Aiming to build on its military success in Georgia, Russia is bringing pressure to bear on Azerbaijan. Moscow's intent is to coerce Baku into going along with the Kremlin's grand plan to remake the Caucasus' security and energy framework.
Moscow's chief desire is to keep US and NATO influence in the region to a minimum, and even eliminate it altogether. With Georgia corralled and Armenia effectively in Moscow's pocket, it would seem that Azerbaijan now holds the key to the realization of the Kremlin's ambitions. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Baku's most sensitive pressure point is clearly the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, and, not surprisingly, that is where Russia is exerting the most force. As the November 2 talks in Moscow on the Karabakh issue underscored, the Kremlin has made it known that it will not tolerate any effort to settle the territorial dispute by force. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russia's mediation efforts are clearly designed to be seen in Baku as an offer that Azerbaijani leaders cannot refuse.
Moscow's insistence on the renunciation of possible use of force -- a concept endorsed in a declaration signed by both Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev on November 2 -- has the effect of severely limiting Baku's options. Of course, Moscow's opposition to the use of force can be justified for many reasons, but it also is probably the only way Baku could ever stand a realistic chance of recovering its lost lands. All of this means that Russia has imposed limits on Azerbaijan's negotiating position, leaving Baku in an extremely disadvantageous position.
Since key issues in the Karabakh peace process have yet to be resolved -- namely the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, possession of the Lachin corridor and the deployment of peacekeeping forces -- the results of the Moscow summit could cause other issues that were agreed upon earlier to be reopened. Ultimately, it probably does not matter much to Russia how the outstanding issues are decided, as an open-ended peace process serves Moscow's purpose, giving the Kremlin a lever with which it can exert influence on both Yerevan and Baku.
Moscow's pressure on Baku does not end with the Karabakh issue. Reports have circulated that Moscow wants a military base in Azerbaijan -- i.e. an expanded presence for a longer duration at the Qabala air defense base -- and also a stronger position in Azerbaijan's economy. In particular, Russia is eager to integrate Azerbaijan into the Kremlin's Caspian energy framework. This objective has taken on an added sense of urgency because Russia, Iran, and Qatar are now seriously exploring the creation of a natural gas cartel, and because Turkmenistan's gas fields have been shown to be of world-class size. Azerbaijan, another major gas producer in the Caspian Basin, is the only holdout that is preventing Russia from monopolizing trans-Caspian energy flows to Europe.
Moscow apparently will not be satisfied unless it can achieve a controlling interest over Baku's security orientation. This would involve arms sales, the training of officers, close participation in the drafting of Azerbaijan's national security concept, and the reformulation of military doctrine all in a way that would promote Baku's closer cooperation with the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, as well as with the newly proposed Caspian Economic Cooperation. Obviously, the key prize here is the redirecting of Azeri energy flows through Russian pipelines to effectively render the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline strategically meaningless. During the Russian-Georgian war, Baku, acting prudently, redirected some of its energy flows from the BTC route to Russian installations. Moscow now wants to make this shift permanent.
It is clear that the sum total of all these Russian initiatives is to circumscribe Azerbaijan's sovereignty and bring Baku fully under Moscow's sphere of influence, as envisioned by President Dmitry Medvedev on August 31. Such policies fit well with Moscow's long-standing efforts to integrate CIS states into the various organizations that the Kremlin controls, and which seek to exclude Westerns states from the Caucasus and Central Asia.
What should be of particular concern to policymakers in Washington and in European capitals, especially Berlin, is the Kremlin's naked desire to undermine the foundations of Azerbaijan's sovereignty and, indeed, the sovereignty of every other government in the CIS. Russian pressure will undoubtedly continue, and likely grow more intense, in the absence of a coherent Western response. It is imperative in the coming weeks and months for the United States and the European Union to adopt a united position that shows leaders in Baku and elsewhere in the Caspian Basin that when it comes to relations with Russia, they are not on their own.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.