political and economic divisions, making it harder for Azerbaijan to realize its positive strategic vision and ultimately leaving it vulnerable to attacks from adversarial forces. For the U.S. and the EU, this means a vigorous effort not only to bring about the full realization of the Southern Gas Corridor but to facilitate conflict resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Only if both sides take account of the other’s primary concern can they truly maximize the achievements that are possible in energy, conflict resolution, and the resolution of disputed questions that could still become a source of future conflict. Everything that contributes to growth, development, peace, security, and democracy from Vienna East is essentially in the interests of the U.S., the EU, and Azerbaijan. Moreover, a stronger Azerbaijan adds to the West’s ability to ensure security in all of its multiple forms: economic, political, energy, etc. and peace throughout this expanse. This is not a call for a sweeping geostrategic vision but for practical progress on multiple lines in diverse regions to ensure security by states who have a growing common interest and growing capability to do so
One cannot say if and when we and Azerbaijan will get another opportunity to make progress on these issues that benefit even states like Armenia who suffers from the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Undoubtedly, there will be resistance from parties with interests opposed to such progress, but the West clearly has overwhelming resources if it can find the will to bring them to bear. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is showing that will and is at the same time maximizing and expanding its capabilities to realize a more positive vision for Eurasia. Failure to seize the opportunity that now lies before us would be an unconscionable mistake that will not be corrected for years and could lead to more unnecessary strife rather than to more security, prosperity, and peace.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.