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Ukraine and Karabakh: Crisis, opportunity and cold reason

11 March 2022 10:00 (UTC+04:00)
Ukraine and Karabakh: Crisis, opportunity and cold reason

By Orkhan Amashov

The war in Ukraine has been a massive test for Azerbaijan’s foreign policy, which has long been based on the principle of pursuing the line of balancing conflicting geopolitical considerations in such a way that would not militate against its core priority, the post-conflict normalisation in Karabakh, and would not compromise its sense of international justice.

The recent crisis has invoked a vital necessity of rightly calibrating between “practically sensible” and “normatively right”. The Moscow Declaration, signed at a very sensitive juncture when Russia was almost friendless on the international stage, provided Baku with some extra guarantees from the Kremlin with regard to its territorial integrity, whereas the carefully worded but open support for Ukraine, albeit humanitarian, has reaffirmed the coherence of its international stance.

At the heart of turning a crisis into an opportunity is, amongst other factors, an ability to identify barely discernable moments which, if channelled in the right direction, may give rise to certain advantages. To this effect, one of the strengths of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy was that there was never an assumption, even in the short term, that it would be possible to stay in the comfort zone, and some preprepared reflexes were in readiness to counteract worst-case scenarios.

Baku has long held deep and perfectly justifiable concerns over the manner in which the Russian peacekeeping forces are conducting themselves in Karabakh, and the Moscow Declaration has not made them fade away. However, if the recently formalised allied relations between Baku and its northern neighbour serve to create a sufficiently pivotal momentum on the way of progressing towards a comprehensive Azerbaijani-Armenian peace agreement, it is possible that the Kremlin may feel a reduced necessity to maintain its military presence in Khankandi.

In light of the West’s desire to free itself from the shackles of energy reliance on Moscow, Baku’s role as an alternative supplier gains new momentum. Three weeks prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the onset of the latest barrage of sanctions, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, confirmed that Baku and Brussels had been in talks, and if the diplomacy failed, the options involving Azerbaijani gas would be further investigated.

Having said that, it is also important to remind ourselves of the fact that, for all its strategic value as an alternative energy supplier, the Azerbaijani option has its limitations. Pursuant to the Moscow Declaration, Baku’s manoeuvrability is a matter of delicacy and it is inevitable that there is going to be some complexion put on this issue.

Furthermore, Baku has potential to increase gas exports, as has been the case in relation to Turkey, but this is not an alternative to Russian energy sources in terms of volume. At present, given the gas production itself and the pipeline infrastructure, Azerbaijan would only be able to replace a relatively small amount of Russian exports to Europe. Moscow’s share in the market is of gargantuan proportions, which amounted to 158.5 billion cubic metres per annum (bcm) in 2020, whereas Azerbaijan’s exports to the EU are currently restricted to a single pipeline, the annual capacity of which does not exceed 10 billion bcm.

But the whole subject is not just about mere figures or volumes, or long-term fundamental solutions. Firstly, Azerbaijan has never claimed to be in a position to save Europe in the long run. In fact the reality is quite the reverse, as President Aliyev has repeatedly downplayed Baku’s capacity in terms of replacing Russian gas in his numerous interviews, and has described this hypothetical rivalry with Russia over the supply issue as artificial, unrealistic and unfounded.

What Azerbaijan is certain about is that it has the capability to promise extra emergency supplies in the short run which, given the current volatile state of affairs on the energy front, is still of immense significance. At the same time, it is obvious that the general vision cannot be circumscribed to the “presentism”, and there are a couple of expansion routes that are key to Azerbaijani future global energy status.

Baku has several other gas fields currently under development and in need of investment, which will undoubtedly add to future export volumes. There is also an option of cooperation with Turkmenistan, which has the fourth-largest gas reserves in the world. Despite past rivalry over the demarcation of the Caspian, Baku and Ashgabad will need each other and may form a unified base as a source of alternative energy for Europe in the long run. The countries have been working on the joint Dostlug field, and there was a three-swap agreement allowing Turkmen gas to reach the European market.

In light of the current complicated geopolitical situation, Azerbaijan has ostensibly managed to protect its interests and lay foundations in fertile ground for further strengthening of its international clout. The Ukrainian crisis has been and remains a tremendous test for Azerbaijan. Had it not happened, life in the early post-Karabakh conflict era would have been much easier. But since the situation has gone into freefall, it is now necessary to deal with its fallout in a manner that is least damaging to its key foreign policy priorities.

Baku is treading a narrow geopolitical tightrope, fraught with disastrous consequences if it misses a step. However, its approach is paying dividends that hopefully will reign supreme and cement its ascendant position on the international stage.


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