The recent escalation of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has exposed the growing rift between Azerbaijan and the West, especially the European Union and the United States. While Azerbaijan has long sought to balance its relations with Russia and the West, the latest crisis has forced it to lean more towards Moscow, which brokered a ceasefire deal that favored Baku’s interests. The West, on the other hand, has been largely sidelined and criticized by Azerbaijan for its perceived lack of support and engagement.
Azerbaijan’s foreign policy dilemma
Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, has been pursuing a pragmatic and multi-vector foreign policy since its independence in 1991. It has tried to maintain good relations with both Russia and the West, while avoiding full-fledged integration with either side. It has also sought to diversify its energy exports and reduce its dependence on Russia, which still exerts significant influence in the region. Azerbaijan has cooperated with the West on energy, security and democratic reforms, but has also resisted pressure to improve its human rights record and political freedoms.
Azerbaijan also feared about inside possible uprising that has been engineered by West due to increasing human rights violations and massively attacks on press freedom.
The main driver of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy has been the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave populated by ethnic Armenians but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. The conflict erupted in the late 1980s and resulted in a war that killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than a million. A ceasefire was signed in 1994, but sporadic clashes have continued ever since. The conflict has been mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, France and the US, but no lasting political solution has been reached.
Azerbaijan has accused the Minsk Group of being biased in favor of Armenia and failing to pressure Yerevan to withdraw its forces from the occupied territories. It has also blamed the West for not providing enough political and military support to Baku, especially after the 2020 war, when Turkey, a NATO ally, was the only country that openly backed Azerbaijan’s offensive. Azerbaijan has also resented the Western criticism of its human rights violations and crackdown on dissent, which it sees as interference in its internal affairs.
Russia’s role and interests
Russia, on the other hand, has played a more active and decisive role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, despite being formally neutral and having close ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia has a military base in Armenia and is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a regional security alliance that includes Armenia. However, Russia has also developed a strategic partnership with Azerbaijan, which is a major buyer of Russian arms and a key transit country for Russian gas exports to Turkey and Europe.
Russia has used its leverage over both sides to broker several ceasefire agreements, most notably the one signed in November 2020, which ended the 44-day war and resulted in Azerbaijan regaining control over most of the territories it had lost in the 1990s. The deal also stipulated the deployment of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh and the opening of transport corridors between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nakhchivan, an Azerbaijani exclave bordering Turkey and Iran. The deal was seen as a diplomatic victory for Russia, which enhanced its role as the main power broker and security provider in the region while marginalizing the role of the Minsk Group and the West.
Russia’s interests in the region are not only geopolitical but also economic and cultural. Russia seeks to maintain its influence and presence in the South Caucasus, which it considers as part of its “near abroad” and a buffer zone against NATO expansion. Russia also wants to protect its energy interests and transit routes, as well as its large diaspora and Orthodox Christian community in the region. Russia has also been accused of using the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a tool to manipulate and pressure both Armenia and Azerbaijan and to prevent them from moving closer to the West.
The West’s response and challenges
The West, particularly the EU and the US, has been largely absent and ineffective in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, despite having significant interests and stakes in the region. The West has supported the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan but has also called for a peaceful and negotiated settlement of the conflict, based on the principles of the Minsk Group. The West has also provided humanitarian and development aid to both sides, as well as promoting democracy, human rights and civil society in the region.
However, the West has failed to match its rhetoric with action and engagement, especially in the aftermath of the 2020 war. The West has been criticized by Azerbaijan for not condemning Armenia’s aggression and occupation, and for not recognizing Azerbaijan’s right to self-defense and territorial restoration. The West has also been accused by Azerbaijan of being indifferent and passive in the face of the humanitarian crisis and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas. The West has also been challenged by Turkey, which has asserted its role as a regional power and a protector of Azerbaijan’s interests, while clashing with the West on various issues, such as Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.
The West faces several challenges and dilemmas in dealing with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and its implications. On the one hand, the West wants to maintain its strategic partnership with Azerbaijan, which is a key energy supplier and a potential partner in countering Iran’s influence and extremism in the region. On the other hand, the West is concerned about Azerbaijan’s authoritarian tendencies and human rights abuses, which undermine the prospects of democratic reforms and civil society development in the country. The West also wants to preserve its cooperation with Armenia, which is undergoing a political transition and a democratic awakening, while facing economic and security challenges. The West also wants to avoid a confrontation with Russia, which has a dominant role and a vested interest in the region, while seeking to uphold the principles of international law and human rights.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has exposed the growing tensions and divergences between Azerbaijan and the West, as well as the limitations and weaknesses of Western engagement and influence in the region. Azerbaijan has become more dependent and aligned with Russia, which has emerged as the main arbiter and guarantor of the status quo, while the West has been marginalized and criticized by Baku for its perceived lack of support and involvement. The West faces the difficult task of balancing its interests and values, as well as its relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan while avoiding a clash with Russia and Turkey. The West needs to adopt a more proactive and coherent strategy towards the region, based on dialogue, diplomacy and development, as well as support the efforts of the Minsk Group and the OSCE to find a lasting and comprehensive solution to the conflict.