Azerbaijan’s geopolitics entail a multi-vectorial approach to foreign policy, says Hikmet Hajiyev, Foreign Policy Advisor to the President of Azerbaijan. How has Baku's foreign policy changed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? On the one hand, Azerbaijan supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity; on the other, it is cautious about angering the Kremlin for the sake of its national security. Given this quandary, how is Baku pursuing its multifaceted foreign policy? To answer such questions, we ought to look at its diplomacy before and after the war between Russia and Ukraine.
At the beginning of 2022, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine loomed imminently, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev went on an official trip to Kyiv. The meeting resulted in six bilateral documents of cooperation across agriculture, energy, and trade. Furthermore, the Joint Declaration signed by President Aliyev and President Volodymyr Zelensky reflected support for each other's independence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty. This declaration, which emphasized Baku's importance for Ukraine in the aforementioned matters, was crucial for Kyiv as it was about to face the threat of invasion. It also served as further proof of Azerbaijan's commitment to the principle of territorial integrity.
Despite this, however, prior to the war Baku also reached a deal with Moscow. The first clause of the document emphasizes that the two countries’ relations are based on the mutual respect of independence, state sovereignty, and territorial integrity. The declaration, according to President Aliyev, elevated their relations to an allied level. The agreement came just hours after the Kremlin recognized the independence of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics. Had this occurred at the hands of another government, Baku would have condemned this action without hesitation. However, Azerbaijan declined to comment on the Kremlin's flagrant violation so as not to harm its relations with Moscow.
Baku diligently pursued its foreign policy balancing act in the wake of Russia's unprovoked war against Ukraine. On the one hand, the country has not officially condemned the invasion and has failed to participate in voting to terminate Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe. On a similar vein, it has also opted not to vote in the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. Not only did Baku keep a low profile in international organizations where Russia was otherwise widely condemned, it also remained silent when the Azerbaijani honorary consulate in Kharkiv was seriously damaged by Russian airstrikes. Domestically, hundreds of Azerbaijanis gathered in front of the Ukrainian Embassy in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on February 27th to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Given the rarity of people's exercise of their right of assembly in Azerbaijan, allowing people to chant slogans in favor of Ukraine was a crucial message to both warring parties. The Azerbaijani authorities, however, forbade protests in front of the Russian Embassy in Baku, which can be seen as another element of Baku's balancing foreign policy. At the same time, however, the Azerbaijani government regularly sends humanitarian aid to Ukraine, with the first arriving on February 27th. Moreover, the government has directed SOCAR — its state oil company — to provide free fuel to ambulances and other State Emergency Service vehicles at its gas stations in Ukraine.
Along with Ukraine and Russia, Azerbaijan has also made significant efforts to engage in dialogue with several other regional players, taking advantage of the situation to boost its status as a responsible and reliable power. For instance, it has signed the Shusha Declaration with Ankara to strengthen its friendly and fraternal relations with Turkey. In March 2022, Baku took another important decision and signed an agreement with Tehran. This agreement envisages the establishment of new transport and electricity networks connecting the western part of Azerbaijan’s main territory with its Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic through northwest Iran. This was a timely move that eased Tehran’s concerns. As for the transportation projects promoted by Azerbaijan after the Second Karabakh War, it provided the necessary opportunities for Iran to be a part of the emerging transit hub with its northern neighbor. Furthermore, Azerbaijan enhanced its bilateral relations with the EU by signing a new Memorandum of Understanding on a Strategic Partnership in the Field of Energy on the 18th of July. On top of boosting Baku’s reputation after being criticized over human rights violations, the agreement also contributes to the EU's efforts to move away from Russian fossil fuels.
Overall, it seems that Baku has managed to maintain, if not strengthen, its multi-vectorial foreign policy since the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Similarly, Azerbaijan has been strengthening its relations with Turkey to balance Moscow in the South Caucasus. It has also not ignored relations with Tehran and promoted its inclusion in new regional projects. At the same time, Baku aims at enhancing its relations with the EU by benefitting from the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s war against Ukraine. Last but not the least, Baku is attentively pressurizing Yerevan to fulfill the obligations of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement, also taking advantage of military and political challenges Russia faces due to its invasion of Ukraine. What remains unclear is whether Azerbaijan would prefer a decisive victory by either side, which could potentially challenge its multi-vectorial approach to foreign policy.