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Three limbs of Zelensky’s commentary on Baku’s Ukraine policy: Gratitude, understanding and expectation

26 April 2022 10:00 (UTC+04:00)
Three limbs of Zelensky’s commentary on Baku’s Ukraine policy: Gratitude, understanding and expectation

By Orkhan Amashov

As the implications of the Ukrainian crisis continue to reverberate across the globe, Azerbaijan’s “treading-a-tightrope” policy in response to the ongoing war, characterised by wise distancing and measured aloofness, is being subjected to renewed challenges.

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent commentary concerning this self-same issue has provided us – humble observers of grand events – with a fresh opportunity to revisit the developments of the past two months and to reflect on the diplomatic and moral integrity of the position maintained by Baku.

Qualified neutrality

From the outset, the government of Azerbaijan has chosen the path of “qualified neutrality”, which, in practical terms, comprises two tenets. First of all, every necessary precaution has been taken to ensure that the Kremlin is not infuriated and the recently signed declaration on bilateral allied interaction is upheld.

Secondly, within the harsh limitations imposed by realpolitik, Baku has demonstrated clearly-defined and carefully-worded moral and humanitarian support to Ukraine that falls short of military assistance. Guided by the overarching objective that the hard-won gains of the Second Karabakh War are not endangered in any way, Azerbaijan’s response to the war in Ukraine has been an example of careful and incremental readjustment.

The expectation was that both Moscow and Kyiv would understand this rebalancing. The former, as far as one can tell on the basis of the official line maintained by the Kremlin, seems to be relatively content, albeit with some reservations that are recurrently voiced via non-governmental and rogue political actors.

Thank you, but...

Kyiv’s initial reaction to Baku’s diplomatic line was one of wholehearted appreciation. As of today, the same is still the case, and the recent commentary made by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a testament to this.

However, there is some unavoidable complexity involved in the whole situation. Zelensky’s statement comprised a mélange of gratitude, understanding and some expectation, to boot. However, the final element was not devoid of faint and prospective half-admonition.

President Zelensky is grateful to Baku for humanitarian and medical support. He appreciates the intricate situation involving Russo-Azerbaijani relations, in particular, in the light of the latter’s role as a ceasefire broker, peacekeeper and mediator of post-conflict normalisation. In fact, the Ukrainian president has gone so far as to say that Azerbaijan is one of the few countries whose “neutrality” Kyiv understands.

But Kyiv expects more, and Zelensky was somewhat candid about this, stating that it may prove difficult to understand Baku’s reticence in the future. This particular element is likely to be received with sufficient understanding in Baku as, given the present dire state of affairs, it does not require any stretching of imagination to see into the critical existentiality of the drama entrapping Ukraine.

Azerbaijan has, so far, acted with finesse and discretion, having risen to the occasion, ensuring its own security interests and maintaining its international sense of justice. The ongoing war is not just about Ukrainian territorial integrity, of which Baku is firmly and steadfastly supportive, but also the larger West-Russia confrontation. The prime facie consideration that had considerable bearing on Azerbaijan’s reasoning is probably that, within this colossal struggle, the key objective is to survive and protect one’s own life interests.

The expansion of NATO and Ukraine’s possible membership are not geopolitical issues in which Baku has played any significant role. It is important to avoid becoming a victim of collateral damage, and the leadership of Azerbaijan is acutely aware of this.

As to the question if there are some other decisions that Baku could make in relation to the recent crisis, some commentators believe the idea of reinstating the Azerbaijani embassy in Kyiv as a symbolic gesture of support, or furthering humanitarian and medical aid, would be judicious.

But the awful truth of the matter is that Ukraine needs military support, which Baku will be unable to offer for reasons which are too obvious to be explained. Plus, the reality is, that even if this had been possible, it would have been insufficient to save Ukraine.

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