Sergei Lavrov's visit to Baku last week was meant as a celebration of a year of allied interaction between Russia and Azerbaijan but in truth there was little to celebrate. "Azerbaijan’s relations with Russia are based on the principles of multilateralism and a balanced approach in foreign policy", writes Vasif Huseynov in this op-ed for commonspace.eu. Baku continues to prioritise a multilateral and balanced approach in its foreign policy, he argues.
On February 27-28, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov paid a visit to Baku to mark the first anniversary of a declaration signed between the leaders of the two countries on February 22, 2022. Envisaged to build “allied interaction” between the two countries, the document vowed that the sides would respect each other’s territorial integrity, hold the same or similar positions on issues of international relations and refrain from carrying out any economic activity that directly or indirectly harms the interests of the other side.
The document also included joint operations involving their armed forces, joint combat training, the establishment of service centers for the maintenance, repair and modernization of Azerbaijan’s weapons and military equipment, as well as the organization of joint production of various types of military products.
Lavrov’s visit was meant to celebrate the accomplishments made over the last year in this direction but in fact there has been little to nothing to celebrate, particularly in the political and military spheres. A quick overview of the foreign policy of the Azerbaijani government over the last year demonstrates that Baku, as before, continues to uphold the principles of a balanced approach in foreign policy, and seeks to maintain equidistance to all major powers.
There are some accomplishments in Russia-Azerbaijan relations
Since February 2022, Russia and Azerbaijan have made some progress in the economic and humanitarian dimensions of the bilateral relations. They have achieved a 24 percent increase in the bilateral trade which amounted to 4 billion USD last year. The two countries have also intensified commercial flights between their cities which now amount to almost 135 flights per week.
These are some of the accomplishments in the bilateral relations, however, they are hardly related with the “allied interactions” document. In fact, these are more affected by the consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war. The sanctions on Russia in the context of this war opened new opportunities for the exports of Azerbaijani agricultural products, and made Azerbaijan one of the popular transit countries for Russian citizens traveling to to third countries.
As opposed to what propagated by some groups last year when Azerbaijan signed the document, Baku has not taken any steps towards building an alliance with Moscow or acceding to the Russia-led military and economic blocs. Azerbaijan continues to adhere to its guiding foreign policy strategy, namely a balanced approach in international relations, and multilateralism, and seeks to protect its sovereignty and national security against challenges posed from different directions.
Azerbaijan approaches relations with Ukraine and Türkiye from perspective of national interests
Azerbaijan approaches the topical issues of international relations, including the Russia-Ukraine war, from the perspective of its national interests and does not refrain from expressing support to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Baku has also provided humanitarian assistance including electricity generators and free petrol supplies to Ukraine. Less than two weeks prior to Lavrov’s visit to Baku, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky telephoned with the Azerbaijani leader and thanked him for the “consistent support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and for the humanitarian aid provided”.
In the military sphere, likewise, Azerbaijan prioritizes its allied relations with Türkiye and has taken various steps over the last months to further expand and intensify these relations. In response to Iranian military exercises along the border with Azerbaijan that have a clear threatening tone against Baku, Azerbaijan held military drills along the Iranian border together with the armed forces of Türkiye. For Baku, Türkiye remains the most important security ally to withstand against threats posed by Iran and other actors.
One of the most important security issues for Azerbaijan relates to Russia’s approach to its peacekeeping mission in Azerbaijan and the peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia’s policies in this regard have not changed much over the last year and Moscow continues its traditional play game with both sides with a goal to freeze the status quo rather than resolve the outstanding problems. Azerbaijan takes note of this position and seeks to push for the settlement of the existing disputes with Armenia, investing particularly in the European track of peace negotiations.
Baku seeks to pursue a pragmatic and realistic foreign policy and prioritise a multilateral and balanced approach
On economic issues, particularly, in the energy sphere, Azerbaijan, likewise, persists in cooperating with European countries contributing to their efforts to diversify energy sources. Over the last year, a long list of meetings between Azerbaijani and European authorities have taken place focusing on cooperation in this sphere, and a number of critical agreements have been reached.
In July 2022, Azerbaijan and the EU signed a memorandum of understanding on strategic partnership in the energy field and agreed to increase the exports of Azerbaijani gas to Europe. According to a latest deal, Azerbaijan will also export electricity to Europe. The agreed projects and plans of the sides in this area are wide-ranging affirming Azerbaijan’s independent stance in the regional international relations.
Azerbaijan’s relations with Russia are based on the principles of multilateralism and a balanced approach in foreign policy. Baku recognises Russia as an important regional actor, notes the military presence of this country in the South Caucasus, understands its concerns related to the geopolitical situation in the region, and avoids antagonising Moscow.
This policy approach is in line to the theories of international relations which recommend smaller states caught between great power rivalries to maintain neutrality and form a bridge between rival global actors. Pursuing a pragmatic and realistic foreign policy, Baku seeks to prioritise a multilateral and balanced approach, and serves as bridge between West and East, not only in connectivity projects but also in geopolitics.