The Trump administration’s desire to maintain at least cordial relations with the Russian Federation is noble, but President Donald Trump may be putting too much stock in his ability to build a strong and lasting personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Putin’s actions and assertions, domestically and internationally, reflect Russia’s proclivities toward irredentism and neo-imperialism geared to expanding its sphere of influence.
Moscow recently announced that it would use its proxy, Armenia, as a key constituent in reconstruction plans for Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Armenia’s nearly insolvent economy is dependent on Moscow. In return, Armenia backs Moscow on the world stage, including voting against the sovereignty of U.S. ally Ukraine at the recent UN General Assembly.
Russian oligarchs own significant portions of Armenia’s industry, relegating Armenia to a chiefly agrarian economy on a family farm scale. Indeed, Armenia suffers year-to-year population declines, as inhabitants search elsewhere for livelihood.
Why use its troublesome proxy in such an enormous undertaking? Western authorities express concern that Russia will use Armenia to conceal illegal weapons transfers. Armenia’s complicity will also make it easier for Russia to hide ill-gotten financial gains associated with the reconstruction of Syria.
Even more disturbing is the Kremlin’s recent interest in Azerbaijan, a U.S. strategic partner. Situated on the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is rich in gas and oil and human capital and has been decidedly pro-Western since its independence during the fall of the Soviet Union. It would be a great loss for the U.S. and the West should Azerbaijan fall into Moscow’s orbit.
Azerbaijan has taken a leadership role and funded virtually every large-scale energy infrastructure project in the Caspian Basin during the last 25 years. The answer to the European Union’s energy security concerns runs through Baku, bypassing an often belligerent and double-dealing Russia and a bellicose and dangerous Iran.
The first such project, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, transports oil from the Caspian Sea directly to Mediterranean and Western markets. In such a tumultuous region, it was completed with the enthusiastic backing of the Bush (senior) and Clinton administrations. Azerbaijan has since become perhaps the most important and strategic nation in the region.
Israel, too, has found in Azerbaijan a close partner in numerous realms, including telecommunications, culture, industrial agriculture, military technology and hardware and counter-terror intelligence and operations. Indeed, a large and prosperous Jewish community resides in Azerbaijan, where Jews have lived for centuries in peace, as equal citizens, alongside their Muslim countrymen.
Azerbaijan represents a large and lucrative market for Israel. The depth of the ties between them is not known, although high-level delegations regularly travel from Jerusalem to Baku and vice versa, the most recent of which was a visit by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
A mere three years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was treated to a grand State reception by Azerbaijan’s very popular president, Ilham Aliyev, who has likened the relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan to an iceberg because “nine-tenths of it is below the surface.” Experts believe that in terms of depth and breadth, Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan has few rivals among other Muslim-majority states.
Azerbaijan is sought by the West not simply for its oil and gas. As a matter of current social policy and traditional foreign policy, relations with Muslim-majority countries are integral to maintaining the post-war world order. Azerbaijan is a valuable ally because of its domestic stability, responsible actions on the world stage, and for maintaining a business climate modeled on the West, complete with enforceable sanctity of contract, independent courts, etc.
The United States has a dreadful and appalling penchant for allowing important nations to fall off of its foreign affairs radar screen and notwithstanding National Security Advisor John Bolton’s current visit to the region. Given Azerbaijan’s strategic location at a crossroads of nations, cultures and societies, coupled with its oil and gas and its willingness to invest in the security of the West, it is imperative for the U.S., the Europeans and the Israelis that Azerbaijan not be swayed from the West.
Of the many blunders of the post-Soviet age, a tragic and utterly avoidable one would be to lose Azerbaijan to Russia’s sphere of influence.
Paul Miller is president and executive director of the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center. Follow him on twitter @pauliespoint.