The Azerbaijan Question Re-emerges

Dec. 24, 2015 Relations between Azerbaijan and the U.S. have recently deteriorated, which could have an impact on American interests in the Middle East and Russia.

|December 24, 2015

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By George Friedman

The Azerbaijani Press Agency reported today that a bill had been introduced to the Azerbaijani parliament calling for a complete halt of all relations with the United States. The bill has not passed and likely will not, but such a bill being proposed is significant in and of itself. Azerbaijan is warning the United States that continued criticism of Azerbaijan on human rights and related issues is, particularly at this time, harming relations. Congressman Chris Smith, Republican from New Jersey, submitted a bill on Dec. 16 that would, if passed, deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government, and that started the current round.

Undoubtedly at this point you are asking why we are discussing Azerbaijan and two bills that haven’t passed. The answer is that Azerbaijan is geopolitically extraordinarily important. It is located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. Its northern neighbor is the Russian Federation. Its southern neighbor is Iran. Aside from being a significant energy producer, Azerbaijan interacts with two countries, Turkey and Russia, that are major strategic focuses of the leading global power, the United States.

The United States has been focused on two strategic challenges. One is the Middle East and especially the Islamic State and Iran. The other is Russia because of its posture in Ukraine and its increasing involvement in the Middle East. The increasing assertiveness of the Russians has revived American concerns of Russian encroachment on the European Peninsula. The containment strategy the U.S. pursued during the Cold War is clearly re-emerging, this time several hundred miles east of the old line. It runs from the Baltics to Romania, with Poland and Romania being the main allies of the United States in this endeavour.

For this line to be effective, it should run south to Turkey and then east through the Caucasus to the Caspian. This would create a containment line running against all of European Russia. This has been impossible to execute of late because of tensions between U.S. and Turkish strategic interests. The United States wanted Turkish help defeating IS. The Turks did not want to get involved in what they saw as an unmanageable conflict, especially if the fall of Bashar al-Assad wasn’t part of the package. Turkish hostility towards the Assad regime runs deep, dating to the mass killing of ethnic Turks in Syria. These two reasons combined to cause Turkey to refuse the Americans’ demands with regard to IS. In addition, the Turks maintained close relations with the Russians in spite of Ukraine, mainly revolving around Russian sales of energy to Turkey.

This tension between U.S. and Turkish priorities meant that any idea of extending the containment line against Russia to the east of Turkey, as far as Azerbaijan, was impossible. That changed with the Russian intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. This caused a massive shift in Turkish-Russian relations. This shift turned into outright hostility after the Turks shot down a Russian fighter jet and the Russians responded with sanctions. At this point, Russia turned into the main adversary of Turkey.

This also necessarily shifted relations with the United States. What had been strained relations had begun moving to some reconciliation before Russia’s intervention. It had been a slow process primarily driven by American pressure. As the Russians became hostile to Turkish interests, the relationship had to improve. The Turks are still extremely reluctant to absorb the cost and risks of an intervention against IS, a movement Turkey seems to feel it can manage. Still, the future of Syria matters to Turkey and only the U.S. can orchestrate an outcome that Turkey wants. However, reluctantly it is getting involved and its price will be American support against Russia, something that fits U.S. strategy.

This means that the partial containment line can be extended to include Turkey, and if Turkey is a member, it can be extended to include Georgia and Azerbaijan, both bordering Russia. This full containment would put the Russians in a difficult position. Their ability to project force would be severely limited, the costs of defense would rise substantially as the Russians would have to build a defensive capability uncertain of what its neighbors or the Americans might do. And in addition, the Russians are facing an economic crisis rooted in the collapse of oil prices. In other words, the conditions that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union would be replicated.

The Russians are countering this by reaching out to other Middle Eastern countries, including Iran. If Turkey is hostile, they have to protect their southern flank in the Caucasus and that would mean they would need a closer relationship with Iran, which in general, Iran would welcome as well. And that would mean that Azerbaijan, caught between Russia and Iran, would become a strategic asset of the highest order to the United States. Were Azerbaijan required to shift its position and accommodate the Iranian-Russian relationship, the line of containment in the Caucasus would be broken. If it was pro-American, Azerbaijan would be the monkey-wrench in the Russian-Iranian relationship.

Under the current circumstances the Russian and American relationship with Azerbaijan becomes critical. But Azerbaijan is under tremendous internal strains, produced by the same fact that threatens the Russians — oil prices. The Azerbaijanis were forced to devalue the manta, their currency, a few days before and opposition media indicates some unrest over the move. Adding to Baku’s internal challenges, the Azerbaijani security forces conducted a major raid on a village near Baku in late November known as a Shiite stronghold with deep pro-Iranian tendencies, with crackdowns continuing. Moreover, the Russian and Azeri defense ministers met on Dec. 23 to map out defense coordination.

The bill by Congressman Smith is of little importance by itself. First, it will not change things, and second, if it, and other similar measures, had an impact, it would not result in the liberalization of Azerbaijan. Instead, such moves could strengthen Russia and Iran’s position in Azerbaijan, as such bills are taken in Baku as an indication of American intent.

The primary goal of Azerbaijan’s government, as of other states, is regime survival. Without the support of the United States they feel the regime is threatened and are signaling that given their economic problem the U.S. is leaving them no choice but to reach an accommodation with Russia, if not Iran. This would leave the containment line incomplete, and increase the potential leverage of a Russian-Iranian entente. It would particularly open an avenue of operations against Turkey from the east, one that would be much more difficult for Russia to achieve if Azerbaijan and Georgia were in the U.S.-led alliance structure.

The United States does not have a clear policy in Azerbaijan. In a way, it didn’t need one while U.S.-Turkish relations remained strained. But with the recent shift, the question of Azerbaijan will become much more important for the U.S. because a deepening relationship would be both more significant strategically and more practical. What the United States will not achieve is a softening of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian regime. There the choices are political orientation of the regime on the international stage. The current regime can shift its position strategically, but won’t shift internally. But if this regime fails, its successor will be no less authoritarian. It will only be fixed strategically as well, most likely against the United States.

This is why a bill in the Azeri parliament and a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives matters. They both have some effect, however small, on an increasingly important relationship emerging out of a major crisis in the Middle East and with Russia.

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