Azerbaijan, situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, holds a crucial geopolitical position in the South Caucasus region. Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has embarked on a journey of shaping its foreign policy to safeguard its national security and assert its autonomy. In this pursuit, Azerbaijan has adopted a unique approach known as “strategic hedging,” which has become the cornerstone of its relations with Russia – a powerful neighbor and key player in the region (A. Valiyev & Mamishova, 2019).
Unlike traditional neorealist theories that classify countries as either balancers or bandwagoners in relation to powerful neighbors, Azerbaijan has forged its own path, navigating the complexities of the geopolitical landscape through strategic hedging (Walt, 1990). Over the past 25 years, Azerbaijan has maintained an independent foreign policy, skillfully balancing its relations with powerful neighbors and avoiding undue external influences (J. Valiyev, 2016).This approach entails diversifying its economic, diplomatic, and security ties with various regional and global powers to maintain a careful equilibrium, protecting its interests while avoiding entanglements in confrontations.
In this article, we delve into the multifaceted nature of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy towards Russia, shedding light on the factors that have shaped its strategic hedging model. By exploring historical experiences, leadership decisions, and the role of geographical realities, we gain a comprehensive understanding of how Azerbaijan has skillfully managed its relationship with Russia over the years.
In a region marked by historical tensions, unresolved conflicts, and competition for influence, Azerbaijan’s strategic hedging offers valuable insights into the delicate art of balancing interests and preserving national autonomy. As we embark on this analysis, it becomes evident that Azerbaijan’s foreign policy choices are not merely a response to immediate concerns but a thoughtful and adaptive strategy crafted to secure its place in a complex and ever-evolving geopolitical landscape.
Leadership and Historical Experiences
During the early years of its independence, Azerbaijan’s foreign policy underwent significant shifts under different leaders. The first President, Ayaz Mutallibov, recognizing the fragility of the newly independent state, sought security guarantees and a resolution to the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by bandwagoning with Russia (Cornell, 2011). In this endeavor, he sought Russia’s support, hoping that Moscow’s influence could pave the way for a peaceful resolution to the contentious issue. However, this approach encountered limitations, as Azerbaijan’s quest for security came with the risk of ceding a considerable degree of autonomy in its decision-making process to Russia.
Subsequently, the second President, Abulfaz Elchibey, charted a contrasting course by pursuing anti-Russian policies and seeking an alliance with Turkey and indirectly with Western powers (Shiriyev, 2019). Driven by a fervent desire to break away from Russia’s historical dominance and assert Azerbaijan’s independence, this approach emphasized a more assertive and independent foreign policy. Yet, like its predecessor, this strategy also had its drawbacks. It risked alienating Russia and creating tensions in the region, which could have adverse implications for Azerbaijan’s stability and security.
Learning from the experiences of the early administrations, Azerbaijan’s subsequent leaders, Heydar Aliyev and Ilham Aliyev, adopted a more pragmatic and flexible foreign policy approach. They recognized that extremes of pro-Russian or anti-Russian policies proved unviable and potentially detrimental to Azerbaijan’s national interests. Embracing the strategic hedging approach, the Aliyev administrations aimed to strike a careful balance between preserving Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and maintaining regional stability.
In many ways, Azerbaijan’s foreign policy approach bears resemblances to Finland’s post-World War II stance, aptly termed “Finlandization” (Valiyev, 2010). Like Finland, Azerbaijan seeks to avoid being overly integrated into larger power blocs or alliances to retain its autonomy and decision-making capacity. The strategic hedging approach enables Azerbaijan to maneuver skillfully amidst the complex power dynamics in the South Caucasus region, particularly concerning its relations with Russia.
Strategic Hedging: An Alternative Paradigm
Azerbaijan’s foreign policy towards Russia is shaped by two permanent determinants, which play a crucial role in influencing its strategic hedging approach. Firstly, Azerbaijan’s commitment to preserve the country from turning into a battleground between the major geopolitical rivals, namely NATO and Russia. Secondly, Russia’s support for Armenia and procrastination in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have long been contentious issues for Azerbaijan’s national security and territorial integrity. These factors create challenges for Azerbaijan in navigating its relations with Russia, as they directly impact the country’s stability and regional standing.
To address these challenges, Azerbaijan employs a strategic hedging approach, steering clear of one-sided strategic alignments such as solely balancing against Russia or entirely bandwagoning with it. Instead, the country strategically diversifies its economic, diplomatic, and security relations with various regional powers (A. Valiyev & Mamishova, 2019). This approach allows Azerbaijan to strengthen its position in the region while avoiding being drawn into power contests that could compromise its autonomy.
