As Vladimir Putin meets Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St. Petersburg and prepares for a meeting with Sargsyan of Armenia tomorrow, he has just completed another key meeting, this time in Baku in Azerbaijan with the Presidents of Iran and Azerbaijan, Rouhani and Aliyev.
Before discussing this meeting it is important to remember that Rouhani though Iran’s President is not Iran’s leader. Iran’s Supreme Leader is Ayatollah Khamenei who scarcely ever leaves Iran but who Putin met during his own most recent visit to Iran in November last year. Rouhani’s status is not therefore exactly analogous to Putin’s or Aliyev’s. Rouhani does however have Khamenei’s confidence and there is no reason to think that at the meeting in Baku he was not speaking with the full authority and backing of the whole Iranian leadership.
Turning to the meeting itself, the most important single fact about it was the venue: Baku in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a former Soviet republic with which Moscow has not always had an easy relationship.
Since before the dissolution of the USSR Azerbaijan has been locked in conflict with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which is populated overwhelmingly by Armenians but which the Soviets had placed within Azerbaijan’s administrative jurisdiction. In the late 1980s, before the USSR fell, Nagorno Karabakh seceded from Azerbaijan and became self-governing, though with very strong economic and political links to Armenia. Azerbaijan however continues to claim Nagorno Karabakh as part of its national territory, leading to a bitter dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with Azerbaijan always reserving the right to settle the dispute by conquering Nagorno Karabakh by force.
Officially Moscow is neutral in the dispute and has indeed sought to act as a mediator. In practice before the USSR broke up the Soviet authorities in Moscow backed Azerbaijan but since the USSR broke up the Russians have forged close and very friendly ties with Armenia, which they support economically and where they have established an important airforce base. Armenia for its part looks to Russia for protection and is actively involved in the Russian-led process of Eurasian integration having joined the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation making it the only Caucasian state to do so.
This repeats the historic pattern of friendship between Armenians and Russia, with Christian Armenians traditionally looking to Christian Russia as their protector from the Muslim people of the Caucasus and above all from Turkey.
In the Nagorno Karabakh there is an extra dimension to the relationship between Russia and Armenia in that Turkey, which is closely allied to Azerbaijan, has together with Azerbaijan placed Armenia under economic blockade, making Armenia economically more dependent on Moscow. Azerbaijan has also used the profits of its very considerable Caspian Sea oil and gas wealth to finance a very substantial military build-up, which the Armenians have sought to counter by strengthening their military ties to Moscow.
The tense nature of the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Moscow’s role in the conflict, was underlined by bitter clashes between Azerbaijan’s military and Nagorno Karabakh’s defence forces which took place as recently as April this year. Though Armenia was not directly involved in the fighting an Azerbaijanian offensive resulted in heavy loss of life, though with insignificant territorial changes to show, provoking fears of an all-out war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Though in the event that did not happen, the Russians are known to have taken urgent diplomatic action to try to prevent it.
No-one should be under any doubt that in the event of an all-out war between Azerbaijan and Armenia the Russians will act decisively to protect Armenia. Though the Russians absolutely do not want to be put into this position, Armenia’s importance to Russia for geopolitical reasons – to secure Russia’s position in the Transcaucasus and for the success of the whole Eurasian integration project – means that Russia simply cannot afford to sacrifice Armenia, which is a full member of both the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and of the Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. The Russians almost certainly made this fact clear to Azerbaijan’s leadership during the April fighting, just as they will have quietly reminded Azerbaijan’s leadership of Russia’s overwhelming military dominance in the Caucasus and Caspian Sea region, which means that in any conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in which Russia sided with Armenia Azerbaijan would lose.
It is not however Russia’s wish or in Russia’s interests for it to burn its bridges with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan because of its oil and gas wealth is the richest of the three Caucasian states (the two others are Armenia and Georgia) and is a key state both in the Caucasus and on the Caspian Sea. Russia needs no enemies in in this region, which is crucial to Russia. Moreover Azerbaijan’s oil and gas wealth makes Azerbaijan a constant object of Western plans to break the supposed stranglehold the Russians are supposed to have over the EU’s gas supplies. Though there is no evidence the Russians have ever sought to prevent the realisation of any of these projects (which like the Nabucco gas pipeline have always proved ephemeral) they obviously have no wish to give Azerbaijan an added incentive to involve itself in them.
Beyond these factors there is the further factor that the Russians undoubtedly see Azerbaijan as a major prize to be won for the process of Eurasian integration. If Azerbaijan can eventually be drawn into this process it will not only secure a valuable country with its great oil and gas wealth to the Eurasian project, but it will also finally and conclusively secure Russia’s position in the Caucasus, isolating Georgia as the only pro-Western holdout in the area. For some Russians there would also be something fitting in another country that was formerly a part of the USSR reintegrating itself via Eurasia with Russia.
For all these reasons the Russians have striven to maintain a relationship with Azerbaijan, difficult though that has sometimes been. To the great anger of many people in Armenia they continue to sell weapons to Azerbaijan, and have maintained economic and political links with the country. They have also, as discussed previously, declined to side openly with Armenia over the Nagorno Karabakh issue but have sought instead to act as mediators in it.
