On August 13, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a one-day working visit to Azerbaijan. During visit, presidents of Azerbaijan and Russia discussed a wide range of bilateral issues (trade, energy and transportation), including the legal status of the Caspian Sea and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement. It’s the first visit of Vladimir Putin to Azerbaijan after his third presidency.
Vladimir Putin didn’t come alone. The number of Russian delegation, which included Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Defense, Sergey Shoygu, Energy Minister Alexander Novak, Minister of Emergency Situations Vladimir Puchkov, Minister of Transport Maksim Sokolov, Minister of Economic Development Aleksey Ulyakaev, Director of Rosoboronoexport Anatoliy Isaykin, Head of the Russian delegation on the multilateral talks on the Caspian Sea Igor Bratchikov, President of Roneft Igor Sechin and President of LUKoil Vagit Alekperov showed that Kremlin has prepared very well for this visit. But, the questions is: Did they get everything they want? Probably not.
Following the bilateral talks, relevant Ministers from both sides signed a package of six bilateral documents, including a comprehensive plan for cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, the agreements in the field of transport and energy, including aviation search and rescue, as well as the joint construction of a road bridge across the Russian-Azerbaijani border. [1tv.ru, 2013] There are number of issues that discussed during Putin’s visit:
Economic and Energy Cooperation
Within Russian delegation, President of Rosneft Igor Sechin participated also. Following bilateral talks, Igor Sechin and President of SOCAR Rovnag Abdullayev signed agreement to establish a Joint Venture on a parity basis for projects in exploration and production of oil and gas in various countries, including Russia and Azerbaijan, as well as sharing some pipelines and terminals. [1news.az, 2013] The Joint Venture will enable two companies to expand the geography of their activity, to gain access to new markets and resources, and optimize the delivery of oil and oil products through the joint use of existing infrastructure.
Moreover, Igor Sechin expressed its interest to participate also in a project to develop “Absheron” gas field in the Caspian Sea during his latest visit to Azerbaijan. However, none talked about “Absheron” gas field neither during press conference, nor after meetings. SOCAR appeared couldn’t agree with the terms offered by Rosneft for “Absheron”. By owning share in “Absheron” gas field Rosneft would have a voice in the export of Azerbaijan’s natural gas to Europe, which is a sweet dream of Kremlin. But, the agreement between SOCAR and Rosneft was “a step in time” for Russia toward Azerbaijan where western companies involved decades ago and good opportunity for Rosneft, since company opposes Gazprom’s export monopoly on Russian gas. Because, Russia’s presence in Azerbaijan’s oil and gas sector was quite limited with Gazprom-SOCAR’s natural gas cooperation and LUKoil’s participation Shah Deniz Consortium, including its fuel-filling stations in Azerbaijan. Russian imports Azerbaijan’s natural gas since 2009 to meet the local consumption in the country’s south (North Caucasus).
After finalization of decision-making of Shah-Deniz Consortium in favour of Trans-Adriatic gas pipeline/TAP (but not Nabucco West, which contradicted to Russian-led South Stream pipeline project by running next to it), Russia will probably leave its traditional opposition toward “Azerbaijan’s bypass policy” and is seeking a new way of cooperation in the energy area with Azerbaijan. By opting TAP, Azerbaijan refrained from direct confrontation with Russia. Economic development, energy resources, investment capability of Azerbaijan and its authority in energy-related issues makes country attractive for Russia also. In this context, Russia is strongly interested in flow of Azerbaijani investment into Russian economy.
This year State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) registered its new branch in Russia, so-called SOCAR-Russia. The SOCAR-Russia intends to actively work in the oil and gas and transportation projects in Russia. In addition, Russia is offered the re-orientation of Russia’s oil exports to Azerbaijan, through SOCAR’s infrastructure. Azerbaijan is ready to offer competitive rates for cargo handling, which will also allow Russian companies to diversify their trade and get more profit on the Black Sea markets. [Krishtalev, Vestikavkaza, 2013]
Another member of Russian delegation was Defense Minister, Sergey Shoygu. Military cooperation is the key element in Russian-Azerbaijani relations. Recently, Russia delivered a huge amount of military hardware to Azerbaijan worth 1 billion USD prior to military parade in Azerbaijan. According to the statement of President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s military-technical cooperation with Russia amounted to 4 billion USD.
