From left, Ilham Aliyev, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan

From “Susha Declaration” to “Allied Interaction” – The Azerbaijani Quandary

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By Dhanuka Dickwella

The Caucasus is one of the most fascinating parts of the world in history and culture. We could only think of India as a close competitor in terms of its diversity. The region is home to hundreds of ethnicities, hundreds of languages and various different cultures. It has never missed the attention of geopolitics due to its very location. It is surrounded by three distinctly different powers and dominant cultures. Historically it bordered the empires of Russia, Persia and the Ottomans – in modern day terms, the Russian Federation, Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Turkey. Needless to say, from then to now the Caucasus was only second to the Balkans in terms of regional conflicts.

One of the most outspoken conflicts recently was that of the war in Karabakh or the second war of Karabakh. It was fought between the unrecognized Republic of Karabakh and Azerbaijan. The belligerents were historical rivals, with the Armenian-backed Artsakh Republic and Turkish-backed Azerbaijan. This war had distinct differences from many conflicts that we have seen in our lifetime. In traditional military doctrine, artillery duels, tank fights, trench fights and special operation forces are leading battles. But the noticeable and extensive use of drones, loitering munitions and foreign mercenaries as combatants were what were different and what altered the outcome of the war to a great extent. The information warfare in particular was at a totally new height.

Like any other war this war was brutal, destructive and chaotic. Like any other war it had a lasting impact on regional politics and the geopolitics to an extent.

It is no secret that what tilted the balance to an Azeri victory was none other than the role played by Turkey in the battlefield. From battle planning to weapons to Syrian Jihadist cannon fodder, all was provided by Turkey. Recep Erdogan and his entire administration gave the greatest political support and managed to rally many Muslim nations under their banner. The war was rather portrayed as a Crusade of the 21st century. While the brotherly nations of Georgia famously abandoned Armenia, the generally anti-Islamic Israel went even further and provided lethal weapons to kill and maim thousands of young Armenians. The Russians chose to sit back and observe the fall of the Armenian front as a way to punish the pro-Western choice of the newly elected Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan. Iranians did not want to antagonize the millions of Azerbaijani Iranians and chose to issue statements calling for restraint and dialogue. The French, who are pro-Armenian, made some noise that was heard in the EU but had no muscle to stop the Turkish plans. Just as it has been the norm historically, as always the Armenians were left by themselves. No allies came to help them; the strong diaspora could not rally the world to stop the onslaught.

For Turkey this was more than a war, much more than the centuries-old animosity towards the Armenians. This was the opportunity to advance their greater Turkic world project. Azerbaijan was a key piece of this game and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was determined to turn every stone around to get the biggest leverage in the Caucasus. Turkish nostalgia with its Ottoman history is more visible under AKP rule. To bring the Turkic world together seems to be the undertone of the AKPs nationalistic agenda. They seems to be advancing with cultural, military and political influence in the Central Asian region as well as west Asia in recent history. The Caucasus is one of the most strategically important land bridges for Turkey’s many ambitions. The vast oil and gas reserves in the Caspian and Central Asian regions and Turkey’s own geography as a gateway to Europe give it a natural advantage to be an energy hub. Besides, pipeline politics has become one of the most important political leverages in the century. Turkey wanted to open its access via the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan connecting to Azerbaijan proper, giving it a major role in trading in the region. The opening of this axis will give the region a huge economic boost, making Ankara’s role ever more important.

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With a successful military victory, the Azerbaijanis concluded the war. Turkey wanted to solidify its gains and foothold thus enacted its further steps. The culmination of the whole episode was the Susha Declaration. On June 15, 2021 the two presidents of Turkey and Azerbaijan signed this document in the historical city of Susha [Shushi] which was under the Artsakh Armenians before. The essence of the declaration is as in the following quote from the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah – “both countries expressed that they are determined to take the relations forward in many fields such as military, defense industry technologies, energy, transportation, economic and humanitarian relations.

With the Shusha Declaration, Turkey and Azerbaijan expressed their determination to act jointly in the case of a threat or an attack on the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity of any of the parties or the security of their internationally recognized borders.”

