The Caspian Region’s Reactions to the Current Russo-Ukrainian War: Azerbaijan
Author: Toghrul Ali
Nov 1, 2022
** CPC NOTE: With individual articles for each of the eight countries of the Caspian Region, the Caspian Policy Center is reporting the effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine on the countries of the region
Previously, Azerbaijan’s reaction to the war in Ukraine has been described as a “delicate balancing act,” given that Baku had generally maintained cordial and strong relations with Moscow while at the same time taking subtle steps to assist Ukraine. However, more recently, Azerbaijan has taken a more direct stance in opposition to the war. Azerbaijan’s territorial dispute with Russia-backed Armenia, Russia’s role as a mediator in the 2020 Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh have been contributing factors to Baku’s balanced foreign policy of not appearing either too pro-Moscow or too pro-Kyiv. With that being said, recent statements made on Azerbaijan’s State Television suggest that Baku’s official position on the conflict may be shifting.
Azerbaijan’s initial involvement in the conflict was sending regular humanitarian assistance to Kyiv, with the first round arriving on February 27. Additionally, through SOCAR Energy Ukraine, the Azerbaijani State Oil Company subsidiary, the Azerbaijani government has provided over 100 tons of fuel to ambulances and other State Emergency Service vehicles at its gas stations in Ukraine. Based on the Joint Declaration signed between the presidents of Azerbaijan and Ukraine in January 2022, the Azerbaijani government has not recognized the sovereignty of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. When the war started in Ukraine, hundreds of Azerbaijanis gathered in front of the Ukrainian Embassy in Baku to demonstrate their solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Azerbaijan has also utilized its close relations with Russia and Ukraine to potentially mediate the ongoing conflict. In a video message released on February 26, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that he welcomed efforts by the Turkish and Azerbaijani governments to help organize talks between the two sides.
In March 2022, Azerbaijan abstained from voting in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution that condemned the Russian invasion and demanded that Russia immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine’s territories. The same happened in April 2022, when the UNGA passed a resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.
On October 24, Rovshan Mammadov, Azerbaijan’s State Television AZTV’s chairman and host of the weekly program “Hafta” called the war waged by Russia on Ukraine “an act of occupation and a clear threat to the territorial integrity of another sovereign country.” Mammadov further stated that Russia’s annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia is a “gross violation of the norms and principles of the international law,” and today’s bombardment of Ukrainian territories by Russian forces is a “crime against humanity.” Mammadov’s statements came as a response to the “propaganda of some Russian presenters and broadcasters against Azerbaijan,” which he claims reflects the opinions of some Russian officials. These remarks may mark a significant shift in Baku’s approach to the conflict, moving away from neutrality towards publicly condemning Russia’s aggression and occupation.
The announcement by the Russian government of partial military mobilization on September 21 triggered an exodus of Russians unwilling to participate in the conscription to neighboring countries, including Azerbaijan. Although Azerbaijani authorities haven’t disclosed any data on arrivals since the mobilization order was announced, they were cited in the Russian media saying that they wouldn’t create any difficulties for the incoming Russian citizens. Additionally, as another reaction to Russia’s mobilization order, on October 2, the Israeli government approved a proposal to expedite the immigration of Russians who qualify under the Law of Return citizenship route. The government authorized the Jewish Agency to establish temporary refugee camps in Azerbaijan for Russian Jews seeking to immigrate to Israel.
Economically, the Caspian Sea is emerging as one of the regions where Europe is looking for alternatives to Russian hydrocarbons. To reduce its dependence on Russia, the European Union (EU) has begun exploring the possibility of importing more gas from Azerbaijan through the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and the Southern Gas Corridor. In July 2022, the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen visited Baku to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on a Strategic Partnership in the Energy Field between the EU and Azerbaijan. According to the memorandum, Azerbaijan is looking to double its supply of natural gas to Europe by 2027, which will help compensate for cuts in Russian gas deliveries and contribute significantly to Europe’s security of supplies. On October 1, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev participated in the inauguration ceremony for the Greece-Bulgaria Interconnector (IGB) that will enable the first-ever direct supply of Azerbaijani natural gas from the Caspian Sea to the Bulgarian markets. This move was described by Ursula von der Leyen as a part of the EU’s decision “to diversify away from Russia and to turn towards more reliable, trustworthy partners.”
Baku’s strategic silence on the matter and lack of public criticism of Russia’s unprovoked war can be interpreted as a way for the Azerbaijani government not to anger Moscow while also pursuing its energy goals vis-a-vis the EU and the Caspian region. Although some analysts have argued that Russia is increasingly “losing its grip” on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by being more involved in Ukraine, it is essential to underline that Russia’s ability to easily stir up the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh by supporting Armenia as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) still very much remains as an option. If for no other reason, Azerbaijan has real reason to be cautious. At the same time, the recent statements made on Azerbaijan’s state-owned TV channel may suggest a potential change in Baku’s foreign policy approach to the war in Ukraine, which would undoubtedly affect its relations with Moscow.