Turkey, Israel and Ukraine also includes in a list of key military partners of Azerbaijan. In 2011-2012, Azerbaijan purchased from Israel defensive arms worth 1.5 billion USD. According to the recent media reports, Azerbaijan and Turkey are soon to establish common army in the context of “one nation, one army”, which should be discussed during Putin’s visit. This makes Russia to feel troubled, since it’s also expected Georgia’s participation in this union. In turn, the Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania also said that “Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey will focus on creating a trilateral format of cooperation in the military industry”. From other hand, NATO’s one of the strongest armies – Turkey – will have direct access to Caspian Sea, by enhancing military cooperation for Azerbaijani Navy, which means that Azerbaijan will benefit of military experience of the key NATO member state. In this direction, there is room for improvement of the Azerbaijani army due to NATO standards.
By enhancing military cooperation with Azerbaijan, Russia tries to keep Azerbaijan far away from NATO reforms and standards. New imported Russian military technology requires field-educated officers in order to manage this technology. In this direction, Azerbaijan’s military staff will have to be educated in the military academies of Russia. However, one must consider that, Azerbaijan cannot import military hardware from U.S. because of the pressure of Armenian-American community on U.S. Congress. The ESISC report says that, “The Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act was strongly lobbied by the Armenian-American community to prevent Azerbaijan to have access to US aids.” [ESISC report, 2013] This situation left no choice for Azerbaijan except Russia, Israel and Turkey.
No doubt, Putin discussed the legal status of Caspian Sea and Iranian issue. In late 2014, NATO forces are going to withdraw from Afghanistan through Kazakhstan (port of Aktau) and Azerbaijan (port of Baku). Therefore, Moscow concerns about possible deployment of NATO/U.S. military equipments and forces in the territories of Azerbaijan which may turn it to military platform of U.S against Russia and Iran. Probably, Putin asked for guarantee from Azerbaijan in this regard. The recent visit of Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister, Safar Abiyev to the Pentagon, meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the discussions on strategic partnership were another nightmare for Russia.
Putin paid visit to Baku shortly after the 5thanniversary of Russian-Georgian five-day war. Prior to Putin’s visit to Azerbaijan, U.S. Bulkeley destroyer’s 6th fleet held joint exercises with the Georgian Coast Guard’s officers in the port of Batumi on 11-13 August. During the theoretical and practical exercises the U.S. military have trained Georgian sailors on health care delivery, maintenance of ships and the management of small and medium-sized vessels. [Azernews, 2013] [No doubt] in response to this manner, a day before of Putin’s visit, two military ships of Russia -“Dagestan” rocket ship and “Volgodonsk” small artillery ship – anchored in the port of Baku. Warships sailed to Baku within the framework of strengthening cooperation between the Navies of two Caspian states. [Voice of America, 2013] Two days after Putin’s visit, on 15 August, Russian Navy began military exercises in the Caspian Sea headed by the commander of the Caspian flotilla, Vice-Admiral Sergey Alekminsky. The “Dagestan” missile ship and the “Volgodonsk” gunship after the visit to Baku, headed to the training area to join military exercises. [ITAR-TASS, 2013] Probably, Russia wants to give a message to West that, “I am still in the Caspian Sea”, which reminds the quote of Tsar Peter the Great on a plaque at the Russia’s Caspian Flotilla’s headquarters: “Our interests will never allow any other nation to claim the Caspian Sea.” Even at the end of press conference, Putin highlighted that there are still unresolved problems in the Caspian Sea, such as security and delineation matters which needs to be solved in accordance with the interests of all littoral states.
As he did in previous years, Putin will again fully support Ilham Aliyev’s candidacy for upcoming presidential election. However, official Moscow is also not content with the “sometime toward/with west” policy of official Baku. Recent controversies in Russian-Azerbaijani relations (closure of Gabala Radar Station, suspension of Baku–Novorossiysk pipeline, Eurasian Union/Customs Union rejection etc.) prove that. According to the Alexander Dugin (Head of International Eurasian Movement), “If, Aliyev wants to follow the way of Erdogan, Saakashvili and Morsi, it is something that Russia doesn’t want.” Till Putin’s visit, there were many rumors that, Russia’s has a “puppet candidate” for presidential elections in Azerbaijan, so-known Rustam Ibragimbekov and Russia may blackmail Azerbaijani government by using “Ibrahimbeyov” card. However, recent visit, statements made by Putin and signed (important) agreements proved the opposite. From other side, Rustam Ibragimbekov have to renounce his Russian citizenship in order to be registered as a candidate for presidential elections due to Azerbaijan’s legislation.