Now this was a very bold move. It directly challenged the Russian influence in the region and hinted what was to expect in the future. However the Karabakh war was not a victory of entirety for the Azerbaijanis or the Turks. Russians gained a military foothold bordering Azerbajani territories which had not been the case for decades. Besides, the idea of establishing a Turkish military base was torpedoed by the Russians. In fact, the Russians gained a unique status in the region that they never had.

The peacekeeping mission was not the end of the story. Although Turkey and Russia have cooperated on many issues, they are also rivals in the Near East and many other regions. Russians did not take the Turkish influence in the Caucasus kindly. Given the historical ties and linguistic bonds, they knew that this could create a domino effect. Having a strategic rival in a volatile region with a faith that could easily unite people, Russia had to act and had to act fast.

Russia has never wasted any opportunity that was available. The riots in Kazakhstan were a blessing in disguise for Moscow. They acted swiftly and firmly. Russia sent a strong military contingent of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) alliance in a matter of days. The airlift and the stance taken by the Russian president made it clear who the real master in the region. The riots were brought under control and contrary to many predictions the military contingent left Nursultan leaving a lasting political message. No one will have a free hand in the former soviet republics other than that of Russia.

Then came the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Ukraine was part of GUAM, the anti-Russian coalition formed by Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. All these states had the intention of joining the EU and NATO consecutively. That was an eternal bone of contention between those states and Russia. Russia had to check the NATO expansion once and for all and President Putin ordered his military to roll into the Ukraine proper. Ukraine had the most trained, biggest, well-equipped military out of every former Soviet republic. Most importantly they were firmly backed by the West. No one thought that Moscow would dare attack Kiev. Yet the unthinkable happened. This attack had very strong regional implications in addition to that of the global.

A day prior to this war of the century the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev flew to Kiev as a sign of solidarity and to showcase the possibility of maneuvering independently from Russian influence. But what mattered most was his visit to Moscow and what he did there.

The president of the Republic of Azerbaijan signed a controversial document in Moscow called the “Allied Interaction” together with Russian president Vladimir Putin. This is its the essence, as quoted from OC Media: “Throughout its articles, the declaration stipulates that Russia and Azerbaijan would adopt similar positions on international issues of interest to both parties, highlighting that both countries would ‘resolutely prevent’ the activities of organizations and individuals against each country’s respective sovereignty and ‘territorial integrity’.

The agreement does not specify, however, a direct recognition of Russia’s current claim on Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014 or Azerbaijan’s claim over Nagorno-Karabakh — whose status remains contested since 1991, and which has been under the auspices of a Russian peacekeeping mission since the end of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020.

Additionally, the document affirms the intention of both countries to co-develop modern weaponry and military equipment, while also maintaining the possibility of providing direct military assistance to each other on the basis of the UN Charter and separate international agreements.”

In essence this contradicts the bravado of being independent of Moscow’s sphere of influence. This is more of a way to accept the fact that Moscow is the key to regional stability and Baku will toe the line of Russia when the push comes to shove. When you critically look at the document it is obvious that Azerbaijani sovereignty is in existence as long as Russia deems so. They could take part in various platforms, make public declarations, criticize powerful Russian deputies, even issue arrest warrants, hold hands with Turks, do photo shoots all over Karabakh, and go to EU forums for discussions. But they will not cross certain lines. When you look at the post-Soviet space, one thing is obvious. The leaders who are shrewd politicians can blackmail Russia to gain various economic and political advantages. But there is a day the patience runs out and that day the Russians will take the gloves off their hands. This was true for Belarus, true for Georgia and will be true for Azerbaijan. The recent agreement of Caspian nations to pledge the avoidance of any non-Caspian navy from sailing in the Caspian Sea shows how Moscow is solidifying its hold on the region once and for all. Russia will not let the Turks build an outpost in its backyard. Turks will not be able to have a free hand or use the Susha declaration to undermine the Russian interest in the Caucasus.

Once the Russia – Ukraine conflict is over, there will be a Russian reset in the post-Soviet space. They will look at the possible flashpoints, analyze the threats and nullify them gradually. For now Moscow has managed to make the “Susha Declaration ” just a piece of paper and check the Turks. But if Baku decides to take a hostile stance towards Moscow, no amount of Bayraktars will be able to stop the Armenians from regaining what they have lost. Caucasus will stand for what it has always been !!!

(Reprinted with author’s permission from The Asian Review of Sri Lanka with minor editing for style.)

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