Russian invasion of Ukraine 2022, as of February 24 (Viewsridge, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

As Ukraine Crisis Unfolds, Azerbaijan Pivots Closer to Russia


By Michael Rubin

WASHINGTON ( — Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden famously said, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”

To bin Laden, President Ronald Reagan’s withdrawal from Lebanon in the wake of Iran’s early 1980s terror and kidnapping campaign, and then the Clinton withdrawal from Somalia after the “Black Hawk Down” episode, showed the United States to be a paper tiger. Terrorism, in bin Laden’s mind, worked before and would work again.

Today, Russia is on the warpath.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks like a strongman, but Russia is not a particularly strong country. Its economy is smaller than Italy’s and not much larger than Spain’s. The US economy is more than 13 times that of Russia, even though our population is only slightly more than twice that of Russia. In essence, Putin is like a poker player who wins with a pair of two by outbluffing an opponent who has a royal flush.

Under such circumstances, it is no surprise that Putin is now collecting a pot far larger than Ukraine. Apologists for Azerbaijan’s dictatorship have long argued that US support for Azeri dictator Ilham Aliyev is crucial because he represents a hedge against both Russia and Iran.

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This has long been more myth than reality. In recent years, both Azerbaijan’s trade and the favors it offers Iran have been on the upswing. The same has been true with Russia. Azerbaijan’s lavish caviar diplomacy might obscure both facts in the US and Europe, but Baku’s agreements with Tehran and Moscow speak for themselves.

Now, all pretenses are off.

As Russian forces rolled into Ukraine, the Kremlin’s press agency TASS reported that Putin and Aliyev would soon agree to “a declaration on allied cooperation that will bring the ties between Russia and Azerbaijan to the level of allied relations.” It did not take long. Early on Tuesday, February 22, Aliyev became the first foreign leader to pay homage to Putin after the Russian leader’s rambling Ukraine speech in which he announced the start of hostilities and denounced the basis of Ukrainian sovereignty. The two subsequently formalized their agreement in Moscow.

Former Treasury Department Assistant Secretary Marshall Billingslea is right. The Biden administration could have already imposed sanctions but does not appear to have had the executive orders prepared. In essence, as the White House hand-wrings, backtracks, and prevaricates, Russia projects strength and collects chits of influence far more than what it otherwise might.

Azerbaijan is now firmly in the Kremlin’s camp. To accept its largesse is to be indirectly on Moscow’s payroll. It is time the US both recognize the cost of inaction and understand that the battle for influence is not limited to Ukraine but extends to the South Caucasus and regions of what Putin considers his “near abroad” as the aging Russian leader seeks to reconstitute the Soviet Union.

Michael Rubin (@mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner‘s Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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