Azerbaijan, it seems, is seriously contemplating joining the “Eurasian NATO,” the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In the aftermath of this month’s Caspian Summit, Haqqin.az, a popular news website, reported that Russia is offering Azerbaijan to pursue CSTO membership. Later, Haqqin.az posted an interview with Ali Huseynli, a member of the ruling party, the New Azerbaijan Party, and the chairman of an influential parliamentary committee. “New geopolitical conditions” mean that it is possible for Baku to consider playing a role in the CSTO, Huseynli said, almost certainly with high-level approval.
Talk in Baku of joining the CSTO is not unprecedented. Azerbaijan was one of the signatories of the Collective Security Treaty, which Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan initially signed in May 1992. Baku signed the treaty in September 1993, even earlier than Minsk. The treaty went into force in 1994. However, in 1999, Azerbaijan and Georgia refused to extend it, withdrawing on the grounds that little was being done to resolve armed conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively. Nonetheless, by signing the Collective Security Treaty in 1993, Azerbaijan demonstrated at least some openness to political-military integration in Eurasia.
Today, joining the CSTO could offer Baku certain perks with respect to defense cooperation. Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine all supply weapons to the Caspian states. Of the three countries, both Russia and Belarus are CSTO member-states, while Ukraine seeks to join NATO yet continues to sell Soviet-style military equipment to Azerbaijan. For Azerbaijan, CSTO membership would ease the defense procurement process, envisaging, as it does, defense cooperation on mutually beneficial terms rather than based on strict market principles. In fact, Armenia remains in the CSTO largely because of the discounts it receives on armaments, even though it cannot rely on its CSTO allies for unconditional support.
Furthermore, CSTO membership would bring Russia and Azerbaijan, which Russia openly describes as a strategic partner, closer together. The two countries share a 284-kilometer land border and are both Caspian states, the latter an aspect that will unite rather than divide Moscow and Baku following the recent signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. Diasporas—namely, Azeris in Russia and Russians and Dagestanis in Azerbaijan—are also an important factor in bilateral relations. More important, Russia happens to play a role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Unlike Georgia, made implacably hostile to Russian involvement in its disputes with Abkhazia and South Ossetia ever since the August 2008 war, Azerbaijan supports Russian involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, even if it occasionally criticizes Moscow.
The aforementioned factors make CSTO membership an appealing prospect for Azerbaijan, but they are not the only ones in play. For years, Baku has flirted with the CSTO while working closely with NATO. In 2017, Baku and Brussels approved an updated Individual Partnership Action Plan. Azeri troops have taken part in NATO missions in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, while Baku has provided significant logistical support, assisting the delivery of NATO cargo from Europe to Afghanistan. Yet Azerbaijan is not interested in pursuing NATO membership or signing an association agreement with the EU, though it belongs to the EU’s Eastern Partnership. In fact, it joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 2011.
Next year, Baku will celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the “contract of the century”: an agreement between Azerbaijan and twelve Western oil majors. That document significantly determines Azerbaijan’s trade and foreign policy, and it is consistent with U.S. priorities. In the words of Jeffrey Mankoff, “the importance of Caspian energy supplies to Europe may lessen, but the United States will still support South Caucasian pipeline projects as a way to ensure geopolitical pluralism.”
Baku was thus able to adapt its strategy to the economic phobias of the United States and the EU regarding Russia’s “oil and gas weapon” and the “energy empire” that Moscow supposedly seeks to build in the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan’s critical role in ensuring “geopolitical pluralism” allows it to avoid criticism from Washington and Brussels regarding its violations of human rights and deviations from democratic norms.
Indeed, whenever American and European activists attack Azerbaijan’s human rights record, pragmatists within the U.S. State Department and the European Commission reiterate the importance of partnership with Baku, particularly in light of growing tensions between Tehran and Washington. Baku has repeatedly amended Azerbaijan’s constitution to permit the president to hold office for more than two terms and even allow his wife to become vice president. However, this has not caused the West to impose harsh sanctions, enact an economic blockade, or blacklist high-ranking Azeri officials.
Thus, both Russia and the West view Azerbaijan as a valuable partner. Unlike its neighbors in the region, Azerbaijan has a relatively strong economy and enough resources to keep its distance from both camps and remain flexible in not only its relations with Russia, the United States, and the EU, but also the Middle East. Azerbaijan is a key energy partner for Israel and it buys Israeli-made arms, but this does not prevent it from backing the Palestinian Authority in the United Nations and supporting the cause of Palestinian independence. In addition, Azerbaijan is strengthening its relations with Iran, viewing it as a potential economic partner in the North-South Transport Corridor project, as well as the Caspian Sea. Baku has few incentives to voluntarily limit its freedom of maneuver by rejecting Western partners and definitively embracing Eurasia. Moscow cannot offer Baku anything that would outshine the “contract of the century,” and Azerbaijan knows it.
Azerbaijan’s politicians and its press have resurrected the prospect of CSTO accession and inflated the expectations of their own people as well as Russian leaders for several reasons. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet soon. Any meeting with Putin is an opportunity for Baku and Yerevan to one-up each other. Today, Azerbaijan is trying to take advantage of the Kremlin’s growing apprehension over the direction taken by Yerevan’s “velvet revolution.”
One cannot say that Armenian politicians have not contributed to this situation. It is true that during its first hundred days in office, the new government of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has not made a single statement casting doubt on the strategic alliance between Yerevan and Moscow. However, certain domestic developments—especially the arrest of ex-president Robert Kocharyan, the prosecution of CSTO Secretary-General Yuri Khachaturov, a selective campaign against corruption, and searches at the Russian Railways subsidiary South Caucasus Railways—complicated Armenia’s relations with Russia. Already, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has expressed Moscow’s “concern.”
Pashinyan has also taken a more rigid position than his predecessor, Serzh Sargsyan, on the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is therefore unsurprising that Baku is trying to exploit divisions between Moscow and Yerevan and build on the achievements of the latest Caspian Summit. When Putin and Aliyev meet, they will certainly discuss Nagorno-Karabakh and the overall situation in the region. Naturally, Azerbaijan will present itself as the more reliable, stable, and predictable partner for Russia, an idea that Huseynli voiced throughout his interview. However, both Moscow and Baku probably understand that real rapprochement is not in the cards for now.
When Azerbaijan talks about “the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” what it means is its victory over “Armenia and the Armenians,” as the Azeri authorities refer to their adversaries, and the return of “Azeri territory” to Baku. Azerbaijan obstructs or carefully sidesteps any multilateral initiatives that do not serve this goal: Azeri participation in the Collective Security Treaty, the Eurasian Customs Union, and the Eurasian Economic Union fell victim to this tendency. Simply put, Baku sees no point in being a member of the same organization as Yerevan if there is no progress on what the former calls its top political priority. Moscow, for its part, worries that with both Baku and Yerevan represented in the CSTO, it will turn into either a Commonwealth of Independent States clone or a forum for Nagorno-Karabakh talks. It will become impossible to advance or even discuss regional integration.
To be sure, this does not rule out mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation between Baku and Moscow. Despite disagreements, such cooperation is already under way in various bilateral formats and will most likely continue. However interested Baku may be in Western energy projects, Azerbaijan views Russia as a source of international legitimacy, as the Kremlin will not criticize its human rights record or the number of terms its presidents serve. However, Azerbaijan’s accession to the CSTO is far off, and the trajectories of Baku and the “Eurasian NATO” are certain to remain parallel for the foreseeable future.