The Cost of Russia’s Friendship With Azerbaijan

Amid the war in Ukraine, Azerbaijan has become an essential partner for Russia when it comes to both energy exports, and keeping open a transport corridor to Iran.

Azerbaijan has managed to achieve something thought to be impossible in the post-Soviet space: the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers ahead of time, and seemingly without angering Moscow. In fact, even as peacekeepers were leaving the long-disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh that was seized by Baku following a one-day war with Armenia in 2023, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev was visiting Moscow. Neither Russian officials nor Russian propaganda outlets have accused Baku of pushing Russia out of the South Caucasus. Instead, they blame Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for recognizing Azerbaijan’s 1991 borders and placing too much trust in Brussels and Washington.

Nevertheless, the warm rhetoric between Baku and Moscow does not mean that they are now close allies. It likely indicates the Kremlin has realized the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh is resolved, and that it does not want to jeopardize relations with Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has shown that, with a certain combination of military and diplomatic effort, it is possible to both resolve a territorial conflict in defiance of Moscow, and eject the Russian military. For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that once Russia deploys peacekeepers, they will remain in place for a long time—like in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or Moldova’s pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria. But Nagorno-Karabakh has bucked this trend. Even if Russia had wanted to see its peacekeepers stationed there for many years, in the end they were obliged to leave in short order having achieved very little.

The withdrawal represents the final failure of Russia’s model for a solution to the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, which envisaged peacekeepers staying there more or less permanently. When Azerbaijan seized the region and the local Karabakh Armenians fled en masse to Armenia, Moscow initially tried to find a new role for its peacekeepers. One option was for them to be based in Armenia as part of a mission from the Moscow-led security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. However, with many in Armenia blaming Moscow for Azerbaijan’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, Pashinyan publicly refused to accept Russian peacekeepers.

Russia even tried to argue that the peacekeepers needed to stay in Nagorno-Karabakh to help with de-mining. But de-mining obviously does not require 2,000 soldiers and 400 vehicles. Most of Russia’s 15th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Alexandria Brigade, which provided the peacekeepers, is already fighting in Ukraine, and the rest will now likely join them.

Even having withdrawn its peacekeepers without winning any concessions from Baku, Moscow remains frozen out of Armenia–Azerbaijan negotiations. Moscow and Baku may both criticize Yerevan for its attempts to cozy up to the West, but there is no sign of Russian diplomacy in the South Caucasus intensifying, or of Moscow working closely with Baku. Instead, Yerevan and Baku have recently entered into a direct dialogue—and so far quite successfully.

A recent deal between Yerevan and Baku to transfer control of four border villages to Azerbaijan, and the erection of the first border markers between the two countries took place without any Russian participation. The “no Russia, no West” approach in Armenia–Azerbaijan relations that was adopted last year is already looking like it could be workable.

In particular, a consensus that the two sides will seek to agree on a common border based on the Alma-Ata Protocols of 1991 (which regulated the breakup of the Soviet Union) is cause for optimism. This should prevent Azerbaijan from seeking to impose a border based on maps from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s when the Azerbaijan republic within the Soviet Union was somewhat larger.

On the other hand, Azerbaijan continues to criticize Armenia for trying to strengthen its armed forces, and the topic of the so-called Zangezur Corridor—a proposed transport route through Armenia connecting Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhchivan—remains a flashpoint. In other words, while Yerevan and Baku have managed to reach agreement on something without external mediation, it could turn out to be temporary window dressing. Either way, though, it’s unlikely Russia will be able to return to its previous role as an influential intermediary.

Russian pro-war Telegram channels regularly criticize Baku for pro-Kyiv sympathies—and even pro-regime media outlets in Azerbaijan have published articles about Azerbaijani volunteers fighting against Russia in Ukraine. There is also much anger in Russia over rumors that Azerbaijan is supplying weapons to Ukraine. But Moscow is trying hard to avoid any friction in relations with Azerbaijan.

One of the main reasons Moscow was unable—or unwilling—to extract something from Baku in exchange for the withdrawal of its peacekeepers was that the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s subsequent international isolation has significantly reduced Moscow’s leverage. It is now less willing to risk jeopardizing relations with its neighbors.

For example, Russian exports of oil and gas through Azerbaijan rose significantly after Russia lost access to much of the European market following the invasion of Ukraine. This means that in winter, Azerbaijan can export more of its own gas and meet internal demand with Russian gas. Similarly, Russian oil exports to Azerbaijan quadrupled in 2023. In both cases, the total volume of exports is not huge, but the war in Ukraine means it is of disproportionate significance for Moscow.

Azerbaijan has also become an irreplaceable partner for Russia when it comes to transporting goods to and from Iran and the ports of the Persian Gulf. It’s no coincidence that transport along the North–South Corridor was one of the main points of discussion between Putin and Aliyev at their April 22 meeting in Moscow.

It would be illogical for Moscow to risk all this by picking a fight with Baku, particularly as the issue of peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh was one of principle. Even if the Russian soldiers had stayed in the region until 2025 or even 2030, they would not have been able to change the facts on the ground. On the contrary, they would only have been a reminder of how Moscow has been sidelined from the negotiations between Yerevan and Baku.

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