Historical experiences under different presidents have shaped Azerbaijan’s foreign policy orientation towards Russia. The extremes of pro-Russian policies during Ayaz Mutalibov’s tenure and anti-Russian stances under Abulfaz Elchibey’s administration proved unsustainable, leading to the adoption of a more flexible strategic hedging approach by Heydar Aliyev, which has been continued by Ilham Aliyev (Ismayilov, 2020). This pragmatic response emphasizes Azerbaijan’s adaptability in dealing with an unpredictable Russia and demonstrates the country’s commitment to safeguarding its interests.
Azerbaijan’s hedging strategy has undergone fluctuations over time, influenced by changes in Russian leadership and the Kremlin’s actions on the international stage. Despite this, Azerbaijan remains steadfast in its pursuit of striking a balance between its own interests and those of Russia. This careful balancing act allows the country to maintain a compromise between its national interests and Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in the region, providing some degree of flexibility in dealing with an unpredictable neighbor in the short run.
The Role of Geopolitical Context
Acknowledging the correlation between economic strength and political influence, Azerbaijan strategically leverages its significant energy resources to establish partnerships with Western nations. The country’s vast oil and gas reserves have positioned it as an essential player in the global energy market, affording it valuable leverage in its foreign policy calculus. Understanding the role of energy as a key geopolitical tool, Azerbaijan employs its energy wealth to counterbalance Russian influence in the region and elevate its own economic and political prominence on the global stage (Alieva, 2013).
In pursuit of this strategic objective, Azerbaijan has undertaken ambitious infrastructure projects, particularly in the energy sector. Building pipelines that bypass Russian territory and pass through Georgia and Turkey exemplifies this approach. While utilizing existing infrastructure through Russia might be more economically viable, opting for alternative routes is driven by political motives . By diversifying its energy export routes and reducing dependence on Russian-controlled pipelines, Azerbaijan seeks to assert its geopolitical significance and strengthen ties with Western allies.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, The Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE), The Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) and its continuation The Trans-Adriatic Pipeline(TAP) gas pipelines are prime examples of Azerbaijan’s strategic decision-making. These pipelines not only provide direct access to European markets but also bypass Russian-controlled territories, reducing Russia’s leverage over Azerbaijan’s energy exports. Furthermore, these projects have solidified Azerbaijan’s role as a reliable energy supplier to Europe, boosting its credibility as a key player in the energy security landscape (Euronews, 2022).
Beyond its energy partnerships with Western nations, Azerbaijan has also actively engaged in regional economic initiatives. The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway project, connecting Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, demonstrates the country’s commitment to regional integration and connectivity. By enhancing transportation links, Azerbaijan enhances its regional influence and further diversifies its economic ties.
In leveraging its energy resources to foster economic and political partnerships with Western countries, Azerbaijan skillfully navigates the complexities of its relations with Russia. The strategic hedging approach allows the country to maintain a balance between immediate concerns, such as energy security and market access, and long-term considerations related to its geopolitical standing. By actively engaging with Western nations, Azerbaijan demonstrates its capacity to be an independent player in the global arena, even amidst a region dominated by powerful neighbors.
The Singular Focus on Core National Interests
Given its relatively small size and geopolitical positioning, Azerbaijan tends to focus primarily on preserving its core national interests, with the return of occupied territories ranking among the most critical priorities. This deeply institutionalized idea forms the bedrock of Azerbaijan’s strategic culture. The country’s historical experiences, including the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, have instilled a sense of urgency and determination in the pursuit of territorial integrity.
Azerbaijan’s national role conception is intricately linked to its non-bloc geopolitical identity. The country has consciously avoided aligning itself exclusively with any major power bloc, opting instead for a balanced and independent foreign policy (Safi & Aslanli, 2017). This approach allows Azerbaijan to maintain flexibility in its engagements with various regional and global actors, while also preserving its autonomy and decision-making agency.
Centralized decision-making power plays a pivotal role in shaping Azerbaijan’s strategic approach. With a highly centralized governance structure, the country can swiftly prioritize specific ideas and objectives, such as the liberation of occupied territories. This streamlined decision-making process empowers Azerbaijan to focus its efforts and resources on critical national priorities, avoiding distractions that could hinder progress towards its core objectives.
