Russia And Azerbaijan On A ‘New Page Of Cooperation’


Russia & India Report
Aug 14 2013

August 14, 2013 Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra, specially for RIR

Moscow and Baku move towards closer ties as Putin dispels fear of
Russian support to Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Baku on August 13 after
seven years has naturally raised mixed reactions around the world. A
closer analysis reveals that the visit reflects a pragmatic approach
of Russia in a post-Cold War world in which relations evolve with
each player’s changing perceptions and interests.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, three countries emerged
on the scene of the South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia –
all the three countries undergoing transitional nation-building pangs
with problems ranging from territorial disputes and a power vacuum
left by the collapse. The strategic location of the region between
Europe and Russia and the energy resources particularly of Azerbaijan
made these countries pawns in the ‘grand chess board.’ While Armenia
apparently moved closer to Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan followed a
pro-Western policy, though not always consistent, and particularly
under the partnership of NATO’s peace program veered more towards
this alliance.

This ethnically diverse region too witnessed implosion of conflicts
within these states with Armenia and Azerbaijan embroiled in
territorial dispute in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Georgia with troubles in
South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Adjara (the first two declared separation
in 2008).

In this complex background, the relations between Russia and
Azerbaijan followed a topsy-turvy path. While the majority Muslim
country owed a lot to Soviet Union in terms of its development, its
leaders waved as to which exact path to embrace in developing its
foreign policy. Haider Aliyev the first President of Azerbaijan and
his son Ilham Aliyev, President since 2003, are perceived closer to
the West. The differences between Russia and Azerbaijan on the use
of a radar station further contributed to such a perception. Ilham
sought to dispel this perception and argued after his meeting with
the Russian president that bilateral relations are in good stead. He
stated, “We are happy about progress seen in our political relations.

We are cooperating in international organizations, we support each
other and we will continue pursuing a policy of mutual support in
international organizations.”

Among various agreements signed during the visit, agreement on
oil and gas, on cooperation among emergency ministries and on
humanitarian sphere are noteworthy. The head of Roseneft, Igor Sechin
who accompanied Putin stated, both the countries “plan to cooperate
on a number of issues including crude swap operations, a joint use
of infrastructure.”

Russia has emerged as a major arms supplier to Azerbaijan which
has increased its defence budget in past few years, enabled by
its petrodollars. Ilham pointed out, “The information, not always
in line with reality, regarding the volumes of the military and
technical cooperation appears in mass media occasionally. As of now,
the volume of the military and technical cooperation between Russia
and Azerbaijan amounts to $4 billion and has a tendency to grow.”

Azerbaijan has received T-90 tanks, heavy flame systems and Msta
self-propelled artillery mounts from Russia. As per a report, the
supply of BTR-82 armored vehicles is about to begin soon. There are
also reports that the South Caucasian country is interested in S-300
missile system from Russia. Azerbaijan has apparently enhanced its
defense preparedness as a possible counter offensive against its
rival Armenia. Both the countries had gone to war after the collapse
of the Soviet Union, in which Azerbaijan had lost, further weakening
its position in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave within its territory
but controlled by Armenia.

Russia’s position on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan will
be definitively a key issue for Azerbaijan. Ilham pointed out, “The
fastest settlement of the conflict (in Nagorno-Karabakh) will lead
to stability, predictability and cooperation in the region.” Putin
during his visit to Baku dispelled Azeri fears of any Russian
support to Armenia on the issue, or any support for the resolution
of the conflict by force. Putin told the press, “During the talks
we touched upon pressing international issues including, of course,
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Russia is actively contributing to the
soonest resolution of the conflict which is possible only by peaceful
means.” He further observed, “Russia is providing active assistance to
the settlement (of the conflict), which is possible only by political
means.” This must be soothing to the Azeri leadership which has long
perceived Russia as tilting the balance in favour of its rival.

One major area of deliberation that factored during meeting was
cooperation in energy. Azerbaijan has about reserve of one trillion
cubic meters of natural gas, which has made it a cynosure for energy
hungry countries. Though both the countries have cooperated in this
sector, it is considered not very significant. Last year Azerbaijan
supplied Russia 1.55 billion of cubic meters of natural gas to Russia.

Among the Russian companies, Lukoil has invested in Shah Deniz gas
field. Russian oil major Roseneft is interested to further explore
the Azrei gas fields. Reportedly it is interested to have a stake
in the Absheron gas project. At present Azeri state energy company
SOCAR and the French company Total are the partners in the project.

Putin also argued on developing a common agenda among the Caspian Sea
countries to address issues such as security, border delimitation,
and conservation of biological diversity. In the increasing globalized
world problems particularly those of global commons often transcend
boundaries of nation states. Russia, which is the largest Caspian Sea
littoral state, has played a role in bringing the states together
to tackle common issues. Putin stated before the press after the
meeting, “We want this region to become a region of peace, stability
and cooperation.” He further added, “It is in our national interests
to ensure that all of these problems are tackled with the interests
of all Caspian states taken into account.”

The retinue of Russian president also adds to the importance Russia
attached to the visit. Besides Putin, the delegation included foreign
minister, defense minister, energy minister, minister of economic
development, transportation minister and top officials. It also
indicates Putin’s increasing interest in the South Caucasus, which may
not be welcomed by countries like Georgia which has been embroiled
in bitter conflict with Russia. Putin’s success in Azerbaijan, even
if in a smaller scale, will certainly impact politics of the region.

Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is an Indian commentator. His areas
of interests include conflict, terrorism, peace and development,
Kashmir, South Asia, and strategic aspects of Eurasian politics.

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