As for Azerbaijan, it too has its reasons to maintain its links with Moscow even if it has from time to time flirted with some of the transparently anti-Russian US and EU oil and gas pipeline projects such as Nabucco, and even if it has also participated in some of the US sponsored anti-Russian groupings within former Soviet territory such as the now essentially defunct GUAM project, in which however Azerbaijan was always the weakest link.
The leadership of Azerbaijan is acutely aware of Russia’s overwhelming strategic dominance in its region, and has no wish to make Russia into an open enemy, which might cause Russia to side openly with Armenia, losing Nagorno Karabakh for Azerbaijan conclusively and forever. Azerbaijan’s failure to achieve a decisive breakthrough in the April fighting and Russia’s warnings to Azerbaijan during the fighting will have simply underlined the point.
Beyond that the leadership of Azerbaijan has good reason to doubt the West’s reliability as an ally. Not only does Azerbaijan routinely get criticised in the West for being a dictatorship, something President Aliyev and his government must find infuriating, but Western NGOs in Azerbaijan have at times openly backed anti-government opposition leaders in ways that must make Azerbaijan’s government wonder whether it is a target for a Western backed colour revolution. Following the collapse of oil prices, which has caused major economic problems in Azerbaijan, it is understandable why that might have made its leadership nervous and might make it want to insure its position by drawing closer to Russia.
As for the possibility of a conflict with Russia over Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan was given a lesson of how ineffective Western support in this region would be during Russia’s comprehensive defeat of Georgia during the 2008 South Ossetia war. As it happens President Aliyev is known to have had an angry row with US Vice-President Dick Cheney during that war, when he spurned Cheney’s request for Azerbaijan to side openly with the US and Georgia against Russia.
If Russia and Azerbaijan have had a complicated relationship but also have good reasons to draw closer to each other, the same is also true of Azerbaijan and Iran.
Azerbaijan was formerly a province of Iran before it was conquered by Russia and incorporated by Russia into the Russian empire. Southern Azerbaijan continues to be part of Iran to this day. Though the people of Azerbaijan are Turkic and speak a language close to Turkish, unlike the Turks of Turkey because of their historic connection to Iran they are mainly Shia rather than Sunni.
Despite these strong connections to Iran, Azerbaijan has since the Soviet breakup been much closer to Turkey than to Iran, with Turkey giving Azerbaijan strong support in the Nagorno Karabakh dispute. Moreover just as Azerbaijan became a centre of US and EU oil and gas projects targeted at Russia, so also it came under US pressure to become involved in the various US led projects targeted at Iran. There have been rumours of US troops and even of US secret bases in Azerbaijan targeted at Iran, and there has even been some talk of secret US incursions into Iran from Azerbaijan’s territory. It is widely believed that some of the plans for US attacks on Iran which are known to have been considered in Washington during the Bush II administration also involved Azerbaijan.
Understandably enough all this put a significant strain on relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, despite the two countries having no obvious points of conflict with each other and despite the common interest of both countries in having friendly relations with each other.
The Iran Nuclear Agreement has however, if only for the time being, caused tensions between the US and Iran to diminish, with US plans for attacks on Iran at least for the moment off the agenda. That has given Azerbaijan the political space to mend its fences with Iran.
The way has therefore been opened for Azerbaijan to strengthen its relations with both Iran and Russia, and to do so moreover as part of a tripartite arrangement that enables Azerbaijan to achieve a balance in its relations with each of these powers.
That provides the background to the summit meeting between Putin, Rouhani and Aliyev which has just taken place in Baku.
All three of these states – Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan – stand to achieve something from their common rapprochement. The Russians are drawing Azerbaijan further away from the West whilst securing their positions in the Caspian Sea area and in the Caucasus. They must also be hoping to draw Azerbaijan further into the Eurasian integration processes. The Iranians have ended the potential threat to themselves from Azerbaijan’s territory and have strengthened their relations with a rich and important country that was formerly an Iranian province. As for Azerbaijan, it has managed to improve its relations with both its two great neighbours in a way that enables it to preserve a balance between the two of them.
Beyond this there is now optimistic talk of creating a free trade area involving the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, Iran and Azerbaijan. Negotiating such arrangements is a hugely complex affair and one should not make the mistake of thinking that because the three countries have now publicly committed themselves to it that it will necessarily happen. At the very least the process will take years.
The logic and the economic benefits for all three countries of a free trade area are however obvious. Not only would such an arrangement bring together three highly compatible economies and consolidate economic and trade links in Central Asia and in southern Eurasia, but it would also quietly allow Azerbaijan to resume trade links with Armenia (which is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union) thereby hopefully facilitating a settlement of the currently frozen Nagorno Karabakh conflict.
However whether any of this actually happens, and how sustained the present rapprochement between Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan will be, will depend on many factors, not least the maintenance of political stability in all three of these countries, especially in Azerbaijan.