A Cost-Efficient Investment: Enhancing US-Azerbaijan Relations

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Written by Daniel Urchick

President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to the State Department budget will severely hamper the United States’ ability to manage and respond to the many challenges it faces across the world, especially in Eurasia. Facing a significantly-reduced budget, the State Department must make difficult decisions on how to conduct foreign policy in a region that needs more US leadership—not less. Thus, the United States would be wise to focus on its relations with Azerbaijan.

The United States should not only continue its relations with Azerbaijan, but also enhance diplomatic, economic, and security relations to maximize US influence across the region more broadly. The reasons to focus on Azerbaijan are numerous—ranging from countering Russia’s ambitions directly to countering Iran’s indirectly, and from building energy security to improving damaged relationships with countries such as Turkey and Israel.

The simmering conflict between Azerbaijan and Russian-backed Armenia over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is a textbook example of Russia using a “frozen conflict” to ensure its influence in its near-abroad. Increasing US economic and security support to Azerbaijan will force Russia to expend precious resources maintaining a military balance in one of many conflict zones where it is involved. If Russia fails to support Armenia while the United States increases its support to Azerbaijan, its global image as a major-power backer will suffer.

Providing US support to Azerbaijan will also show other Eurasian nations that the United States remains committed to pushing back against Russia’s efforts to reassert dominance over its near-abroad. Russia traditionally supports Armenia, but has recently made efforts to balance its relationship with an economically-attractive Azerbaijan. While significant progress toward friendly relations with Russia is unlikely, the United States can still remove any possibility of Azerbaijan slipping into the Russian political orbit by showing that, even with a constrained foreign policy budget, it values Azeri friendship.

Azerbaijan’s religious and cultural ties with Iran also make it an important part of Tehran’s effort to rebuild its regional influence following the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015. Iran has a small Azeri ethnic minority, and the simple act of strengthening of US–Azeri relations is likely to cause Iran to feel some domestic pressure the United States could use in later negotiations should Trump pursue a “better nuclear deal” with Tehran. Regardless, maintaining a robust diplomatic and economic presence in Azerbaijan is central to the US plan to contain the growth of Iranian influence.

More important than simple domestic pressure is energy diplomacy. The Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, connecting the South Caucasus Pipeline to the Tran-Adriatic Pipeline, is projected to be operational by 2020. Iran is reportedly eager to connect its own substantial natural gas reserves to the network and supply natural gas to Europe. Robust relations with Azerbaijan will give the United States the influence to prevent Tehran from linking to the pipeline should sanctions against Iran again become necessary.

The Trans-Anatolian Pipeline is only 75 percent of the energy equation in the region for the United States. With a strong US–Azeri relationship, the United States can help mediate the dispute between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan over the Serdar (Turkmen)/Kyapaz (Azeri) hydrocarbon field. Resolving this dispute would spur the construction of a long-delayed trans-Caspian Sea pipeline, linking the fourth largest natural gas reserves in the world to Europe and bypassing Russia. An amicable resolution to the dispute could deprive Russia of the income generated by transporting Turkmen energy through Russia’s network of gas pipelines. An important knock-on effect would be diversifying Turkmenistan’s customer base beyond China and allowing Turkmenistan to retain its non-aligned status regarding Russia.

Lastly, Azerbaijan’s close connections with Turkey and Israel provide the United States with an opportunity to improve relations with both countries, which have become strained in the past several years. Turkey and Azerbaijan share ethnic, linguistic, and cultural ties, and Israel has a substantial security relationship with Azerbaijan. The United States can repair some damage to US–Turkish relations by forming a joint-partnership to promote Azerbaijan’s economic development and providing additional security assistance. Turkey would be amenable to such a partnership to ensure the flow of energy from Azerbaijan, reducing its own dependence on Russia. And Israel would surely appreciate additional US support for one of the few Muslim-majority countries that it has a true friendship with. The United States can provide financial support to Azerbaijan to purchase additional Israeli military hardware, such as the Iron Dome anti-missile system or Harop/Harpy UAVs.

The United States may soon face difficult diplomatic choices in an increasingly complex world. By focusing on enhancing ties with Azerbaijan, the United States can make the most of the limited funding of the State Department. Azerbaijan is an important partner for countering Russia directly and indirectly across its near-abroad, pressuring and repelling Iran, rebuilding relations with important allies, and ensuring energy security for Europe.

About the author: Daniel Urchick is the Eurasia & Eastern Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also a compliance contractor at the Department of Defense. Daniel earned his MA in Political Science from Central Michigan University in 2015 and expects to receive his MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University in 2018.

Photo: Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with Col. Gen. Zakhir Hasanov, Azerbaijan Minister of Defense, and Col. Gen. Najmaddin Sadikhov, chief of General Staff of Azerbaijani Armed Forces, to discuss the status of the relationship between the military forces of the United States and Azerbaijan at the Ministry of Defense in Baku, Azerbaijan Feb. 16, 2017. (Dept. of Defense photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Released)