Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov traveled to Baku to mark the one-year anniversary of an agreement aimed at cementing an “alliance” between Russia and Azerbaijan. But diplomatic niceties aside, the visit did little to conceal the many rifts between the two countries.
Lavrov’s two-day visit took place a year (plus a few days) after the Russian and Azerbaijani presidents signed their Declaration of Allied Cooperation. That was last February 22, just two days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. At the time, the agreement appeared aimed at bringing Baku on board with Russia’s war. But it also seemed that it could more broadly be auguring a substantial firming up of the usually up-and-down relations between the two states.
Since then, though, little has been heard of the agreement, and many of the provisions that initially attracted the most attention have clearly not been implemented. Point 25 stipulated that the two countries “will refrain from carrying out any economic activity that causes direct or indirect damage to the interests of the other Party.” Just months after that was agreed, Azerbaijan and the European Union signed a highly touted gas export agreement aimed at blunting the effect of Russia’s cutoff of energy supplies to Europe.
Point 4 obliged the countries to hold “the same or similar positions on topical international issues” in international fora including the United Nations. Azerbaijan has instead taken an officially cautious approach on the most topical international issue of the day – the war in Ukraine. It typically doesn’t vote at all on key UN resolutions, for example, while informally showing a clear preference for Ukraine. Just days before Lavrov’s visit, Aliyev had a phone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodomyr Zelenskiy, who expressed his gratitude for Azerbaijan’s “consistent support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
During Lavrov’s February 27 visit with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, both men highlighted the agreement but did so in conspicuously vague terms. Aliyev called it “a significant step in the development of relations between our countries” and said it “essentially reflects the spirit and nature of our relations and the positive resources generated by our ties.” In Lavrov’s words, it was “beyond doubt that this Declaration established a new level of mutual activity and determined ways to deepen it and raise it to a qualitatively new level.”
There are, indeed, areas in which the two sides have found common ground.
Lavrov said the two discussed joint “megaprojects,” singling out a North-South Corridor transportation plan that would see a significant rise in Russian cargo moving through Azerbaijan en route to Iran and the Persian Gulf, though key sections of the railroad in northern Iran have to be improved before that can be actualized.
Russia and Azerbaijan also share a distrust of a new European Union monitoring mission in Armenia, and it was Lavrov’s sharp words about the West’s involvement in the Caucasus that garnered some of the most attention during his trip.
“We see how the European Union is openly abusing its relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan, including forcing its ‘mission’ on the territory of Armenia, raising serious doubts about its legitimacy,” Lavrov said at a February 28 press conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Jeyhun Bayramov.
The growing Europeanization of the Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations was the key context of Lavrov’s visit, wrote analyst Sergey Markedonov on his Telegram channel. While Russia once held the dominant position in Caucasus diplomacy, since the 2020 Second Karabakh War it has been steadily sidelined by the EU, with Washington playing a supporting role.
“Today, for the Kremlin it is important to somehow or another slow down the ‘internationalization’ of the Caucasus, maintaining its special role as a moderator in the resolution of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Markedonov wrote.
Lavrov’s most controversial comment, from the Azerbaijani point of view, came when he was asked about a recent proposal by Baku to establish a checkpoint on the only road connecting Armenia to Karabakh, known as the Lachin Corridor. The Azerbaijani post in Lachin would come in exchange for allowing Armenian checks of Azerbaijani traffic along the so-called “Zangezur Corridor.”
Lavrov for the most part dismissed the possibility of setting up an Azerbaijani post on the Lachin Corridor; security on the road is now provided by the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Karabakh.
“The creation of some sort of checkpoints there is not envisaged,” he said. “But there is a possibility that by means of some technical means we could eliminate the current doubts about whether the corridor is truly being used as it’s supposed to be. Today this topic was discussed.”
The “technical means” Lavrov referred to could in theory detect the land mines or illegally mined resources that Azerbaijan claims Armenia has been transiting on the Lachin road. But Baku’s political aims are broader: cementing its sovereignty over Karabakh. While Russia objects to its authority in the region being undermined in that way, Baku is relying on the Western mediators to get what it wants, said analyst Ahmad Alili in an interview with the website Caliber.az.
“[T]he interests of Azerbaijan, Brussels, and Washington coincide regarding the checkpoint,” he said. “I think that Baku, Brussels, and Washington will insist that Azerbaijan and Armenia establish clear borders. It will be very difficult for Yerevan to succeed in this issue."
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.