NATO and Azerbaijan: An Unbalanced Partnership


By Peter Kechichian and Gevorg Shahbazyan

AAANews Blog

July 18, 2014

Last week, Azerbaijan was again the focus of a U.S. foreign policy discussion. On July 1st, the Atlantic Council hosted a forum in Washington D.C. entitled, “NATO in the Caucasus: The Case of Azerbaijan.” Moderated by Mr. David Koranyi, the Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, the panel featured influential analysts who cover this strategic region. These included Ambassador Khazar Ibrahim, the head of the Azerbaijani mission to NATO, Mr. Eric Ruben, the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. State Department, and Dr. Brenda Shaffer, a visiting researcher at Georgetown University. The forum was introduced by Frederick Kempe, the President and CEO of the Atlantic Council. Kempe mentioned in his opening address that the Atlantic Council is a “strong supporter for independent Azerbaijan,” while Ambassador Ibrahim praised that Atlantic Council for “promoting the agenda of Azerbaijan.”

The forum represented a new chapter in the public discussion on Azerbaijan and the wider region. It focused on U.S foreign policy in the South Caucasus, possible NATO expansion in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, and European energy security in general. Although NATO has had a footprint in the region since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the increased expansion by NATO in the area is almost unprecedented and will have a major impact on the geopolitics of the wider region. This has become increasingly relevant, particularly in light of major examples of Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008, and Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. The Caucasus, due to its strategic location, has always fallen under the firm influence of larger powers, such as Russia, Iran and Turkey. Hence, the expansion of NATO in the region causes a direct challenge to Russian influence in the South Caucasus.

The forum represented a wide-ranging discussion touching on many differing aspects of NATO’s relationship with Azerbaijan, which developed as a NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) member since 1994. Chief among these was energy security, energy infrastructure protection, and ensuring future and reliable energy flow to European markets. Ambassador Ibrahim emphasized that Azerbaijan is an “energy provider to many NATO members,” highlighting its importance to NATO while painting Azerbaijan as a “very strong, active partner.” A common theme among the energy security discussion was about lowering Europe’s dependence on the Russian dominated gas supply system and diversifying Europe’s energy sources. Eric Ruben of the State Department was very clear about this, proclaiming that some countries “are dependent on Russian gas,” while Dr. Shaffer declared that energy security should not be thought of as separate to security in general. The Southern Gas Corridor is a major European energy project that will bring Caspian oil and gas into Europe via Turkey. It is a “highly strategic choice” and one that “we talk about… a lot in Washington, D.C.,” Dr. Shaffer said. Other areas mentioned include Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel, its support in the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, and combating human trafficking, counter-terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and land mine clearance.  

However, what the writers found interesting about the forum is what was not covered. There was very little mention of Azerbaijan’s bilateral relationship with Russia. Interestingly, there was absolutely no mention of Azerbaijan’s acquisition of $4 billion worth of modern weaponry from Russia, including some of the most technologically advanced offensive weapons. The influx of Russian weapons has resulted in a regional arms race which has further fueled instability in a region already rife with daily cross-border attacks that have left at least 18 soldiers dead on both sides of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, this year.  These actions run counter to Russia’s repeated claims of maintaining military parity and balance in the region towards both Azerbaijan and Armenia. This is in addition to the numerous trade and energy projects that Azerbaijan continues to enjoy with Russia. Just last month, high-level Russian officials traveled to Baku, such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, Economic Minister Alexei Ulyukaev, and Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin, to name a few. The sheer size of the delegation and the number of trips taken highlight Moscow’s intention to deepen its relationship with Azerbaijan. “It is a very painful subject and our people are worried that our strategic ally sells weapons to Azerbaijan,” Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan told Argentina’s Clarin newspaper last week.  

An Armenian Embassy representative, Deputy Chief of Mission Andranik Hovhannisyan, was present at the forum and noted the extensive relationship that Armenia also enjoys with NATO. For example, Armenia, which has also developed relations with NATO since 1994 as a PfP member, continues to maintain a significant peace keeping mission in Kosovo, while Azerbaijan withdrew its peace keeping force from Kosovo in 2008, he said. Ibrahim referred to this withdrawal during the conference as a “political decision,” due to his government’s stance against the internationally recognized principle of self-determination. It is also worth noting that Armenia has contributed significantly to NATO-led operations in Afghanistan, most notably with the deployment of over one hundred combat soldiers. In addition, Armenia assisted the coalition’s combat operations during the Iraq war. 

While the discussion generally attempted to portray Azerbaijan as an indispensable partner to NATO, one could make the case that the NATO-Armenia relationship is as advanced, if not more so, than the level of partnership enjoyed with Baku. Furthermore, the Azerbaijan government’s pardon, promotion and glorification of an Azerbaijani soldier, Ramil Safarov, who was convicted in Hungary for the 2004 murder of an Armenian officer, Gurgen Margaryan, is unbecoming of a NATO aspirant. Margaryan was murdered in his sleep by an ax-wielding Safarov during a NATO PfP English language training course. One could also argue that this is not the type of behavior that should be rewarded, as it runs counter to the purpose of the NATO PfP which is to “increase stability, diminish threats to peace and build strengthened security relationships between partner countries NATO.“

Russian policies in Ukraine and their effect on the South Caucasus

By: Gevorg Shahbazyan, Summer Intern, Armenian Assembly of America

June 19, 2014

On Monday, June 16, the Jamestown Foundation held a conference entitled “Repercussions of the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict on Moldova and the South Caucasus,” at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. The two panel conference featured several policy experts and former U.S. government officials, including Margarita Assenova, Director of Programs for the Balkans, Caucasus & Central Asia, The Jamestown Foundation; Glen Howard, President, The Jamestown Foundation; Andrei Illarionov, Senior Fellow, CATO Institute; Vladimir Socor, Senior Fellow, The Jamestown Foundation; Ambassador William Courtney, former U.S. ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan; Stephen Blank, Senior Fellow, American Foreign Policy Council; Giorgi Khelashvili, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Georgia; Natig Bakhishov, Political Officer, Embassy of Azerbaijan; Alexander Melikishvili, Senior Analyst, Europe/CIS Forecasting Team, IHS Country Risk; and Janusz Bugajski, a foreign policy analyst.


