Today.Az » Politics » In conversation with Dr Walsh: Shifting sands of Eurasia|
09 August 2022 [09:59] - Today.Az
By Orkhan Amashov
In an exclusive interview with Azernews, Dr Patrick Walsh, an Irish historian, shared his reflections on a wide range of issues of complex nature, centred around Azerbaijan’s foreign policy in the context of the shifting sands of the Eurasian region.
Our long-awaited conversation took place on 27 July. The departure point was the current war in Ukraine, the narratives used by the conflicting sides, and the intricate dynamics of Western-Russian relations.
Then we smoothly moved to the South Caucasus. Dr Walsh availed us of his informed views on the multilayered Baku-Moscow discourse, the implications of the Moscow Declaration, the situation involving the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers temporarily stationed in Karabakh, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan's predicament, the fundamental obstacles towards achieving a conclusive peace deal, and the prospects for wider regional cooperation, with a particular emphasis on the Zangazur mega project.
We also discussed the specific nature of the role played by Baku, in the light of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Azerbaijan and the EU on 18 July, in terms of Europe's drive to diversify its energy supplies and routes. The eminent Irishman explained the policy choices of President Aliyev and expounded on his statesmanship.
Dr Walsh, despite being on holiday on the day of the interview, was very generous with his time, and when, during the Zoom conversation, the link to which is provided at the end of this unexpurgated script, we experienced technical issues, he was patient and did his best to deal with the questions as extensively as was possible under time constraints.
Dr Walsh has recently finalised his book on the 44-day War, which will be published in the near future:
Q: Hello, Pat. Great to see you. Long time no see. How have you been?
A: I am very well. Thank you, Orkhan. Enjoying the summer as usual. Having a bit of a holiday. Good to have a bit of a break really.
Q: You are mostly in Belfast, as far as I understand.
A: I actually live in Northland (County Antrim), which is just not far from Belfast, about 60-70 kilometres, it is on the north coast, I am about 20 miles from Scotland, very furthest north-east tip of the island.
Q: By the way, I very much liked Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Puzzler’ you sent me a couple of days ago.
A: I think Kipling had a great insight into the British state and I think that the British state has certainly maintained a lot of the aspects that it had in the past despite its transition..... There are still elements of the old oligarchic-aristocracy which built the Empire and obviously established the state over centuries. I think that wisdom is still within the British state and you could probably see it during the Brexit process.
Q: The spirit of Rule Britannia is still there, albeit not on the same scale.
A: No, not on the same scale. It is a reduced version perhaps.
Ukraine: civilisational cleft
Q. First of all, thank you very much for your kind agreement to speak to us. It is a great honour and privilege. You are a very well-known and highly-respected person in Azerbaijan. I suggest we construct our conversation in the following way. The most important situation in the world today is the crisis in Ukraine. There will be a couple of questions on that. However, the bulk of our conversation will focus on the ongoing Azerbaijani-Armenian peace process, the Zangazur corridor, prospects for a peace treaty, the constant vacillations of Pashinyan’s government and many other related issues. To conclude, I hope our audience will be happy for me to ask one small question on the Tory leadership race.
I have been following you for many years. My understanding is that you believe this economic war and campaign mounted against Russia by Europe is resolutely unwise and, in fact, counterproductive. In one of our conversations, you stated that eventually there will be no total winner; the West will be able to weaken Russia, Ukraine will probably be truncated, losing effective control of its Eastern provinces and what remains of Ukraine will be inclined towards the West. That will be the ultimate ‘ongoing ultimate’ conclusion of this military campaign. Could you shed some light on these issues?
A: Thank you again, Orkhan. It is my pleasure to talk to you today. It is a real pleasure. I think you have summarised my position very well. A few months ago, I re-read Samuel Huntington’s famous ‘Clash of Civilisations'. The first time I read it I did not know his remarks about Ukraine. It was very perceptive.
It was written around 1992, maybe a bit later. That was the time the Soviet Union was collapsing. This was an open discussion of the American ruling political elite as to what should be done. Very much like Lenin’s question known as ‘what should be done’. He had a section on Ukraine which was very interesting. He had the theory, to which I subscribe, that there was a civilisational cleft going all the way through Eurasia, let us say, between Eastern and Western Europe, he would describe it as Central and Eastern Europe.
Essentially, on one side, you have the Western Christian world, on the other side, you have the Orthodox and Muslim world. He noticed the cleft was around all the way through Ukraine. It was unusual, for most of the other countries, it did not run through them, but it ran through Ukraine.
What he said at the time, which was 30 years ago, was that there was a possibility that Ukraine could develop a really good independent national state; if it needed to be Western-oriented, it needed to shed its Eastern provinces. He went a bit deeper. His insight is essential that Ukraine was a balancing state within itself, it needed to keep a good balance. I think it maintained that balance until around 2013-14.
What really unbalanced it was, first of all, the EU offer, which put Ukraine into a bit of a position of having to choose between Russia and the EU. Of course, we know there are other aspects, we know that the Americans got involved... Victorian Newland made her famous remark, which I won't repeat here, but it was along the lines of 'fteu'.
