Azerbaijan under terrorist gun

These seemingly unrelated local news stories signify a much greater danger, namely that terrorism in the North Caucasus, for which Moscow has no answer at all, could spread to Azerbaijan, a state friendly to the U.S. and Western interests.  Azerbaijan already faces constant threats from Iran which incites anti-government insurgencies and runs weapons to Islamist groups inside Azerbaijan.  Iran resorts to inciting Shiite terrorists mainly because of its opposition to Azerbaijan’s pro-Western and secularizing policies.  As a result, since 2012 alone, there have been four Iranian plots uncovered there, including plots against Western and Israeli citizens and embassies in Azerbaijan.

Now we see Moscow inciting similar plots from Sunni insurgents.  Although in the past there have been occasional similar charges made in Dagestan’s Russian-controlled media about Azerbaijan’s minority policies, there have not been reported cases of demonstrations.  But as the authorities in Baku well know, Russia’s “special services” have never ceased inciting among Dagestani minorities in Azerbaijan to provoke opposition to the government in Baku.  Thus even as both Russia and Azerbaijan’s armed forces collaborate against a genuinely shared threat, Russian authorities are covertly trying to weaken Azerbaijan’s government, by inciting nationality unrest in Azerbaijan. 

This episode, like Russia’s large-scale collaboration with Iran inside of and with regard to Syria, demonstrates that while Russia faces a genuine Muslim terrorist threat, from a movement that openly aligns itself with Al-Qaida, it is not above collaborating with other insurgents, whether through arms transfers to Hezbollah through Syria and Iran or incitement of Sunni minorities in Azerbaijan itself. Such two-sided policies are entirely characteristic of Russia which, with good reason, wants to portray itself a victim of terrorism and obtain cooperation and support from other similarly threatened governments like the US.  Yet at the same time Moscow is clearly willing to use the same instrument to unhinge, if not destabilize, other regimes that it deems inconvenient to its interests.  Azerbaijan is one such government.  Its oil and gas supplies to Europe are among the principal rivals to Russian energy supplies that are an instrument for preventing European integration and the consolidation of democratic rule in Europe.  A pro-Western Azerbaijan thus obstructs Russian efforts to undermine Western goals in Europe and Eurasia for it also blocks Russian efforts to monopolize the Caspian and its energy holdings.

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Azerbaijan’s pro-Western and secularizing policies are equally galling to Iran, especially its close ties with Israel.  Under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that in a time of crisis involving the vital interests of Iran and Russia in Syria that both governments are continuing to play these games and subvert a pro-Western regime that happens to be  strategically located on the border of Iran and the Caspian Sea and close to Russian territory.  As Syria has brought Iran and Rusisa closer together, we may find other cases of collaboration regarding Azerbaijan in the future. Yet little or none of this gets reported in the US or leads the US to support what is a friendly state facing serious threats to its security.

Since the Boston Marathon bombings it has become clear that Russian intelligence services were less than fully cooperative with the U.S. government and the FBI.  Yet at the recent G-8 meetings both sides signed an agreement pledging enhanced future cooperation.  Perhaps this will not remain merely a piece of paper expressing once again pious but ultimately dashed hopes of cooperation with Russia.  In the light of trends in the Caucasus, however, we might be better advised to engage friendly and threatened states like Azerbaijan in more genuine and deeper cooperation even if we must do so without publicity.  At least then we would not only be cooperating with a state threatened on more than one front by terrorist insurgency, but also supporting a friendly state that maintains its friendship with us at the cost of incurring the permanent suspicion and even hostility of our enemies. 

Blank is a professor of Strategic Studies and MacArthur Fellow at the United States Army War College.