NATO and Azerbaijan: An Unbalanced Partnership
Updated: Jul 30, 2021
By Peter Kechichian and Gevorg Shahbazyan
Last week, Azerbaijan was again the focus of a U.S. foreign policy discussion. On July 1st, the Atlantic Council hosted a forum in Washington D.C. entitled, “NATO in the Caucasus: The Case of Azerbaijan.” Moderated by Mr. David Koranyi, the Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, the panel featured influential analysts who cover this strategic region. These included Ambassador Khazar Ibrahim, the head of the Azerbaijani mission to NATO, Mr. Eric Ruben, the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. State Department, and Dr. Brenda Shaffer, a visiting researcher at Georgetown University. The forum was introduced by Frederick Kempe, the President and CEO of the Atlantic Council. Kempe mentioned in his opening address that the Atlantic Council is a “strong supporter for independent Azerbaijan,” while Ambassador Ibrahim praised that Atlantic Council for “promoting the agenda of Azerbaijan.”
The forum represented a new chapter in the public discussion on Azerbaijan and the wider region. It focused on U.S foreign policy in the South Caucasus, possible NATO expansion in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, and European energy security in general. Although NATO has had a footprint in the region since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the increased expansion by NATO in the area is almost unprecedented and will have a major impact on the geopolitics of the wider region. This has become increasingly relevant, particularly in light of major examples of Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008, and Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. The Caucasus, due to its strategic location, has always fallen under the firm influence of larger powers, such as Russia, Iran and Turkey. Hence, the expansion of NATO in the region causes a direct challenge to Russian influence in the South Caucasus.
The forum represented a wide-ranging discussion touching on many differing aspects of NATO’s relationship with Azerbaijan, which developed as a NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) member since 1994. Chief among these was energy security, energy infrastructure protection, and ensuring future and reliable energy flow to European markets. Ambassador Ibrahim emphasized that Azerbaijan is an “energy provider to many NATO members,” highlighting its importance to NATO while painting Azerbaijan as a “very strong, active partner.” A common theme among the energy security discussion was about lowering Europe’s dependence on the Russian dominated gas supply system and diversifying Europe’s energy sources. Eric Ruben of the State Department was very clear about this, proclaiming that some countries “are dependent on Russian gas,” while Dr. Shaffer declared that energy security should not be thought of as separate to security in general. The Southern Gas Corridor is a major European energy project that will bring Caspian oil and gas into Europe via Turkey. It is a “highly strategic choice” and one that “we talk about… a lot in Washington, D.C.,” Dr. Shaffer said. Other areas mentioned include Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel, its support in the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, and combating human trafficking, counter-terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and land mine clearance.
However, what the writers found interesting about the forum is what was not covered. There was very little mention of Azerbaijan’s bilateral relationship with Russia. Interestingly, there was absolutely no mention of Azerbaijan’s acquisition of $4 billion worth of modern weaponry from Russia, including some of the most technologically advanced offensive weapons. The influx of Russian weapons has resulted in a regional arms race which has further fueled instability in a region already rife with daily cross-border attacks that have left at least 18 soldiers dead on both sides of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, this year. These actions run counter to Russia’s repeated claims of maintaining military parity and balance in the region towards both Azerbaijan and Armenia. This is in addition to the numerous trade and energy projects that Azerbaijan continues to enjoy with Russia. Just last month, high-level Russian officials traveled to Baku, such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, Economic Minister Alexei Ulyukaev, and Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin, to name a few. The sheer size of the delegation and the number of trips taken highlight Moscow’s intention to deepen its relationship with Azerbaijan. “It is a very painful subject and our people are worried that our strategic ally sells weapons to Azerbaijan,” Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan told Argentina’s Clarin newspaper last week.
An Armenian Embassy representative, Deputy Chief of Mission Andranik Hovhannisyan, was present at the forum and noted the extensive relationship that Armenia also enjoys with NATO. For example, Armenia, which has also developed relations with NATO since 1994 as a PfP member, continues to maintain a significant peace keeping mission in Kosovo, while Azerbaijan withdrew its peace keeping force from Kosovo in 2008, he said. Ibrahim referred to this withdrawal during the conference as a “political decision,” due to his government’s stance against the internationally recognized principle of self-determination. It is also worth noting that Armenia has contributed significantly to NATO-led operations in Afghanistan, most notably with the deployment of over one hundred combat soldiers. In addition, Armenia assisted the coalition’s combat operations during the Iraq war.
While the discussion generally attempted to portray Azerbaijan as an indispensable partner to NATO, one could make the case that the NATO-Armenia relationship is as advanced, if not more so, than the level of partnership enjoyed with Baku. Furthermore, the Azerbaijan government’s pardon, promotion and glorification of an Azerbaijani soldier, Ramil Safarov, who was convicted in Hungary for the 2004 murder of an Armenian officer, Gurgen Margaryan, is unbecoming of a NATO aspirant. Margaryan was murdered in his sleep by an ax-wielding Safarov during a NATO PfP English language training course. One could also argue that this is not the type of behavior that should be rewarded, as it runs counter to the purpose of the NATO PfP which is to “increase stability, diminish threats to peace and build strengthened security relationships between partner countries NATO.“
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