During a largely friendly interview with Russian state media, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev nevertheless pushed back against a number of Moscow's talking points, offering a high-level view on to the two countries' disagreements on issues including the war in Syria and Azerbaijan's arms procurements.
The interview was conducted October 18 in Baku by Dmitriy Kiselyev, one of Russia's most prominent and patriotic television journalists. Kiselyev was fulsome in his praise of Aliyev, Baku, and Azerbaijan, and the interview appeared to be partly a Russian charm offensive toward Azerbaijan, and partly an attempt to portray Aliyev to the Russian public as, if not exactly an ally, then at least someone with whom Russia could do business.
There were a number of softballs, like when Kiselyev asked Aliyev to take credit for the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Russia. Aliyev modestly demurred, but – without Kiselyev's prompting – floated a conspiracy theory about Turkey's shootdown of the Russian jet that resulted in the crisis last year. Aliyev suggested that “certain forces, worried about strengthening ties between Russia and Turkey” were behind it, and agreed with Kiselyev that it could be an “outside” force, without offering any specifics. But it dovetails well with a theory current in Turkey following the rapprochement with Russia that blames Gulenist saboteurs for the shootdown.
And Kiselyev's line of questioning about the West's “double standards,” one of the favorite topics of both Moscow and Baku, led to a long discussion. (One interesting novelty: Aliyev suggested that one of the reasons for the West's criticism of his government was that Baku declined to go along with “campaigns and adventure” that don't benefit it, which in the context appears to refer to Western sanctions against Russia.)
Aliyev also showcased Azerbaijan's ability to tailor its message to different audiences. Aliyev called growing trilateral ties between Iran, Azerbaijan, and Russia – including the trio's first-ever summit, held this year in Baku – a “serious geopolitical initiative.” Hearing Aliyev's praise for the prospects of this tripartite cooperation, you would never guess that Baku's backers in the West present Azerbaijan's position between Russia and Iran as a “tough neighborhood” in which it can be a pro-Western outpost.
In several other spots, though, Aliyev pushed back against Kiselyev. He dodged one question aimed at trying to get Aliyev to condemn Western criticism of the Russian bombing campaign in Syria, which some Western leaders have characterized as war crimes. “It's difficult for us to honestly judge what is going on in Syria, because we don't have enough sources of information from that country. We mainly get information from the world media, and each country has its own interpretation of these events,” Aliyev said, which couldn't have pleased Kiselyev, one of the Russian campaign's biggest cheerleaders, though the latter didn't press it.
There was a hint of criticism in Kiselyev's question about Azerbaijan's arms purchases, where he seemed to suggest that Azerbaijan was a bit promiscuous and should be more monogamous to Russian arms exporters. Kiselyev noted that “Not long ago there was a report that Azerbaijan was planning to also buy weapons from someone other than Russia. What does that mean for military-technical cooperation with Russia, what caused this innovation?”
Aliyev responded that Kiselyev seemed to be referring to reports that Azerbaijan was seeking missile technology from Pakistan. And he made the obvious point that Azerbaijan buying weapons from non-Russian sources was hardly an “innovation,” that “it's well known that we buy weapons from different countries.” Kiselyev followed up: “That is, you're on the market?” Aliyev did ultimately throw Kiselyev a bone, acknowledging that Russia is still Azerbaijan's largest arms supplier.
These are interesting times in Russia-Azerbaijan relations, as tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan continues to worsen and Russia, although a treaty ally of Armenia, still attempts to keep Azerbaijan reasonably friendly. The fact that this interview happened suggests that the two sides are taking seriously the attempt to at least appear to be on the same side.