Mounting tensions between the United States and Russia: the view from Azerbaijan

Will Azerbaijan continue to pursue a policy of neutrality in the current conflict between Russia and the West?

US–Russia relations have reached a dangerous and unstable state, the lowest point in decades. The threat of a sudden military clash is widely

discussed

in serious academic and political circles. Both sides take this threat seriously and are reinforcing their military forces along the borders.

The Western military build-up in the countries on Russia’s European border is unprecedented in the post-Cold War period. In January 2017, it was

reported

that more than 7,000 NATO troops had been deployed in the regional countries – the Baltic states, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Romania and Poland have recently

reached

deals amounting to billions of dollars with the US for the purchase of Patriot missile defense systems. The US has also pushed its military further eastward into the territories of the Former Soviet Union. The US Pentagon and State Department have

charted out

plans to arm Ukraine with lethal weaponry including anti-tank missiles. The US has also started

building

a maritime operations center at the Ochakiv Naval Base in Ukraine which is located close to the Crimean Peninsula. The Navy said, “The maritime operations center is one of three projects that are currently planned to be executed… in Ochakiv and will serve as a major planning and operational hub during future military exercises hosted by Ukraine.”

Last month, Ukraine

hosted

the 2017 Sea Breeze international naval exercise, involving the US and 16 other countries, which

outraged

the Russian leaders. The US also is to

provide

military support to Georgia through the new Georgia Defense Readiness Program which envisions the establishment of a combat training center in Georgia, similar to the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) in Hohenfels. A military build-up at a similar scale is planned by the US to carry out in the territories of Moldova. The construction of eight training facilities for military operations in urban terrain at the Bulboaca training base in Moldova is reportedly

planned

by the US Naval Facilities Engineering Command Europe Africa Southwest Asia. It is particularly important as the base is located close to Moldova’s Russia-controlled Transnistria region.

The Russian side has also expanded its anti-American policies and ratcheted up its military maneuvers along its Western borders. In response to the imposition of the new sanctions on the Russian economy by the United States, the Kremlin

demanded

the US cut its diplomatic staff in Russia by 755 people. Moscow has also deployed new military hardware to the territories close to the Baltic countries and Poland. Russia is also preparing to send as many as 100,000 troops to this region in the near future to conduct military drills known as Zapad. The New York Times

described

it as “one of the biggest steps yet in the military build-up undertaken by President Vladimir V. Putin and an exercise in intimidation that recalls the most ominous days of the Cold War.”

How Should Azerbaijan Position Itself Between the West and Russia?

This is presently one of the most debated questions in the Azerbaijani media against the background of the mounting tensions between the United States and Russia. The policies of the Azerbaijani government demonstrate that the state will continue to avoid any alignment with foreign powers – a strategy which has proved ineffective in its efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the country’s most fateful foreign policy issue. Although this is widely considered by the Azerbaijani political elite and expert community to be a “balanced approach in foreign policy,” in fact this strategy resembles what scholars of international relations call “hiding,”

defined

as “seek[ing] to avoid involvement in balancing and counter-balancing coalitions by keeping a low profile, declaring their neutrality, or withdrawing into isolation.”

The Azerbaijani government does not show any interest to approach one of the geopolitical centers at the expense of its ties with the other one. Baku’s unexpected

refusal

to attend the NATO trainings in Georgia without explanation, where the Russian ally Armenia, along with the United States, Germany, Turkey, and Ukraine participated, also demonstrated the reluctance of the Azerbaijani leadership to deepen military cooperation with the West. Although some Azerbaijani experts related the state’s non-attendance to the participation of Armenia in the exercises, the fact that Azerbaijan did not participate in the Ukraine-hosted Sea Breeze naval exercises in the Black Sea either, where Armenia was not present, invalidates this argument.

The state’s cautious approach towards foreign powers largely overlaps with the thinking of most political experts in the country. It is commonly

believed

that the confrontation between the USA and Russia should not affect the foreign policy principles of the state:

“Azerbaijan must continue to maintain its neutrality. Although we are dissatisfied with the policies of Russia concerning our region, this does not imply that we have to stand with the West against Russia and thus push ourselves into the fire.”

However, they expect detrimental consequences of the Russia–US confrontation to the Azerbaijani economy. Against the backdrop of still low energy prices in the world market, Azerbaijan needs Russia more than ever for the export of its non-oil products. The trade statistics of the country also show the increasing importance of Russia in Azerbaijan’s foreign trade. In 2013 Azerbaijan’s total external trade

amounted

to $34 billion, 7,4% ($2,5 billion) of which was related to its trade with Russia. In 2016, in the aftermath of sharp decline of energy prices, Azerbaijan’s external trade turnover

plunged

to $17 billion, while the share of the trade with Russia rose to 11,6% of its total trade at the approximately same value ($2 billion), which is over 70% of its total trade with the CIS countries. Azerbaijan also

exports

more than 70% of its agricultural products, which are the seemingly most viable alternative to its hydrocarbon exports, to Russia. The remittances sent by Azerbaijanis working in Russia, who number over half a million, also gain increasingly more importance for Azerbaijanis. It is reported that each year more than one billion dollars are sent to Azerbaijan by the Azerbaijani people in Russia.

Thus, Russia is a major player in the Azerbaijani economy. The expert community of the country voice

alarm

when political relations put economic ties with Russia into jeopardy. They call for more diversification and warn against over-reliance on exports to Russia. Elkhan Shahinoghlu, Director of Atlas Strategic Studies,

states

that:

“It is possible that America’s newly imposed sanctions on Russia would entail negative consequences for Azerbaijan, as well. Firstly, as sanctions are likely to badly affect the Russian economy, the remittances sent by the Azerbaijani workers in Russia to their relatives back home will decrease. Secondly, it is likely to cause more problems in the exports of the Azerbaijani agricultural products to Russia. Therefore, the Azerbaijani authorities should try to diversify the economy and decrease its dependency on the Russian economy. This would also reduce the utility of economic relations as leverage for Russia to politically influence Azerbaijan.”

However, the Azerbaijani leadership have not shown any serious political will to reform the economy and raise the share of the Western countries in country’s non-energy trade relations. Natig Jafarli, executive secretary of the Republican Alternative Movement (ReAl),

laments

that the state does not take any effective measures to promote the export of agricultural products to the West, although this would potentially reduce Azerbaijan’s economic dependence on Russia. This dependence is likely to be an increasingly more influential factor in the foreign policy of the state amidst the growing tensions between Russia and the West. The growing importance of economic ties with Russia for the Azerbaijani economy against the backdrop of low energy prices in the world market will likely make Azerbaijani leaders continue this cautious line in foreign policy.

Ana səhifəNewsMounting tensions between the United States and Russia: the view from Azerbaijan