A Game of Absolutes

Azerbaijan is stuck on the world stage between two major actors who are embroiled in quite the kerfuffle. What does the Russia-Turkey rift mean for Baku?

Ilham Aliyev is in a tough place.

Azerbaijan is stuck on the world stage between two major actors who are embroiled in quite the kerfuffle. The Daily Beast has

slapped the label

“Cold War” on the tense situation between Russia and Turkey after Nov. 24, when

Turkish F-16 fighter jets downed a Russian Su-24 warplane

after it strayed into Turkish airspace near the border with Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin showed vitriol toward Ankara after the incident. He


in response to the downing at a press conference: “We shall remind them many a time what they have done and they will more than once feel regret for what they have done.”

That tension worked its way into the business sector with regards to Turkish construction projects in Russia: Starting on Jan. 1, no new contracts can be signed,

The New York Times

reports. From Moscow, the


Andrew Kramer

reports that a significant amount of Russian infrastructure is Turkish-made, and that “the exemption for all current (pre-2016) contracts seemed to reflect that the Russians will only go so far in limiting Turkey’s activities here for fear of being left with no roofs over their heads.”

Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen wrote a definitive biography on Putin. As she told me in a recent email, Putin is setting up Russia to be the leader of the “anti-Western” world. The problem for Ankara comes in part from its membership with NATO, which Putin seems to see as an expanding threat.

“Russia does not view itself as expansionist, according to Mr. Putin,” Gessen writes in a recent op-ed for

The New York Times

. “Its ideology is grounded in the idea of a clash of civilizations – one of ‘traditional values’ vs. the West – and Russia merely strives to preserve the former.”

But what does this mean for not-so-black-and-white Baku?

In recent memory Azerbaijan has oft-courted the West, from the

2012 Eurovision Song Contest

to the extravagant and inaugural

European Games

. To see a country once part of the U.S.S.R. sitting at the table with Western leaders doubtless puts Putin on edge. He has to be wondering: Will Baku fall to the temptation of NATO membership, were it ever offered? Former Soviet bloc countries such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

are member states

, for example.

And President Barack Obama has

reportedly invited Aliyev

to the fourth Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. – though in truth this journalist hopes there will be room during the summit meeting for U.S. officials to query Aliyev about the

perverse number of human rights violations perpetrated in his country


Regardless, if Aliyev keeps playing with ambivalence in Putin’s game of absolutes, don’t be surprised if a Russian jet strays into Azeri airspace in the near future.

Jonathan Bach, a journalist and research fellow with the University of Oregon-UNESCO Crossings Institute for Conflict-Sensitive Reporting and Intercultural Dialogue, is an op-ed contributor for Meydan TV.

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