Putin in Oil Land


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin recently paid a state visit to Azerbaijan on his way to Iran. Azerbaijan being an oil-rich land, represents a slippery territory, figuratively and literally. That visit triggered a plethora of interpretations, both in Russia and in the Western news media. As Armenia is Russia’s strategic ally in the region, it was glaring that the first visit after his election would take Mr. Putin to Azerbaijan and not Armenia, despite Yerevan’s standing invitation.

Observed within the context of recent developments in the region, this trip was a cause for concern in Armenia.

Moscow had recently delivered sophisticated deadly weapons to Azerbaijan, initially estimated to be worth $1.5 billion, but it turns out during Putin-Aliyev negotiation that the actual value of those weapons was $4 billion.

Azerbaijan also buys arms from Ukraine, Belarus and Israel.

The Armenian public was rightfully alarmed for two reasons: the arms shipments and Putin’s timing of his visit to Azerbaijan. Although in some official circles these moves were dismissed as normal business contacts, the fears that something more sinister was going on were not assuaged.

As we observe the arms deal and the visit against the backdrop of recent Russian-Azerbaijan relations, the developments become more intriguing.

Indeed tensions were building up between the two neighbors after the failure of negotiations to extend the lease of the Russian listening post in Gabala. Upon arriving in Baku, Mr. Putin was accorded a very cool reception. Contrary to the accepted norms of international protocol, the deputy prime minister of Azerbaijan was sent to the airport to greet the Russian president. Further, at a state dinner, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was insulted, something passed off to be a slip of the tongue, but many believe the insult to be deliberate.

A large delegation accompanied the Russian president with the hopes of cutting major deals, especially in the oil sector. However, in the end, only symbolic contracts were signed.

Despite all these negative signals, Mr. Putin took the initiative and swallowed the indignities. He even had a valuable gift in his pocket: on the eve of presidential elections, Ilham Aliyev could use any international support in view of some criticism of his authoritarian rule. He had already manipulated his rubber-stamp parliament to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term extending his dynastic reign. Putin’s visit was thus a deliberate boost to Aliyev’s election prospects.

Additionally, there are four nominal candidates in the Azeri presidential campaign, obviously planted by the Aliyev administration. But the entire opposition has rallied around Roustam Ibrahimbekov, a political activist living in Moscow with dual citizenship. He has asked the Russian authorities to revoke his Russian citizenship to make him eligible to register in Azerbaijan as a presidential candidate. At this writing, the Russian authorities had not taken any action, much to Mr. Aliyev’s delight and comfort.

Mr. Putin, thus, has made plain his choice for Azerbaijan’s presidency.

Another endorsement came from the most improbable quarter, from President Serge Sargisian, who has stated that from Armenia’s standpoint, Aliyev remains the preferred choice since he is known to be a familiar interlocutor with the Armenian side with regard to solving the Artsakh standoff, basically suggesting the devil one knows is preferable. This endorsement has baffled political analysts and the news media. The statement was either an echo of his master’s voice in the Kremlin, or it is an unbelievably sophisticated political move to dent Aliyev’s popularity. Indeed, there is so much anti-Armenian hysteria in Azerbaijan that any endorsement from Armenia may generate a backlash.

In the vast ocean of the Russian politics, Armenia is a small fish. Therefore, Putin’s visit must not have been motivated by the desire to spite Armenia. Mr. Putin was after broader strategic goals, although he did not mind sending a signal of displeasure to Yerevan, where plans are in the works to sign (or initiate) the Association Agreement at the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, while at the same time contemplating joining a customs union agreement steered by Russia.

It is Mr. Putin’s political style to send blunt messages to his neighbors as he sent one recently to Ukraine, which was veering towards joining the European Union. The Kremlin blocked customs between the two countries to halt the flow of goods and services from Ukraine to Russia. That placed President Viktor Yanukovych in a difficult spot, since he had to perform a balancing act between pro-Russian and Pro-European Ukrainian voters who are almost evenly divided.

There is certainly a discomfort in Armenia over the arms deliveries to Azerbaijan and the almost enigmatic nature of Mr. Putin’s visit to Baku. Friendly voices in Moscow are consoling Armenia’s confused population with the idea that the Kremlin is seeking military parity between the two adversaries. But given Mr. Aliyev’s bellicose rhetoric, parity cannot reassure Armenia — only military superiority can.

Political analysts believe that the Russian president took his Baku trip within his strategy of preserving Russian dominance in the Caucasus: Mr. Putin believes Armenia to be safely in his pocket as a strategic ally. Therefore he has to pursue other stray sheep. Georgia’s leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, lacked prudence and openly challenged Russia and he was badly burnt. Incidentally, Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili openly clashed during a reception aboard a US navy ship on a visit to Batumi, insulting each other in front of their American hosts. It looks like disrespect towards heads of state is not solely an Armenian disease.

Coming to Azerbaijan, its leaders are veering towards the US discretely under the tutelage of their Turkish brethren. Israel and Turkey have set up shop on Azeri territory and despite official declarations to the contrary Israel has a military base in preparation for an attack against Iran. Some time ago, Aliyev confessed that nine-tenth of his country’s relationship with Israel was below the surface. The rapprochement seems to have been initiated and pursued by the US administration. This strategic build-up will undermine Russian and Iranian influence in the region.

Iran is very wary and prepared for the consequences of this strategic drive but it has limited resources to counter it. Russian and Iranian interests coincide in this political chess game and Mr. Putin’s trip is part of that mission.

While in Azerbaijan, Putin has countered Aliyev’s aggressive posture with an emphatic statement that the Karabagh conflict has only a political solution, not a military one.

Political analyst Alexander Iskandarian believes that Mr. Putin has a two-prong policy vis-à-vis the Karabagh conflict: not to solve the problem and not to allow a war. Indeed, Karabagh is a handy political tool for Mr. Putin to pressure Baku at the opportune moment.

Only time will tell if Mr. Putin left the slippery oil land of Azerbaijan unscathed or empty-handed.