The combination of Azerbaijan’s strategic hedging approach, non-bloc geopolitical identity, and significant energy resources has cultivated a foreign policy orientation that emphasizes caution in its dealings with Russia. While engaging with regional and global powers, Azerbaijan remains vigilant in safeguarding its core interests, particularly the restoration of territorial integrity.
Implications for the Future
In the face of shifting geopolitical dynamics, Azerbaijan’s foreign policy has deftly employed a multi-vectorial approach, as emphasized by Hikmet Hajiyev, Foreign Policy Advisor to the President. The outbreak of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine posed critical challenges for Baku, requiring a careful balancing act between supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and safeguarding its own national security in relation to the Kremlin (ISPI, 2022).
Azerbaijan’s response to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict demonstrated its commitment to strategic flexibility and nuanced diplomacy. At the beginning of 2022, when the specter of the Russian invasion loomed large, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s official visit to Kyiv resulted in the signing of six bilateral cooperation agreements. These agreements spanned vital sectors such as agriculture, energy, and trade, reflecting Baku’s willingness to engage constructively with Ukraine amidst the crisis.
Moreover, the Joint Declaration inked by President Aliyev and President Volodymyr Zelensky further solidified Azerbaijan’s support for Ukraine’s independence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty. This public display of solidarity was crucial for Kyiv, as it grappled with the impending threat of invasion. It also reaffirmed Azerbaijan’s commitment to the principle of territorial integrity, signaling its stance on safeguarding state sovereignty.
However, in navigating its strategic hedging foreign policy, Azerbaijan also took diplomatic steps with Moscow. An agreement was reached with Russia, emphasizing mutual respect for each other’s independence, state sovereignty, and territorial integrity. President Aliyev stated that this agreement elevated Azerbaijan-Russia relations to an “allied level” (President of Russia, 2022). Remarkably, this agreement was signed just hours after the Kremlin recognized the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Although Azerbaijan would have condemned such an action from any other government, it refrained from openly criticizing Russia, mindful of preserving its relations with Moscow during this complex period.
The Ukrainian war and its aftermath led Azerbaijan to push for a final resolution and a lasting peace agreement in the region. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which had remained unresolved for decades, became a focal point in Azerbaijan’s foreign policy objectives. With renewed determination, Azerbaijan sought to eliminate Russia’s last leverage in the region, taking active steps to remove its influence and assert its own authority.
Currently, Azerbaijan is deeply involved in efforts to enhance stability and security in the South Caucasus region. By pursuing diplomatic initiatives and engaging in negotiations, the country aims to find a comprehensive and sustainable solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, thereby further diminishing Russia’s influence in the region (EU Parliament Think Tank, 2023).
While Azerbaijan’s strategic hedging has enabled it to balance between national interests and geopolitical realities, long-term considerations will require careful reassessment. As the geopolitical landscape continues to evolve, Azerbaijan must remain vigilant in ensuring its autonomy and safeguarding its core national interests. The country’s assertive stance towards Russia in recent times reflects its commitment to strengthening its position in the region and asserting its sovereignty.
Azerbaijan’s strategic hedging approach in navigating its relations with Russia has proven to be a nuanced and adaptive strategy in the complex geopolitical landscape of the South Caucasus region. Over the years, the country has skillfully balanced its national interests, historical experiences, and the role of energy resources to maintain autonomy while engaging with powerful neighbors and global actors.
The country’s past experiences under different leaders, from seeking security guarantees through bandwagoning to pursuing anti-Russian policies, have taught Azerbaijan the importance of a pragmatic and flexible approach. The strategic hedging model, akin to Finlandization, allows Azerbaijan to carefully maneuver amid the region’s power dynamics, avoiding over-reliance on any single power bloc.
Central to this approach is Azerbaijan’s focus on preserving its core national interests, particularly the return of occupied territories, which shapes its foreign policy orientation. The country’s commitment to safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity has been a guiding principle in its dealings with Russia and other regional players.
In conclusion, Azerbaijan’s strategic hedging approach offers valuable insights into the delicate art of balancing interests and preserving national autonomy. Its careful maneuvering in the complex geopolitical landscape of the South Caucasus region showcases a model that prioritizes national interests while engaging constructively with powerful neighbors and the international community. As the region’s dynamics continue to evolve, Azerbaijan’s strategic hedging will undoubtedly remain a cornerstone of its foreign policy, allowing it to navigate the complexities of its relations with Russia and other key players in the ever-changing geopolitical arena.
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