Then there was the Maidan coup against the government, and obviously, the people in the East, Donbas people, reacted. When you look at the electoral map of Ukraine in that period, we see a great division, you see a Russian-oriented East and a Western-oriented West. Ukrainian nationalism began in the West - the areas of the Polish-Lithuanian rule. We could describe it as two nations trying to become one nation in an independent state. The problem is it got unbalanced in 2013-14 and started the trajectory towards the current situation.
Some people say to me 'what don't you say it was really a Russian invasion'. Russians, as we know, call it a 'special military operation'. I do not see that. The process started around that time, and there has been an ongoing war since, which is about eight years. John Mearsheimer, a famous professor, who really advanced this theory around about 2013-14.
I wrote an article about his evaluation, subscribing to his view, that this was a dangerous situation and could well be tragic for Ukraine in the longer term. That is really my position that nobody is going to win out of this. I think the West or certain people in the West were intent on luring Russia into the Eastern Ukraine, with the objective of bleeding them dry. The old Afghan-Soviet war is a model for these people.
Unfortunately, Ukraine is not Afghanistan. It is a much more important thing for Russia, which means essentially that the conflict is going to be a qualitatively greater conflict than anything we have seen in the past. The real problem with Ukraine is that I see it as an existential crisis for Russia. I am not saying they are right or wrong, but if you read Putin's statements made over the years, you see it is a red line. He has made it very very clear.
The Americans were not blundering, they needed to score. My calculation was that Russia would fight till the end, they would fight it as Russia itself was invaded. No, there was an expeditionary force - around 230 people. There is a reserve to come if necessary.
The West has, however, invested so much in Ukraine, morally, politically and economically. It is almost becoming an existential crisis for Washington. Particularly, before the mid-term, which Biden has to fight. I am worried about this period before the mid-term up to November. I can only see an escalation. This is a conflict in which I cannot see a negotiated settlement coming in the near future. If we do not have a negotiated settlement, we have an escalation. And, we know where this escalation could go in the long run. This is a very serious situation. This is my position with regard to Ukraine.
Q: How do you envision Ukrainian sovereignty at the end of the process? There is an assumption that Ukraine will lose its Eastern provinces, one way or another. It is probable that, in the eyes of international law, Crimea, Donbas and Luhansk will always be Ukrainian, but, ultimately, Ukraine will be truncated. What is your take on this dichotomy between what international law says and the reality of the situation?
A: There is certainly a dichotomy, as you call it, between what international law says and the reality in a sense. All states do override international law, if they see it as a necessity to do so. We see it here in Northern Ireland, where the British state claims extraordinary circumstances to override the Northern Irish Protocol they have signed with the EU. So, this is not an unusual thing in international affairs at all. The US did it in relation to Iraq.
I have recently become aware that Russians did go to China and asked what their position was before the war. They came across with the same thing; the Chinese advanced the same argument that they respected international law, but they would review the situation according to the necessity of the reality. That is what is essentially happening.
The West knew right from the start - you see it in the articles right across the Western media and from important people of the American administration - that Crime was lost to Russia, unless Ukraine could win it back militarily in some way.
Donbas would have been an autonomous part of Ukraine, if the Minsk Two agreement had been ratified. That is another story. I have been writing about it the last few weeks. It is very mysterious what happened to Minsk Two. If you look at what is happening now, essentially, the Russians will take what they are sitting on. They are going to take all that area down to the Black Sea, Kherson including, they may advance towards the Western territories...
What I have been hearing is that they will make an offer to Kyiv in the next months or so. That offer would be that 'you accept the status quo and we will go further'. I think that is what is going to happen. The other issue - a lot has been made up in the West... The ordinances that the West supplies and the Russians need to neutralise them. The Russians, at the end of the day, are probably thinking they will be facing a long-term bombardment over the line of contact - a little bit like the Karabakh situation. The question is how they are going to neutralise long-range artillery. The only way seems to be through missile strikes or actually taking more territory.
There are some people of the belief that three possible outcomes of the war are these. Ukraine is to lose 20 percent of its territory, or 40 percent or even the whole territory. I do not know what the will in the Kremlin is. I do not know what their military capability is. Probably, it is sufficient to do it. Whether they will judge it politically sensible to be done, whether it is worth doing are the things I do not know.
The bottomline is this: the longer Ukraine fights, the more the West supplies Ukraine, the more Ukraine is going to suffer, and the more territories it is probably going to lose. That is how I see this at the present moment. It is a very difficult situation for Kyiv, because while making an actual agreement, it will probably run up to Washington, but also strong elements within Ukraine are going to oppose a negotiated settlement at this point in time.
This is why, I think, the situation is so tragic. And it is very difficult to escape from it.
Q: Paul Goble, former advisor to the US Secretary of State, told me that this war is not going to end in the foreseeable future, and probably will continue until President Putin is no longer in power. What are the main qualities that could sustain the Russian President in light of the existential crisis engendered by the Russia-West confrontation? Where do you see him at the end of the journey?
A: I certainly think this is the prime objective of the Western interest in Ukraine, as an instrument of geopolitics. This is to unseat Putin. You can see the Western view of Putin from the books written, if you read between the lines. There has been a specific view of him since 2005 or 2006. Any book that has been written about Putin over the past years essentially says the same thing .. .Well, the Russian view is that - I do not think people would argue with this - Russia became a failed state in the 90s, lost its superpower status, it was fragmenting and it was a pretty bad place to live.
Actually, the good example of how bad it was is that the eastern Ukrainian provinces and Crimea voted or decided to stay in Ukraine, despite being unhappy with certain policies. Despite how bad the situation was, they would have preferred to stay in Ukraine than join Russia. Ukraine was probably, or potentially, a better place to live, or certain people advertised it as such, than Russia was in the 90s.
This has changed the landscape, Russia has been revived under Putin, whatever people might think of him, he revived Russia, gave it a new sense of purpose, he put oligarchs under a leash, they have a certain role, of course, but they have been told to stay out of politics, they can keep their ill-gotten gains, so to speak, but they have been shackled.
Generally, Russia has been elevated, certainly not to the level of what it was during the Soviet Union, but it certainly resurrected itself, and there has been a Russian resurgence. I think a lot of Russians see a lot of self-respect as a result of it. These all to the good of Putin.
Of course, there are strong pro-Western elements in Russia, who would have really liked Russia to become a normal Western society. These are the people who oppose Putin. Countries go till the end or fragmented or governments are overthrown.
I think the first scenario is happening in Russia. Probably, we will get to it later on in the discussion, there are a lot of geopolitical elements accelerating in the background as a result of Ukraine. This is changing the balance in Russia between the more pro-Europe, we would call them liberals or liberal-democrats, and the more Eurasian, we call them more authoritarian, traditional Russian governing elements.
I cannot see Putin being overthrown, short of a military disaster in Ukraine. I do not see a sign of it at present. At the beginning of the war, there were quite a few Russian blunders, probably for the first two or three weeks, but afterwards the Russians seem to have learned what they are doing and started to do it in a more effective fashion, or in a more business-like way. I cannot see it, unless the West escalates the war in an unanticipated way.
Q: Quite beside the point, I am a strong believer in the independence of the British judiciary. I am firm in my belief that it is immune to political influences. There was a very famous case of Berezovsky vs Abramovich in 2012. As you know, Berezovsky was a key figure during the Yeltsin era, and Abramovich was (or still is) one of the most powerful oligarchs of Putin's time. Berezovsky, a critic of Putin from 2000 onwards, claimed that Putin changed the course of Russia's development towards the wrong direction. Some in Europe agreed with his assessment, whereas others did not. When he was saying that either Putin would go, or Russia would collapse, I recall that very few members of the British establishment took his warning seriously enough.
I am sure Lady Justice Gloster's judgement on Berezovsky had no political reasoning, but was a mere articulation of the legal part of the story. Nonetheless, I cannot help but wonder what the result of this case would have been, had it not occurred in 2012, but in 2022, given the political credentials of the contesting sides. Perhaps the result would have not been different, but one wonders how the public would have reacted. It was a case between a Putin critic and his protege. Do you have any thoughts on this?
A: Britain's relations with Russian oligarchs are interesting. Abramovich, once a great owner of Chelsea, was immensely popular with the club supporters.
On the whole, it is a bit difficult one to answer. Obviously, the political landscape has completely changed, and it always gets changed when there is a strong moral war being fought. Ukraine is probably the most moral war since 1914. With all these attitudes towards Russian culture or other moments, I can only see people being against Abramovich. The public certainly would not have been supportive of him.
As to the suggestion that Russia will collapse, there is always an alternative that Putin will stay and Russia is going to revive. That is essentially what has happened so far. America did not perceive quickly that Russia would revive. It has been engaged, until now, in courting China. It was building up the Chinese state. In fact, the British were doing the same under the Cameron-Osborne government.
What happened was that Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping got together and formed a sort of a more concrete alliance, shadowing the old Nixon strategy of the 1970s which was to divide Russia and China. This has been a big implication geopolitically as well. And I guess it will come up later on in our discussion. It has been a huge change in the geopolitical landscape. There is no comparison to this since the start of the Cold War probably.
Q: So, we have Russia extremely busy in Ukraine. To smoothly move onto the topic of Azerbaijan, how do you evaluate the impact of the Russian preoccupation in Ukraine on the ongoing Azerbaijani-Armenian peace process and the situation involving its peacekeepers stationed in Karabakh? I have heard some people say that this may constitute an opportune moment for Azerbaijan to limit the Russian influence in the truncated former Nagorno-Karabakh. What is your take?
A: This is a big question. I would answer it in a series of chunks. Let me first think about Russia. I think what Putin did prior to the Special Military Operation, or the war, whatever one may like to call it, was that he went to secure his back. He went around all his allies and neighbours, his good neighbours, and asked them what they wanted on the basis that he could not have them as enemies. Or on the basis that he could not have them as troublemakers, as he, as you are saying, was concentrating on Ukraine. The big talk was Xi Jinping at the Olympics. Possibly, Xi said "hold off till the Olympic Games are over".
Obviously, there was no specific arrangement on that. A whole series of things has happened since that has thrown a light upon this. More specifically, Russia has the Moscow Declaration on the Allied Interaction with Azerbaijan, which I will look at in a moment.
I just want to look at the context first. For instance, the Ashgabat Caspian Summit. This is going on periodically, but it had a greater importance this year. There Putin was securing the Caspian. Then we have the Tehran Summit. So, a whole series of developments. Putin was smoothing over, if to use the term from Erdogan's first time, to have zero problems with neighbours. This, what I think, is what Russia has been doing during this period. It has been making some concessions, whether substantial or not, that I do not know.
Just to get more to Azerbaijan, Article 1 of the Allied Interaction is interesting. It promises mutual respect for independence, state sovereignty, territorial integrity and the inviolability of the state borders as well as adherence to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs and peaceful settlements of disputes.
This seems to be a good concession - a formal concession that Azerbaijan has won from Russia. At the time when they issued this Allied Interaction document, it was a day or two before the military operation in Ukraine. People were a bit shocked at it, I saw some of the reaction on social media, that may not be representative, but still.
When you look at this, you see what a big prize this is to get a declaration like this. Whether they twist some of these words in the future, particularly the last paragraph on peaceful settlement of disputes, whether they will use it from the perspective of the Armenian separatists, that I do not know. However, on the surface, it looks like a good concession from Russia in a time of difficulty.
The Irish used to say that England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity. It may be that Azerbaijan is taking a lead from the Irish playbook. So, Russia's difficulty is Azerbaijan's opportunity. It looks on the surface like this. This is one aspect of it. Would you like to continue to discuss it further, or do you feel you have to ask a more specific question?
Moment of decision: After Shusha
Q: In one of your articles, you mentioned that human history is littered with total victories. But they are not durable victories, as real victories are sensible ones. I am probably misquoting you, but I believe that was the gist. In November 2020, certain segments of Azerbaijani society argued that Azerbaijan would have to keep fighting until the end. Certain sectors of Azerbaijani society asked why we did not resume full control over that particular part of our sovereign territory. I remember your comments praising President Aliyev's vision and calling the arrangement a sensible one. My sensibility was that you firmly believed President Aliyev followed the right trajectory. My question is that, on a more specific level, could you please delineate why you believe the President followed the correct path and outline the danger of the Russian peacekeepers staying in Karabakh beyond 2025. Its only legal basis is the 10 November trilateral declaration, without its mandate or exact functions being stipulated.
A: That is a very interesting question, Orkhan. I have written a book on the 44-day War. Should be soon published in the next few months. What really surprised me was when I re-read the book to check details and indexes and so on was the following. I wrote it at the time of the war and just after the war. What surprised me was the amount of space I gave to the problem of Russia.
The 20 percent of the book is about the problem President Aliyev had in trying to second-guess what Russia would do at certain points of the war. This was the big problem. The military operation was obviously a very efficient one, successful and well-prepared. The big geo-strategic issue in the war was whether Russia would intervene or what stage it would intervene.
This question can never be answered. In my opinion, stopping after Shusha was undoubtedly a good decision. I looked at it and thought that when you have to think of opponents - probably one would think of Russians as opponents in this situation, although it facilitated a ceasefire arrangement at the same time, just like the way Turkiye and Russia are opponents who also collaborate - you need to empathise with them. You cannot just have an idea of them being an evil force who wants to crush you.
Ireland would have the same relationship with Britain. We would have to live with Britain. Ireland has had a problematic history with Britain, as Azerbaijan has had a problematic history with Russia. Ireland has to live with Britain and Azerbaijan has to live with Russia.
So, at this point, I think when you look at the potential reasons substantiating a hypothetical Russian intervention in the conflict, we have this unfortunate incident of a Russian helicopter being shot down. Putin did not react in an aggressive way inhe did when Turkiye shut down a Russian helicopter.
What was really worrying was that in the case of an Azerbaijani movement towards Khankendi, there would have possibly been substantial Armenian resistance and there could have been civilian casualties, there would have been pictures of Armenians fleeing. These were quite possible.
Most of the Karabakh War, which was a pure military confrontation, took place on a military ground. Although Armenians fired missiles at Azerbaijani civilian populated areas, Azerbaijan conducted a pure military operation. Azerbaijani did not have to assault any large centres where the Armenian population was present, as Russians are doing in Ukraine.
This becomes very problematic. Even in the West, there might have been calls for Western intervention. My estimation is that, there would have been some Russian nationalists who would have liked to help Armenians. I do not think Putin is a Russian nationalist. He is a defender of the Russian state. He looks after the Russian national interest. He is not one of those crazy Russian nationalists you occasionally see in the Russian Duma, some of whom are very pro-Armenian.
So, Putin had probably had pressure on him about intervening. If there had been a humanitarian disaster, as sometimes called in the West, not quite to the intention of the Azerbaijani Army, but perhaps somehow manufactured by the Armenian side, Russia might have been very much prone to either directly militarily intervening in such a way as the West intervened in Ukraine, by supplying very dangerous weapons for Armenians, which could have been used from the territory of Armenia against Azerbaijani forces in Kalbajar, if they had moved to Kalbajar, or Lachin, or wherever easily strikeable.
I think the war was concluded in such a way that ended on a very good high point for Azerbaijan. Not only that it attained the occupied territories without bloodshed, the great advantage to all this is that the most important thing that happens in these years, up until 2025 when Russians could be requested to leave, is this reconstruction In Karabakh.
Resources must be put into repopulating Karabakh, building infrastructure, etc. This task must be taken in chunks, it has to be taken in steps. It is really a big task. You can correct me if I am wrong, now we only have the first cohort of people going to Aghdam. It has been taking a long time, nearly two year since the end of the war to get back to these territories.
We don't really know whether people will move back in large amounts. They have been away for so long, they have established lives in other places, a lot of people may have died. This is going to be a tough task. Instead of taking on Armenia and Russia at that time, I think this was the right decision to make.
The second part of your question sort of infers this. It infers that if the Russians do not leave in 2025, then this is a wrong decision. I do not agree with that. We do not know whether the Russians are going to leave in 2025 or not. On paper, it looks like they should. This Allied Declaration seems to suggest that they are going to respect this. It is very difficult to know.
What are the Russian objectives in the South Caucasus? Obviously, it is to maintain some form of influence. But it is also to keep the West out. That is their primary objective. The problem that the Russians have, if we try to empathise with them, sometimes we say they played Armenians and Azerbaijanis off against each other, which is undoubtedly the case, most states do this 'divide and conquer' thing, we will see some other problematic aspects.
Armenians are more likely to jump to the West than Azerbaijan is. It has sizable diasporas in France and the US. Initially, the EU', and, in a sense, the Western interest in the South Caucasus prior to the Ukrainian war, was directed mainly at Yerevan. I think they are trying to prize Armenia away from Russia.
This presents a problem for Russia as far as how they try to balance interests in Armenia to prevent this. There are a lot of complex layers that will go into this Russian decision. I am sure if the Russians want to stay, they will make up some excuse about instability and things of that kind. I am not sure what Azerbaijan's objective will be in a five-year time and will they agree to extend the agreement for another 5-year period. That might depend on how effective reconstruction and repopulation measures will be.
Zangazur Corridor: Difficulties and prospects
Q: Russia is perceived with a great deal of scepticism across the post-Soviet space. The perception is that when Russians come as peacekeepers, it is not intended for them to leave once volatile situations are done and dusted, but to stay as long as possible. In our case, the trilateral declaration is a ceasefire deal, and manifestly not a peace treaty. I have been informed that Azerbaijan has been mindful to ensure that this peacekeeping contingent is not given treaty-based legitimacy. Baku's policy is to focus on the temporality of their presence, the term not being used regularly by Russia in the manner adopted by Azerbaijan. My feeling is that Baku does not want to agree to any arrangement that would have give it semi-permanence. The chemistry between Presidents Aliyev and Putin is also important.
One of the most important residues from the 2020 deal is the concept of the Zangazur Corridor. The term 'corridor' is not used in the trilateral declaration. Baku's argument is that, although the term is not used, in substance, unimpeded and unrestricted access - that Armenia is obligated, under the declaration, to provide - is akin to the provision on the Lachin Corridor. Armenia has extraterritoriality concerns, because that portion of the land is to be maintained, not by Armenia's security forces, but by the Russian Border Guard. How can Azerbaijan and Armenia work out a compromise construct that will give Baku what it wants and ensure that Yerevan's concerns are placated?
A: I think it can be done. I have read about the concerns over the past few weeks. I have noticed two things. You can possibly correct me on this. There are different interpretations. Obviously, Armenia does not like the idea of Azerbaijan constructing a corridor or anybody constructing a corridor across their territory. We are talking about the extraterritorial corridor. They also worried it would cut them off from Iran. Some people have suggested that it could be constructed across Iranian territory. I am not certain if that is true or not. I have seen comments that it could go right along the border. There is also previous infrastructure there already, railway tracks and so on.
It can be done. But we have to empathise with the opponent or the enemy, hopefully this will change in the future. Their concerns are that this corridor blocks them off, or takes chunks of Zangazur from Armenia. It could be done by involving wider parties, such as Russia and Iran. Some assurances could be given that some road and railway linkages could be lifted off the ground and on bridges roads can be constructed beneath it, as permitted by the geography of the place and geology of the rivers. There must be some infrastructural possibility.
It has to be sold to Armenia as an opportunity for them, as a trade opportunity. The negatives and obstructions can only be overcome, if they see a possibility of economic positives that will give people jobs, livelihoods, prosperity within Armenia.
If that can be done in conjunction and collaboration with the whole region, this will undermine obstructionist elements that obviously persist in Armenia this time. This is the only way it can be done. But it can be done.
Art of hypocrisy
Q: There are times when delusional political ambitions and necessities outweigh economic advantages, and that is one of the problems of modern Armenia. I have been following Pashinyan very closely over the years. There have been occasions that he took plausible measures, but he has been vacillating.
The next topic I want to ask you about is Iran, in light of the MoU signed in March this year. That document envisages the connection between the Eastern Zangazur region of Azerbaijan with its Nakhchivan exclave, via Iranian territory, which some people say is aimed at placating Tehran's concerns over the Zangazur project.
It seems that Azerbaijan's foreign policy design prioritises good relations with all its big three neighbours - Turkiye, Russia and Iran - as a foundation of stability. There has recently been a meeting in Tehran between the three leaders. How will the consolidation between these three actors, taking into account Azerbaijan's interests, affect American clout in the wider region?
A: You have raised a number of issues here. Let us start with Pashinyan. We appreciate his predicament. He lost the war and remained in power. The logic of his situation is to proceed with the agreement, but he has to do it carefully and slowly. I have been a fierce critic of him in the past, but I do appreciate his difficult situation. He is probably proceeding in a zig-zag way, which is often done by statesmen.
He may prove to be a good statesman in the end. But that is playing itself out, we will see how it goes. The second part of your question is probably more important, in a sense. it is possible with the involvement of other actors, some problems of today will not be made irrelevant, but they will be overrode by other considerations.
If there can be regional cooperation and collaboration, particularly, on economic matters, then perhaps things may move on. I agree with your point that quite often political ambitions override economic factors. I agree with you completely on that. Only way you can get economics eroding political opposition is by showing benefits and demonstrating them to the Armenian people. Things should proceed forward, even if other aspects of the peace process are stalled.
To get back to the point, the relationship between Iran, Turkiye and Russia is very important. It is developing as a result of a number of factors. Certain aspects of the US administration's past behaviour of pushing Turkiye are to be taken into account. It is obvious that Turkiye is looking eastwards in a greater way, partly because of economic developments, partly because of political antagonism towards the West.
You may call it a sidebar. I have looked at something Biden said during the war, I have looked at its website. He described the Karabakh War in 2020 'as a humanitarian disaster for the Armenians'. He said that "the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh have suffered too much and they needed their security protected", and he called for "stopping of the advance of Azerbaijani troops into Nagorno-Karabakh". That is what he put on his website when he was campaigning against Trump.
Obviously, you have got the situation in which you recognise the so-called Armenian genocide. This is deeply hypocritical and it is seen as deeply hypocritical in Azerbaijan. For instance, he is supporting these separatists in Karabakh and he is lending American weapons to bomb separatists in Donbas. This is so hypocritical.
I think the Americans are on the back foot in the South Caucasus and have been so for quite a long time with the OSCE and its failure, its inability to do anything. And then the pull of the Armenian diaspora in the US and France... We can see all sorts of resolutions put through in Congress during the Karabakh War. Obviously, Azerbaijan should look at and say this is hypocritical and conclude that "they see us second to Armenians and but they come to us when they want energy". This looks terrible.
Q: I recall Richard Hoagland, former US Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, you and myself being interviewed on the resolution of the French Senate recognising the so-called illegal and unrecognised ‘NKR’. There was a very interesting moment and I believe we were in concurrence. The Senate adopted an utterly outrageous and appalling decision, leading the French Foreign Ministry to state that France, as a state, was neutral, the decision had no bearing on its stance and reiterating that it was committed to the beleaguered OSCE Minsk Group process. The question begged to be answered as to how France could have claimed fairness and neutrality, given that the Senate, the upper house of the legislative body, had adopted such a resolution. At that moment, I realised the role of France was over in relation to the Karabakh issue. Your remarks on Biden have made me recall that episode.
A: True. Matthew Bryza, I think, is a very good friend of Azerbaijan, and, obviously, he wants to promote progressive American actions in the region, which is applaudable. He believes the EU should start demining and reconstruction. This is great. There is nothing wrong with this at all. The problem lies in the question if there is another agenda. We will get on to that.
Energy war and Azerbaijan
Q: What are your thoughts on the historic MoU signed between the EU and Azerbaijan on 18 July? Some details emerged prior to the signing. The key considerations include the importance of investing in existing infrastructure, the potential increase in exported volumes to Europe and climate change objectives. How critical is the document regarding Azerbaijan's augmented role and clout in maintaining Europe's energy security?
A: I think I have mentioned it earlier: Europe's difficulty is Azerbaijan's opportunity. It is most certainly a good chance to exercise some leverage over Europe after a period of time that Europe has not been so beneficial to Azerbaijan in relation to the things like the conflict in Karabakh.
Certainly, it can only be for the good that Azerbaijan is helping Europe in sorting out its problem. It is a good piece of statesmanship to utilise the resources to bring about a greater influence in the West. Indian geopolitical writer M.K. Bhadrakumar saw this phenomenon slightly differently. He said "Europe was engaged in a synchronised US-EU-NATO move in the Caucasus targeting Azerbaijan with a view to undermine Russia's consolidation in the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea Region".
There may be a geopolitical aspect behind Europe and the US wider agenda. But it does not take away the fact that it is a good opportunity to help out neighbours and should be availed upon for the benefits accrued to Azerbaijan. The positive should be grasped while recognising there might be another agenda behind it and exercising statesmanship and statesmanlike position towards any other agenda that possibly might be there.
Q: Azerbaijan is currently sending 10 bcm per annum to Europe via the westernmost section of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), namely the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TAP). Russia, prior to the sanctions, sent 148 bcm per annum. The new MoU envisages doubling the current export volume to 20 bcm. Nevertheless, Europe's needs are greater and Azerbaijan cannot replace Russian gas. Some believe that, for the EU, it is more about keeping Azerbaijan close to itself and political considerations overwhelmingly dominate its energy ties with Baku. What is your take?
A: The EU is not going to replace Russian energy resources with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan can supply 4 percent - potentially in the next few years - of Europe's gas needs. Whereas the Russians do currently supply something between 40 and 60 percent, depending on what you actually believe in.
You are perfectly correct. Azerbaijan is helping out, but it cannot meaningfully reduce the EU's dependence on Russian gas. There is a political agenda behind this. In a sense, Europe is waking up to the geopolitical importance of the long-neglected South Caucasus, and to that of Azerbaijan, trying to get some belated influence. The EU soft power - I think this is what is really behind it. And the Europeans are suddenly becoming like, .... we will help you with the peace process and demining. The crisis focused their minds on the failings of the past. Let us put it that way.
Q: Do you believe the desire to move to green energy was slightly premature, undermining the EU's energy security in the short term? Secondly, even if you have excellent relations with your supplier, predominantly relying on one supplier is unwise. How honest is Europe in its determination to rid itself of Russian gas dominance? Is it something that happened within a short space of time? Or is it something which is part of a longer-term project simply accelerated within a short time scale?
A: You are certainly correct. Angela Merkel, for instance. She has been criticised, many times since the war, of Germany remaining particularly too dependent on Russian energy. In a sense, there was a logic to this policy, because it gave Germany and other parts of Europe cheap energy, which lowered the competitive cost of production. So, there was a lot to be said about it.
What was possibly a little bit more problematic was Merkel's policy of closing down nuclear stations in Germany. We can see presently France not having the same amount of energy problems as Germany, because of having a stronger nuclear programme. The green lobby is very strong in Germany and it is actually in government now. It exerted influence in the past, and of course, with the green energy, the interesting thing is that, what it actually did was to make Germany more dependent on Russian fossil fuels. This was an ironic twist to this.
As to the second part of your question, in 2014, I read an article on whether Europe was too dependent on Russian gas. This has been going on for some time. At least, eight or nine years. The argument back then was that Russia needs its energy customers more than we need it. The conclusion was that we did not need to do much about that, as it would hurt Russia more than Europe. Now it has been shown as a very false argument. As we see now, we are getting rationing in Europe for gas. There has also been a massive spiking in gas prices this morning. I think it has gone up by 10 percent. Alarm bells are ringing all over Europe.
Europe is in a funny position. It says to Russia that 'you are using energy as a weapon against us'. I find this very strange. You cannot say we don't want your energy today or in the future, but we are supplying your enemies and killing your soldiers. This is not a very logical argument.
Aliyev's art of statesmanship
Q. I will return to the Moscow Declaration, signed in February between Azerbaijan and Russia. The moment was critical, of course. That declaration has important energy provisions. Azerbaijan has always downplayed any energy competition between Baku and Moscow on the basis that the volumes are incomparable. Plus, President Aliyev declared myriad times that, in those areas where competition could theoretically occur, this would be obviated by Baku and Moscow. Simultaneously, Azerbaijan plays its own role in Europe's energy diversification. President Ilham Aliyev's manoeuvrability is of special import. His ability to balance competing considerations is noteworthy. In one of your articles, you have stated that the shifting sands of Eurasia require a great deal of statesmanship from the actors involved. How do you see President Ilham Aliyev's diplomacy in that context?
A: That is certainly true. I totally agree with that. What he is saying in this energy debate is very incisive. Some people suggest, for instance, this a transformative event and suddenly Azerbaijan is rescuing Europe. Of course, President Aliyev knows this is not actually true. What Azerbaijan is doing is helping out Europe in a corner.
In order to understand why this is very important geopolitically, it is important to distinguishes two separate things; it gives Azerbaijan a temporary leverage over Europe, it does not in the long term. Essentially, Europe would have to stump up a lot of costs for transportation, infrastructure and the developments, but also 4 percent does not replace 45 or 60 percent. This is a limited amount of leverage. Azerbaijan cannot take a position of saying that all things will be rosy in the garden between us and Europe in the future. Baku cannot afford doing that, it still needs to balance other interests.
