Reimagining Azerbaijan

Building a Azerbaijan Policy Based on Today’s Strategic Realities

U.S. ties with Azerbaijan are tenuous after 20 years of gamesmanship in Eurasia. It’s time to rethink our policy, write Alexandros Petersen and Samuel Charap.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Azerbaijan's Minister of Defense General-Colonel Safar Abiyev review Azerbaijani troops during an honor ceremony at the Ministry of Defense in Baku, Azerbaijan on June 7, 2010. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Azerbaijan's Minister of Defense General-Colonel Safar Abiyev review Azerbaijani troops during an honor ceremony at the Ministry of Defense in Baku, Azerbaijan on June 7, 2010. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

The United States and Russia played a grand chess game in Eurasia for nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. U.S. policy toward countries in the region essentially became а derivative of Russia policy as a result. We failed to forge long-term partnerships and instead sought leverage, neglecting engagement that provided no benefit in the push and pull with Moscow. Local elites came to see their countries more as pawns in this game than as fully fledged sovereign states with independent policies.

But the Obama administration’s successful “reset” of relations with Russia provides an opportunity to rethink our policies toward Eurasia, a term we use here to refer to the countries of the greater Black Sea region and Central Asia. We explain in our Foreign Affairs article, “Reimagining Eurasia,” that a U.S. strategy to reimagine Eurasia should be based on three principles:

  • Policy toward Eurasian states should be formulated based on their merits, not their value as bargaining chips or their relationships with other powers.
  • Engagement should employ all of the tools in our toolbox, including diplomatic, economic, and cultural ones, and not just those related to security and natural resources.
  • U.S. policy should emphasize transparency and win-win opportunities, while simultaneously rejecting Russian notions of “spheres of influence” and antiquated zero-sum arguments from Eurasian governments.

Such an approach will undoubtedly focus U.S. policymakers’ minds on Azerbaijan, the region’s pivot point. Azerbaijan is the gateway to the Caspian basin, and Central, South, Inner, and East Asia. It sits astride the world’s fastest-growing trade route developing overland across those regions to and from the European Union and the Middle East.

The government in Baku—like its Central Asian neighbors across the Caspian—uses its location in the age-old policy of playing the “great powers” off each other. When Baku believes Washington is de-prioritizing Azerbaijan—as was the case during the Obama administration’s recent attempt at normalizing ties between Armenia and Turkey—it threatens geopolitical reorientation toward Russia, or even China. President Ilham Aliyev most recently threatened the key Afghanistan re-supply route that goes through his country when he felt snubbed by the Obama administration. Defense Secretary Robert Gates responded in June by visiting Azerbaijan to present President Aliyev with a “letter of reassurance” from President Barack Obama.

The Obama administration could have avoided this embarrassing episode if it had a comprehensive plan for partnership with this strategically placed, energy-rich, economically vibrant, growing regional power that borders Iran. If U.S. policymakers assess Azerbaijan on its merits, they will recognize that it is a burgeoning Eurasian telecom hub and the Eurasian country farthest ahead in developing human capital. It also has a soft authoritarian one-party state that has slid back on media freedoms and public debate and is stuck in the simmering Gordian knot that is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia.

This conflict over territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but under the control of Armenian forces since the break-up of the Soviet Union, destabilizes the region and retards trade development across Eurasia. The conflict’s Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe-sponsored negotiation mechanism—the Minsk Group—has thus far brought little progress. But the merits of a conflict-free Azerbaijan make it clear that bringing peace to Nagorno-Karabakh should be a top priority for the United States. It is also an ideal win-win scenario for the region, for the United States, and for Russia.

A comprehensive approach to partnership with Azerbaijan would provide Baku with real incentives to reduce corruption and reverse backsliding on freedoms—unlike current engagement, which is based largely on energy and security.

This outline of a proactive Azerbaijan policy is an example of how to begin reimagining Eurasia. The allegation often heard in Washington that Obama’s “reset” with Russia has come at the expense of U.S. ties with the former Soviet states is not only false, but it also misses the point. The tired zero-sum framework we now have for U.S. engagement in Eurasia will inevitably spark a new strategic competition with Moscow, erasing the gains of the past year and a half. The “reset” therefore requires a new strategy for the region in order to remain successful. Our article “Reimagining Eurasia” and this case study—as well as a second focused on Ukraine—represent the first steps toward developing one.

Samuel Charap is Associate Director for Russia and Eurasia at the Center for American Progress and Alexandros Petersen is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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