A foreign military base in Azerbaijan, or Baku's delusions of grandeur?
Is Afghanistan more important to the U.S. than Azerbaijan? Shockingly, that may be true. Veteran Azerbaijan hand Thomas Goltz visited Baku just before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates did, and that's what an intelligence official told him:
"The American chargé d'affaires told me not to talk to you, but he is State Department and I am not," the official said -- I'm paraphrasing from memory here, but closely -- putting initial pleasantries out of the way. "I am here to set up the Gates visit tomorrow. We finally decided to give the Azerbaijanis something before this thing deteriorates any further." Then he sort of smirked while saying the following: "We frankly don't care about human rights or democracy-building, or Israel and Turkey, or peace in Karabakh or Georgia, or even Azerbaijani energy. There is only one thing we really care about right now, and that is Afghanistan."
I was not surprised, but had to ask:
"Afghanistan," he said, and then repeated the word.
This has annoyed Azerbaijan, which would prefer Washington to do more of what Baku wants, than what Washington wants:
"Our attitude is that Washington should stop thinking of Azerbaijan in terms of Afghanistan and start thinking of Azerbaijan in terms of Azerbaijan," my old pal Araz Azimov, now deputy foreign affairs minister, told me. "The official attitude as enunciated by the president is, 'We want respect.'"
(An aside: Here we could invoke what readers are free to call Kucera's First Law of Geopolitics: If a place's importance derives primarily from the fact that it is between one more important place and another more important place, that first place is ultimately not that important.)
Probably relatedly, Azerbaijan's parliament recently approved a new military doctrine, of which the most talked about part is the provision allowing foreign military bases on its soil. This has occasioned a lot of speculation in the Azerbaijan press about which countries's militaries they might want to host. At the top of the list are Russia and Turkey. The U.S. is a distant third, but one local analyst says it will come down to who will be able to solve the Karabakh situation:
Azerbaijan’s importance for Washington has increased. This may explain the intensiveness of the visits of high-ranking US officials to Azerbaijan. This fact provides additional opportunities for maneuvering to Azerbaijan. If the United States has a real power to settle the Karabakh conflict, has the due mechanism to conduct this and proves this by its practical steps, American can be the first candidate for placing a base here. However, if it further content itself to the political statements and expression of its position, while Moscow further intensifies in the process and shows its ability to break this knot, Russia will be able to create a base here. The same can be said about Turkey. That is, it will depend on who plays a role in the Karabakh settlement.
What is missing in all of this discussion is who might actually want a military base in Azerbaijan. The U.S. and Russia are both scaling down their global military presence, while (as far as I'm aware) Turkey has no foreign military base, and has shown little desire to start now. What would any of these countries gain by having a military base in Azerbaijan? Until that question is answered, this is all likely to remain speculation in the Baku press.