It’s also expected that, two presidents would negotiate the solution possibilities of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Azerbaijan’s position toward Russian-led Eurasian and Customs Union. It’s clear that, Russia has full opportunity in order to make pressure on Armenia to withdraw its armed forces from occupied territories of Azerbaijan. However, Putin stated that, “Russia has been actively contributing to the soonest settlement of the conflict, which is only possible through political means” [Nothing more]. This makes situation unclear how strong they discussed Karabakh issue and what the “political means” that Putin expressed is? According to Rauf Mirkadirov (Columnist for Zerkalo.az), “Putin could at least indicate the Kremlin’s position on necessity to liberate the occupied Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh. But he did not.” [Mirkadirov, Zerkalo.az, 2013]
After Putin’s third presidency, the negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia practically suspended. Despite Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev was comparatively proactive in mediation process between two sides. With Putin’s new presidency Karbakh issue stuck in deadlock, since there is not even more Western engagement (U.S. and EU) in this conflict. West appears is interested in only their energy security and how to pump Azerbaijan’s gas to Europe.
During press conference, neither Putin, nor Aliyev said any single word about Eurasian and Customs Union, including Gabala Radar Station, since Azerbaijan has already made its position clear. Putin also appreciated Azerbaijan’s efforts in preserving and development of Russian language and culture in the country, which Russia considers as its soft power tool in the post-Soviet region.
Why not to Armenia, but Azerbaijan
No doubt that, visit of Russian President to Azerbaijan will raise the reaction of Armenians. Akop Badalyan writes in Lragir that, “Putin paid his first imperial visit after returning to the post of president to Azerbaijan, but not to Armenia. This is very symptomatic, not because that he didn’t visit his strategic ally first, but visited Armenia’s enemy. Putin visits the first country that it is more interesting to him.” [Badalyan, Lragir, 2013]
Latest negative developments in Armenian-Russian relations (increase in gas prices, recent Harutiunian case, and large scale of arms sales to Azerbaijan) will probably change the public opinion. From other hand, following Armenia’s rejection to join Customs Union and the completion of the negotiations for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with EU, Russia decided to tend to Azerbaijan, owner of the independent foreign policy in the South Caucasus. Actually, strong country like Russia needs strong ally like Azerbaijan in the region with enhancing military capability. Because, only strong ally can tackle with threat comes from North Caucasus, the dangerous region of Russia, which will be helpful for Russia also. Nevertheless, the real position of Russia toward Armenia will appear after official initializing of the Association Agreements at the Eastern Partnership Summit on 29 November 2013 in Vilnius.
The president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan appears to follow either Georgian way (western-oriented) or Azerbaijani way (balanced foreign policy). However, Sargsyan can be neither Saakashvili nor Aliyev. According to Artak Akopyan, “Today, political image of Serzh Sargsyan in Moscow is close to the political image of Mikhail Saakashvili. There, the Armenians are already called “people – a traitor” and Serzh Sargsyan – “Armenian Saakashvili”. After the signing of Association Agreement, the export of Armenian products to Russia will significantly be reduced, as same happened with the Georgian wines and mineral water; the position of 2.5 million Armenian diaspora in Russia will be worsen and Russia will again revise the gas price for Armenia.” [Akopyan, InoSMI.ru, 2013] According to Farhad Mammadov (Director of the Center for Strategic Studies under the President of Azerbaijan), “Armenia has demonstrated that they are not predictable country, neither as an ally nor as a neighbor. Russian Federation need predictable neighbors” [1new.az, 2013].
To sum up, Putin’s working visit (although was much different from ordinary working visit), the two Russian warship in the port of Baku, the signed energy, military and other agreements showed up how both countries are loyal to each other as were before and will do so for a long-time. However, it doesn’t mean that Azerbaijan either will radically oppose west and will shift its foreign policy toward Russia only or will give up its current energy policy. Azerbaijan knows very well that, balanced foreign policy is the best guarantor of its security in the region.
Putin came to Azerbaijan not only to support Ilham Aliyev’s candidacy in the presidential elections, but also to start new strategy toward Azerbaijan. Despite the number of Ministers within Russian delegation, both sides focused on mostly energy, military and humanitarian issues. Recent situation shows that, in case of serious shift in Armenian foreign policy toward Russia, official Kremlin has still choice. However, summary of Putin’s visit will be known only after the presidential election in Azerbaijan and signing the Association Agreement by Armenia.
Click for original article – Armenia is still a “Forpost”, but Azerbaijan is getting “New Choice” for Russia
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