Azerbaijan and the 'Bear' next door

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive posture toward his neighbors seems to have graduated into bona fide Russian foreign policy given the Russian invasion of the Republic of Georgia in 2009 and the recent invasion and subsequent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. This, now a definite trend, signals a new and difficult reality for sovereign nations once part of the Soviet Union…a new reality seemingly lost upon U.S. leadership.

Among those nations most keenly affected by Russian neoimperialism is the Republic of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is fast becoming a major gas and oil supplier to Europe…a smart and strategic move by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, but in stark opposition to a Russian foreign policy that depends on keeping Europe under its thumb with the threat of “energy supply complications and price fluctuations.”

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This is compounded by the power gap created by a submissive American foreign policy, led by a feckless administration and a Congress seemingly unable to accomplish much of anything. Consequently, this has led to a burst of energy in those who are now in a position to usurp countries once safely ensconced in comfortable quarters…read that as former Soviet Republics.

Despite Azerbaijan’s solid position as a wealthy, independent and notably a majority-Muslim nation, it once existed under Russian rule before freeing itself from domination to chart its own course…as a secular, emerging democracy with a free market system and allied with the West.

However, Russia, once kept at bay by strong and strategically minded U.S. administrations and congresses has been given free reign. Putin’s muscle flexing has been met with the mildest of reproach, leading to further aggression against its neighbors.

Although Moscow and Baku enjoy a tepid relationship, Russia’s newfound power in the region is also strengthened by its close alliance with Iran, a nation anxious to assert its influence over the Azeris, fellow Shias, yet of a decidedly secular, progressive and modern stripe.

Quite simply, a more powerful Russia will only extend to Iran’s brazen nature over countries it wishes to control or destroy.

The moderate nature of the Azeris Muslim religious practices may prove a thorn in Russia’s side, but thus far the moderate Muslim nation has not succumbed to Iranian pressure.

Putin’s Russia has its own reasons to cast an eye on this young and thriving country. We cannot exclude Azerbaijan’s rich oil and natural gas supplies when we consider Russia’s use of energy to dominate and control the region.

Putin’s plans to rebuild Russia as the most powerful force in the world would be reinforced by coopting nations with rich oil and natural gas reserves.

Working to exert power over the region and the world, Russia will have little deterrent in its grandiose deigns on its neighbors. Add to this Iran’s determination to bring the Azeris under its extreme Islamic wing and pressures may increase to fall in line.

Putin visited Azerbaijan in August for the first time in seven years to discuss issues of military and technical cooperation. According to Pravda, topics would touch on, “the state of affairs in the Caspian Sea with increased military activity, the Iranian issue, current events in the Middle East, and most importantly, the resolution of the Nagorno- Karabakh conflict.”

The only issue resolved was the signing of the oil agreement with Azerbaijan’s state oil company. There can be little doubt Russia is not happy about the Azeris close ties to the western nations and energy companies or their acceptance of western culture.

Although the talks appeared to be a positive sign of open dialogue between the two countries, it is hard to imagine Russia would hesitate to bring the Azeris into its sphere and increase its energy hold over its European neighbors.

Putin’s power now ensures his position as a force to be reckoned with in the region. The Azeris will have little help from their neighbors who have now succumbed to the Russian Bear’s dominance. Add to this the extreme Muslim influence from surrounding countries and the Azeris seem to be in the middle of a very dangerous vortex.

Russia has always effectively used bullying tactics to retain control over its satellite nations, but now they are acting on their threats with no resistance from the EU, NATO or the U.S.. This new impetus to continue their movement toward regional domination has been fostered by a lack of deterrents by the United States. It seems the die is cast and these nations must go it alone against Russia. 

The Azeris may find themselves in a difficult situation to defend in the eventuality they are confronted with aggressive behavior by Russia. Thus far, despite Putin’s newfound power and Iran’s badgering, the Azeris, led by President Ilham Aliyev, have managed to remain their own country. Now recent developments may prove a game changer for the Azeris.

Will Putin’s new attempts to rebuild the Russian Empire impede on Azerbaijan’s independence? Only time will tell, but thus far Azerbaijan has been thriving under their current policies. One would hope the U.S. would support them and help them to weather storms ahead.

Zager is an award-winning international journalist and on the faculty of California State University, Los Angeles.