Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev traveled to Russia on Aug. 9 to meet with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Much of the media coverage ahead of this visit focused on Russia’s continuing efforts to negotiate a settlement to the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Russia and Azerbaijan had broader-reaching issues to discuss.
According to STRATFOR sources in Russia, the overall state of US-Russian relations is deteriorating. The Caucasus is one of the battlegrounds between Washington and Moscow, and conditions there have long been an indicator of Washington’s and Moscow’s positions relative to each other. Russia wants to use its relationship with Azerbaijan to remind the United States of Moscow’s influence in the region. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, wants to pressure Washington and assist Moscow as part of its overall strategy to play outside interests against each other so as to improve its position to pursue its own goals.
￼Russia, having grown more confident in its geopolitical position, has developed a dual policy of cooperation and confrontation with the United States over the past year. Although Washington and Moscow are cooperating in a few areas , Russia is growing frustrated with the United States on several issues, including Washington’s plans for ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems in Central Europe .
Most recently, the US Congress approved several pieces of anti-Russian legislation that have caused quite a stir in Moscow. On July 26, the US Senate passed legislation blacklisting visas for some 60 Russian officials accused of being involved with the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, and on July 29 the Senate passed a resolution calling for Moscow to withdraw its troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Additionally, the CIA delivered a report to Congress on July 28 accusing Russia of being behind a series of bombings in Georgia in 2010, including an attempted bombing of the US Embassy there. Although the legislation does not necessarily represent the administration’s sentiments, Russia is beginning to worry that certain strongly anti-Russian politicians could gain even more power in the upcoming US election season.
Outstanding issues between Washington and Moscow will become more pronounced at major bilateral meetings this fall, including Medvedev’s next meeting with US President Barack Obama and the next round of NATO-Russia talks on BMD. Russia is using Aliyev’s visit to emphasize its relationship with Azerbaijan ahead of those meetings. By reminding the United States of its influence in the Caucasus, Moscow is showing Washington that any aggressive moves the United States makes regarding Georgia will not go unanswered.
Azerbaijan has reasons for cooperating with Russia. US-Azerbaijani relations are, on the whole, problematic. For instance, the United States has a large and influential Armenian lobby, which at times can lead Washington to support Armenian interests over Azerbaijan’s (as with the ongoing US weapons embargo against Azerbaijan).
Despite the differences between Washington and Baku, the United States remains very interested in the country’s energy sector. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States invested significant amounts of money in Azerbaijan’s energy industry. Although Washington has been distracted by conflicts in the Islamic world, the geopolitical interests that led the United States to invest in Azerbaijan’s energy sector remain, and Washington would like to have a say in the industry’s development. With Russia’s resurgence in full swing, the United States would like to see Azerbaijan play a critical role in developing energy production and transportation systems that will allow European markets to diversify away from Russian energy supplies. If Russia and Azerbaijan were to forge an agreement leading Azerbaijan to focus on developing energy projects that do not interfere with Russia’s energy dominance, it would be a blow to US interests in the region.
Azerbaijan, more than the other Caucasus states, plays major outside powers’ interests against each other in order to gain the best position to pursue its own interests — primarily the development of its oil and natural gas sectors. Azerbaijan is unlikely to commit itself fully to Russia or any other country, as Baku does not want the future of its energy industry beholden to one single player. However, Moscow and Baku both benefit in negotiations with other parties by suggesting that cooperation between them is possible. This is the same strategy Russia and Azerbaijan are using with Aliyev’s visit with Medvedev: They are using the meeting as an opportunity to remind the United States that the possibility of cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan — at the expense of US interests — is always there.