Jamestown Foundation President Glen Howard opened the first panel and discussed the importance of the current crisis in Ukraine, specifically referencing his visit to Kiev last month. “The world is watching what U.S. action will be in the region,” stated Howard. On his trip, he discussed “key issues” with Ukrainian government, and emphasized how important it is to work closely with the defense ministry of Ukraine to establish control along the border with Russia. Howard also discussed the importance of U.S. military assistance to Ukraine and countries in the region, particularly Moldova and Georgia.

“Hardly any doubt remains that the violent crises in Ukraine is being fueled by Russia” stated Andrei Illarionov, senior fellow at the CATO Institute. “Russia will do anything to keep Ukraine pro-Russian,” Illarionov said.

According Vladimir Socor, senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, Russia is using referendums in Lugansk and Donetsk as “political instruments.”  By escalating the situation in Ukraine, following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea a few months ago, the panel unanimously agreed that the crises is going to escalate further. If the U.S. does not take necessary steps, then the crisis is sure to worsen.

“The U.S. has no foreign policy in the region,” said William Courtney, former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan.

The first panel concluded that despite the difficulties of enacting sanctions on Russia, the West should be ready to further deepen these sanctions if Russia continues with its aggressive behavior.

A second panel of speakers discussed the “South Caucasus Perspectives on the Russia-Ukraine Conflict.” Of particular focus was the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh dispute. In this context, it was remarkable to hear Mr. Natig Bakhishov, the Political Officer from the Embassy of Azerbaijan, claim that Azerbaijan is committed to “solve” the conflict by “peaceful means."  A few minutes into his statement he threatened the use of military force. "Military action is valid if negotiations fail” Bakhishov said, contradicting himself in the process.


When asked that “you mentioned earlier that Azerbaijan is committed to the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, yet your government continues to threaten the use of force against Nagorno Karabakh,” Bakhishov declined to comment but continued to provide his government’s position that "Azerbaijan is still committed to the peaceful settlement of the conflict.”

One of the speakers on the panel expressed concern over Azerbaijan’s massive military build up and the arms race it has produced with neighboring Armenia. "We are aware of the purchase of $4 billion worth of military arms by Azerbaijan,” Stephen Blank, Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council said, calling it “a measure to destabilize the region.” According to Blank, “The U.S. needs to cherish OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] negotiations,” citing limited U.S. influence in the region. Despite this handicap, Blank said that the U.S. needs to help countries in the region overcome domestic opposition and help Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova move closer to the European Union (EU) by signing Association Agreements (AA) on June 27th, 2014.

While the panel included “The Georgian Perspective” and “The Azerbaijani Perspective,” it clearly lacked an Armenian perspective. However, representatives of the Armenian Assembly of America, the Embassy of Armenia, and the Office of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR) were present and addressed the various inaccuracies and sometimes outright falsifications presented.

Andranik Hovhannisyan, Deputy Chief of Mission from the Armenian Embassy, asked the panel why the Embassy of Armenia was not invited to participate, alluding to what seemed to be the Jamestown Foundation’s intention to exclude the Armenian perspective. Margarita Assenova, Director of Programs at the Jamestown Foundation, responded, saying at first that they had sent a letter of invitation. When Mr. Hovhannisyan informed her that, as the person who receives such correspondence, he had in fact not received an invitation, Assenova then stated that the conference was quickly assembled in only three days. However, the first public notice of the conference was issued on June 11, five days prior to the conference. It was disrespectful for Ms. Assenova to blatantly misrepresent to Mr. Hovhannisyan and the audience the panels intended structure.

Aram Avetisyan, Counselor from the NKR office asked the Azeri embassy representative, “Mr. Bakhishov, are you going to celebrate Safarov’s anniversary?” a reference to Ramil Safarov, the Azerbaijani soldier who brutally killed Gurgen Margarian, an Armenian officer, with an axe while he was sleeping, in Hungary during a NATO training course in 2004. It is important to note that Avetisyan was interrupted numerous times by the moderator, as was Hovhannisyan and the author.

Without proper oversight from the international community, particularly the U.S. and EU, Azerbajan’s hostile and provocative behavior will continue to be directed against Armenians everywhere. Therefore, it is clear that, given Mr. Bakhishov’s statements, Azerbaijan will not stop threatening Armenia with military invasion until a settlement favorable to Baku can be reached.

Today, Georgia and Azerbaijan, with the support of the U.S. and EU, are trying to bypass Russian energy supply lines and create a new Southern Corridor pipeline straight into Europe. Lessening the dependency of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus on Russian oil and gas loosens Moscow’s grip in the process. The Russia-Ukraine conflict, on the other hand, has clearly impacted the South Caucasus. It shows that Russia has many cards to play in the region and it will not hesitate to do so, especially if countries in the region signal their intention to lean toward the West.

The statement by Ambassador Courtney that “The U.S. has no foreign policy in the region” is very troubling because it is clear that countries in the region are under Russian pressure. The U.S. is not only in need of a new policy in the region, but a vision for the future of its people; one that helps the countries help themselves to flourish again, develop and grow as democratic societies. It is also important for policy makers to understand that it is crucial that Armenian Americans have a role in formulating such a vision and articulating it through a policy that respects human rights and the rule of law, and opens economies of the region to the rest of the world.