Russian President Vladimir Putin led a high-powered delegation to Baku this week, and security issues seemed to be high on the agenda, leading to renewed speculation about whether the traditional geopolitical allegiances in the South Caucasus may or may not be shifting.
The fact that the delegation included such a large number of heavyweights spoke to the significance of the visit. In addition to Putin, it included Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Energy Minister Alexander Novak and the heads of Russia’s biggest oil companies, Rosneft and Lukoil. Also along for the visit were some ships from Russia's Caspian Flotilla and the fleet's commander, Vice Admiral Sergey Alekminsky. Putin's remarks after his meeting with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev focused mainly on economics and business ties, but also touched on security:
During our talks we paid a great deal of attention to resolving problems in the Caspian region. We are interested in seeing this region become one in which peace and cooperation reign. There are still many unresolved issues here, relating to security, border delimitation, conserving biological diversity in the Caspian Sea and so on. We have a vested interest in resolving all these problems, naturally taking into account the interests of all littoral states.
It is symbolic that our talks coincide with a friendly visit of a detachment of the Russian Caspian Flotilla to Baku. The Dagestan missile ship and the Volgodonsk small artillery ship are among the vessels. At the end of 2013 Azerbaijani sailors plan to make a return visit to Astrakhan.
Naturally, during our talks we touched on current international issues, including the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. I would like to emphasise that Russia is actively facilitating the conflict’s accelerated settlement, which is only possible through political means.
For his part, Aliyev noted that the "defense industry collaboration" between Azerbaijan and Russia totals $4 billion and continues to grow, though it's not clear what that figure represents and Azerbaijan has been known to exaggerate the scale of its military activity for PR purposes.
But what the two men discussed when the cameras were off was the subject of much curiosity in Moscow, Baku and of course Yerevan, as Armenians wondered what all this meant for them. While Armenia is a close ally of Russia, hosting a Russian military base and being a loyal member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, there has been some concern between the two partners, as Armenia is being wooed by the European Union and Russia has been selling some big-ticket military hardware to Azerbaijan, which would likely use the equipment against Armenia.
Naturally, much speculation about the visit centered around Azerbaijan's upcoming presidential elections, since the main opposition candidate, Rustam Ibraghimbekov, lives in Russia and will depend on Russian governmental help to get his paperwork in order to run. Might Russia be dangling Ibraghimbekov's fate in front of Baku for some sort of concession in foreign policy? It certainly seems possible.
While Russia billed its naval deployment to Baku as a "friendly visit," it's not clear that Aliyev saw it that way. Azerbaijan is developing its navy in large part because it fears Russia's ability to bully it militarily. So Azerbaijan is caught in the same dilemma as many post-Soviet states, where military "cooperation" with Russia serves to bind those countries' foreign policies closer to the Kremlin's.
Rasim Musabekov, a member of parliament and political analyst, told reporters that one aim of Putin's visit was to give Baku a warning not to cooperate too closely with the U.S. Baku has become a significant logistics center for the U.S. shipping military equipment in and out of Afghanistan, a situation that apparently makes Russia uncomfortable, Musabekov said:
As for the inclusion of the Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu in the delegation, according to the analyst, "there are questions in the military sphere which should be discussed.
"This is not just military-technical cooperation. It's very important to discuss questions which can affect Azerbaijan. For example, the situation in the Caspian, where military activity is increasing, there is the context of Iran, developing events in the Middle East, plus the most important -- settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict," Musabekov told journalists.
According to him, Russia cannot but have a certain wariness toward Baku becoming an important logistics center, through which Afghanistan transit is conducted. For that reason, Moscow needs a strong guarantee that American armed forces will not appear here [in Baku] tomorrow.
As for Armenia, the consensus was that the Kremlin seemed to be giving Yerevan a warning about its growing closeness with the European Union. But it could also have been the same warning to Baku, for its military cooperation with the U.S., noted Tom de Waal:
There was no mention of the Gabala radar station, which the Russians were forced to abandon last year. The very fact of the Putin visit meant that Russia considered that episode closed. Putin uttered only a one-line reference to resolution of the Karabakh conflict, which for a while was the Number One foreign policy initiative of his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev—making it obvious once again that this is an issue that does not especially interest him....
A few other important words did not get uttered in the meetings.
One was “America.” The very fact of a Russian head of state arriving in Baku with half a dozen ministers in tow reminded the Azerbaijanis where they should put their priorities. A second was “Armenia.” One reason for the visit, with all its talk of Azerbaijani-Russian military cooperation, was to make the Armenians nervous and think more seriously about joining Putin’s Customs Union. (One prominent face in the Russian delegation was the head of Russia’s defense export company Rosoboronexport, Anatoly Isaykin. Aliev said publicly that military cooperation with Russia is worth four billion dollars.)
So to sum up, it's hard to know what to make of all this. It remains unclear whether we are seeing a tectonic shift underway in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus, or (excuse the mixed metaphor) whether this choppiness on the surface hides a deep, stable sea underneath.