Stronger US-Azerbaijan ties can help counter Russia and Iran

Russia’s war against Ukraine has wrought major upheaval across Eurasia, forcing countries to search for new partners as they seek security and stability. Some Eurasian countries are looking to strengthen ties with the United States to maintain regional security and to develop new economic opportunities. Azerbaijan, for example, has sought to further its partnership with the United States on the two countries’ shared strategic interests.

Relations between the United States and Azerbaijan have historically centered on energy transit, most significantly the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Southern Gas Corridor. In July 2022, Baku signed a new memorandum of understanding with the European Union (EU) to increase Azerbaijani gas exports to the EU from 12 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year to 20 bcm by 2027. Officials in Brussels certainly see the importance of diversifying energy imports away from Russia—European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called Azerbaijan a “reliable” partner in the bloc’s renewed emphasis on energy security.

But Azerbaijan’s geography means it is also a gateway to the countries of Central Asia and the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), also known as the Middle Corridor, that connects Europe with China via Central Asia and the South Caucasus. The Middle Corridor provides Europe with a critical alternative to trade routes that pass through Russia and Belarus, the so-called Northern Corridor.

At the same time, the Middle Corridor provides the inverse opportunity for Central Asian countries to reduce dependency on transit through Russia to the European market. It is in Washington’s strategic interest to help develop alternative trade routes between Europe and Central Asia that minimize opportunities for Russian malign interference along the way.

Moreover, Azerbaijan and the United States share a set of strategic interests that may only grow in the coming years. Washington should resist the calls from some commentators to distance itself from Baku. Russia’s war on Ukraine has shaken stability in the South Caucasus, and Moscow may try to claw back influence in the region at the expense of regional peace and security. Greater US engagement with Baku should reinforce a platform for peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Stronger US-Azerbaijan ties can also help counter threats to shared interests emanating from Moscow and Tehran.

Delicate peace talks

The United States has been a major mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the early years of the two countries’ conflict over the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan that began in the 1990s. This mediating role gained new importance and urgency following the Second Karabakh War, which ended in November 2020 with Azerbaijan liberating Karabakh and much of its surrounding territory.

While the situation remains tense, leaders in both Armenia and Azerbaijan have worked hard to build lasting peace. Baku and Yerevan have reached important achievements to this end, with one set of peace talks mediated by Russia and a second negotiating platform with the EU and the United States. The turning point came in May, when Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan recognized Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan in the EU-mediated summit in Brussels, following US-mediated talks weeks earlier between the two countries’ foreign ministers in Washington. There are even signs the long-standing dispute over access to the Lachin road is improving, with new reports that humanitarian aid is reaching Karabakh via the Aghdam road.

The peace process is, however, fraught with major challenges.

Some political groups in Armenia and in the diaspora continue to pressure the Pashinyan government against acknowledging Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized sovereignty over Karabakh. Separatist leadership in Karabakh refuses to integrate the region into Azerbaijan and recently undertook unrecognized “elections.” These authorities also receive financial and diplomatic support from Kremlin-connected individuals.

A peace treaty signed via Western mediation and built upon the recognition of Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan would deal a severe blow to Russia’s influence in the region. Such a treaty would create preconditions for the withdrawal of Russia’s peacekeeping mission from the Karabakh region where it was deployed after the 2020 war and, generally, deprive Moscow of one lever of influence against Baku.

This contradiction in the interests of Azerbaijan and Russia has at times strained relations between them. By voicing a plan not to extend the Russian peacekeeping mission beyond 2025 and by investing more in the Western-mediated track of negotiations, Baku regularly challenges Russia’s policies vis-à-vis the peace process.

Message to Moscow and Tehran

Azerbaijan stands out as a rare post-Soviet state that has provided humanitarian and political support to Ukraine in the context of the country’s fight against Russian aggression. Azerbaijan has so far sent almost thirty million dollars’ worth of humanitarian aid, including free fuel to ambulances and vehicles operated by the State Emergency Service of Ukraine and power transformers and generators. Azerbaijan’s independent foreign policy course has drawn “bewilderment” from Russia’s foreign ministry and nuclear threats from its political circles.

The Azerbaijani government’s stance on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine contrasts with the policies of two of its neighbors, Armenia and Iran. Investigations and media reports in Europe and the United States have uncovered how Armenia and some other post-Soviet countries have been assisting Russia to import prohibited goods. Officials both in the United States and the EU have listed Armenia among the states that help Russia to circumvent Western sanctions. Armenia only belatedly sent a small package of humanitarian aid to Ukraine in early September.

Iran has been one of Russia’s most strident military allies in its war, providing Moscow with thousands of Shahed drones that terrorize Ukrainian civilians and helping the Kremlin evade Western sanctions. In October 2022, an Iranian military commander Yahia Rahim Safav reportedly said that Armenia may buy Shahed drones. Baku has long opposed Tehran’s brazenly aggressive foreign policy, even as Iran’s ties with Armenia and Russia may be growing. Significantly, Baku has also redoubled its support for Israel—a major US ally—despite Iran’s anti-Israel threats and increasingly militaristic posture in the region.

The time is right for the United States to strengthen its relationship with Azerbaijan and take the historic opportunity to pursue peace and break ground on a new template for regional stability.

Vasif Huseynov is the head of the Western Studies department at the Center for Analysis of International Relations (AIR Center), a think tank founded by the government of Azerbaijan. He is also a lecturer at Khazar and ADA universities in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Further reading

Image: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosts Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan (not pictured) and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov for talks at the George Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., June 29, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein