Russian peacekeepers are set to withdraw from Karabakh a year ahead of schedule. (Photo: mil.ru)

Russian peacekeepers are set to withdraw from Karabakh a year ahead of schedule. (Photo: mil.ru)

The Russians are leaving, the Russians are leaving! That is the reality on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet, as Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev tells it, Russian security interests in the Caucasus are not disappearing anytime soon.

Both Russian and Azerbaijani officials confirmed on April 17 that Russian peacekeepers would start withdrawing immediately, a year ahead of schedule.

About 2,000 Russian peacekeepers arrived in late 2020 after Moscow brokered a ceasefire that suspended fighting in the second Karabakh War. Those troops effectively stood aside last fall as the Azerbaijani military swept through Karabakh, reconquering all the territory lost by Baku during the first bout of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, and driving out over 100,000 ethnic Armenian residents of the territory.

Some political analysts believe the peacekeepers’ early withdrawal is a result of the draining effects of the Russian-Ukraine war, which, they say, has sapped the Kremlin’s strength to project influence elsewhere. In Moscow for an April 22 meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Aliyev sought to dispel any notion that Russia was quitting the Caucasus.

“Russia is a fundamental country in terms of regional security in the Caucasus and in a wider geography,” the presidential press service quoted Aliyev as saying before the start of his talks with Putin.

The failure of Russian peacekeepers to keep a lid on hostilities in Karabakh prompted a rupture in the Armenian-Russian strategic partnership. Meanwhile in Azerbaijan, the Kremlin’s checkered history in its dealings with the country causes some older Azerbaijanis to be leery of Moscow’s motives and intentions.

Since the completion of the reconquista last year, a good number of Azerbaijani citizens believe there must have been some deal between the Russian and Azerbaijani governments: Baku got a free hand in Karabakh, and in return, Moscow gets … what? The April 17 announcement did not put an end to the speculation of a quid-pro-quo. “May God make it end in peace. What did they [Russians] ask for in return? A man is afraid to even think about it,” one Facebook user commented on the news.

Baku-based analyst Shujaat Ahmadzade scoffed at what he described as a “reductionist interpretation” of Azerbaijan-Russian relations. The withdrawal of the peacekeepers could well be rooted in pragmatism, without ulterior motives. With the Russia-Ukraine war dragging on, the Kremlin can use the troops elsewhere, and will not mind the savings involved in curtailing the deployment. Besides, Ahmadzade said, the two states have lots of common interests at the moment, including a mutual desire to expand North-South trade routes. 

“The situation is more nuanced,” he said, adding that the bilateral relationship “fluctuates like a rollercoaster with occasional highs and lows. Currently, there appears to be alignment between Azerbaijan and Russia on various issues.”

A sign of such alignment is the similar messaging coming out of Moscow and Baku concerning regional developments, underscored by the two countries’ criticism of recent efforts by the United States and European Union to expand economic relations with Armenia.

At their Moscow meeting, Aliyev and Putin both indicated that bilateral relations were focusing on trade more than security. Putin in his pre-meeting remarks touted the growth of bilateral trade turnover, which now exceeds $4 billion annually.

Technically, the occasion of the Aliyev-Putin meeting was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Baikal-Amur Railway, known as BAM. Though both Putin and Aliyev lauded BAM on April 22 (which also happened to be the 154th anniversary of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin’s birth), the infrastructure project has had trouble fulfilling its economic promise and is largely an enduring symbol of Soviet economic dysfunction during the “stagnation era.”

Aliyev dwelled on the expanding North-South trade route – in which Azerbaijan serves as a hub for commerce connecting India, Iran and Russia – saying it had “global significance for cargo transportation and security.”

The Azerbaijani and Russian leaders apparently did discuss regional security issues, including topics that Putin described as “sensitive.” But details were scant on the substance and results of those talks.

Speaking back in Baku on April 23, Aliyev credited Azerbaijan’s strengthened relationship with Russia as enabling the earlier-than-expected withdrawal of peacekeepers.

“This [withdrawal of peacekeepers] was a joint decision, and it only strengthens our relations. It demonstrates that when countries have normal channels of communication, when they respect each other and cooperate, when they do not do anything against each other, they can find agreement on most sensitive issues,” Aliyev said. 

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İran Prezidentinin həlak olduğu hadisə Azərbaycan- İran münasibətlərinə təsir edə bilərmi? – Nəsimi Məmmədli Çətin sualda



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