On the wider question and on the general balance sheet in the Caucasus, the only way of assessing Azerbaijan’s performance is assessing it against its neighbours. Firstly, we look at Armenia. Due to its territorial expansionism and due to the fact that it is a dysfunctional state and it neglected itself as a state, it has become terribly dependent on Moscow. It is essentially a dependency of Russia. Some Armenians would like to take Russian passports. It is that bad really. What was all that independence that they gained after the collapse of the Soviet Union for, if they cannot exercise it as a functional sovereign state?
Secondly, if you look at Georgia, it had its problems. Initially, they followed the Azerbaijani road under Shevarnadze and Saakashvili. In 2008, they ran into the problem when there was a feeling ‘let us try NATO club’. NATO did not take their back, as they did with Ukraine. And they were defeated very quickly which led to a territorial loss. Now they are re-dependent on Moscow economically. Also, there is a disdain of the West which is not very happy with them and side-lined them for EU membership. So, Georgia is not in a good position.
And, if you look at Ukraine, it is obviously a tragedy. They have lost 20 percent of their territory, a bit like the loss of Karabakh in the early 1990s. The Ukrainians have suffered a disaster.
Looking at Azerbaijan for comparison, wise and balancing statesmanship and stable leadership over the years have paid great dividends. It regained territories, it is an economic powerhouse, it is a geopolitical pivot, it is negotiating with more powerful nations and forming relationships with them. There is nothing that could be said negative about Azerbaijani leadership over the last couple of decades.
I agree with Swante Cornell about Azerbaijan’s role as a leading force in the South Caucasus. One thing that comes out of this actually is what I call a very significant factor during the Second Karabakh War. Azerbaijan actually gained geopolitically against Russia, because it established itself as an independent and strong country with a strong economy that Russia had to respect.
For Russia, losing Azerbaijan as a good neighbour is worse than losing Armenia. I think it played a big role in the lack of Russian intervention during the war. Putin, at the end of the day, respects strength, he does not respect weakness. He will walk all over the people who are weak. If he can get away with it, he will do it. But to lose Azerbaijan as a good neighbour, which Azerbaijan essentially is, would be a high price for Russia to pay.
I think a lot of people underestimated this geopolitical factor during the war, even pro-Russian Armenians. They did not understand Putin. I think this is very important to acknowledge that strength comes from strength.
Peacekeepers: Subtle game
Q: I would like to draw your attention to the Russian military contingent and specifically to the issues related to the duration of the ‘peacekeeping’ mandate and other matters. There is scepticism in Azerbaijan in the light of Russian policy regarding other post-Soviet illegal breakaway entities. The Kremlin has employed the policy of granting Russian passports to inhabitants of those unrecognised regimes and then intervened on humanitarian grounds on the misleading basis of protecting its citizens. How worried should Azerbaijan be about this practice, given the current state of affairs in Karabakh?
A: It is undoubtedly true that Russia will play this card. The question is how will it play it. When we look at this situation from the guise of the Armenians in the rump of the former Nagorno-Karabakh, the question of the unification with Armenia, ‘Miatsum’, or whatever they call it, is just out of the question now. It will not happen. They don’t have the military means to do it. They will not negotiate it.
They may be thinking to themselves that the only thing that can preserve them is through becoming part of Russia. That will deny the Azerbaijanis taking over the territory, that is, from their point of view. That is what they might try. And Russia? Will they play this card? They will certainly play this card to get some concessions from Azerbaijan. Will they play the card to the end, in other words, would they go through with it? Here, I think the declaration on the Allied Interaction (signed on 22 February) seems to suggest they are not going to do this.
That document talks about territorial integrity, inviolability of state borders, etc. That is why this was a good concession. Of course, this does not mean Russians will not use it. This is a bargaining chip and this is what they have been doing all the time. They may look for some other concessions Azerbaijan has to give them. Difficult to say what that would be. That will depend on Russia’s needs, its security interests, for instance. It might form the basis of some other concessions that they look for from Azerbaijan. Such a concession might not be connected with Karabakh, but might be connected with the overall Azerbaijani state. This is a possibility.
Q: In 2025, six months prior to the expiration of the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers, when Azerbaijan will be able to exercise its veto, bargaining chips will be decisive. It is difficult to determine what Baku must offer to Russia to make them leave. Alternatively, it may be within Azerbaijan’s best interests to ensure that they do not depart at this juncture. The circumstances are shrouded in obscurity. Of course, the next policy decision is mere speculation. You have mentioned ‘Miatsum’. There is a discrepancy between the resources of Armenia and their gargantuan and bombastic ambitions, and some intelligent Armenians, who cannot be accused of lacking intellectual calibre, seem to think in the same vein.
A: It is Armenia’s weak spot. It is ludicrous. Their ambitions are a way beyond their means to achieve them. That is essentially it. Even when we go back in history, we find that when Lloyd George let them down, so to speak, and he handed over the problem of Armenia, the same issue was there. Of course, the Armenians had contributed to the Allied war effort against the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and suddenly they became a problem. George Lloyd was a very effective politician.