US-Azerbaijan: Will Washington Re-Engage under Biden?

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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's plans to strengthen American manufacturing during a brief appearance in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 25, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER

The Azerbaijan-US relationship is important to both countries. A couple of months ago the President of the United States, Joseph Biden in a letter to his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, on the occasion of the Republic Day on May 28 noted that during 30 years of Azerbaijan’s independence the two countries have worked together on many issues, such as security, energy, democratic governance issues, all the while strengthening ties between the American and Azerbaijani people. However, experts believe that the bilateral ties between the two countries do not quite fulfill its potential with the US not giving enough focus to Azerbaijan with their foreign policy. Considering the strategic location of the South Caucasus, the general consensus is that it is worth much more attention from the Biden administration.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev shakes hands with then US Vice President Joe Biden in March 2016.

Ex US Ambassador to Azerbaijan and Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, Matthew Bryza stresses that the South Caucasus played much more of a prominent role in the US foreign policy a few presidencies ago, than it does now.

“Under President George W Bush, the South Caucasus was really in the center of the US European and Transatlantic foreign policy,” Bryza said in an interview with the Azeri Observer Magazine.

The expert notes that the number one priority at that time was a strong support for Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity and demographic reform in face of Russian threats. Moreover, there was a personal engagement by George W. Bush who organized a summit in the attempt to resolve theNagorno-Karabakhconflict. Bryza reminds us that it was under the George W Bush administration when Azerbaijani and Armenian Presidents, Heydar Aliyev and Robert Kocharyan met in Florida, US in 2001. There was also a period when President Barack Obama became interested in the issue, and during his presidency there were strong statements made on a presidential level by the members of the Minsk Group co-chair countries, especially at the G8 meeting in 2009. After that there really wasn’t any presidential focus, neither on Nagorno-Karabakh, or Georgia, according to the expert.

“I don’t yet see the Biden administration deciding to increase this engagement on a presidential level. But hopefully there is some interest shown by secretary of state [Antony] Blinken, and I hope that the Biden administration will find some time in the unbelievably busy international agenda to focus again in a strategic sense of the South Caucasus, as President George W Bush did,” Matthew Bryza says, who was also a US co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group (which has been a mediator in the Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia for about 30 years).

Mr Matthew Bryza

Speaking on behalf of US interests in the South Caucasus, the former US diplomat stresses that the first main US interest in the region has always been the export of energy, in particular from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey and to the European Union.

“Of course, that interest remains under President Biden, and in fact it might become even bigger since the signing of the Dostluq agreement between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan in January 2021, as it opens a window of opportunity of bringing some Turkmenistani gas westward to Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea. Then some of that gas might enter the Southern Gas Corridor and go to Georgia, Turkey and the EU space,” Bryza suggested.

According to the American expert, the second main interest of the US in the South Caucasus has been security, by means of stability within each of the three countries.

“Under the Biden administration, that interest continues and even now when the military phase of the Karabakh conflict is over and Azerbaijan has restored control over its territories, there are still issues that the Biden administration will want to mediate; for example, the final peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia, or the strengthening of the ceasefire regime, or demarcating the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia, where there has been a lot of tension in recent months, or making sure that Russian peacekeepers continue to play a constructive role in keeping the peace, rather than sliding into a destabilizing behavior as they have done before in Georgia and Moldova,” Matthew Bryza says.

President Joe Biden poses for his official portrait on March 3, 2021, in the Library of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Meanwhile, he notes that a great thing about the security interests of the US in Azerbaijan is that Turkey is now a member of the monitoring center on Karabakh, and therefore provides NATO eyes and ears on the ground to ensure that the Russian peacekeepers behave properly.

As for the conflicts in Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), they don’t look anywhere near to being resolved and their resolution is also a priority of the US, the American expert advises.

Third, this interest in security has had to do with the transportation of US material across Georgia, Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan during the military operation in that country. Now this corridor is important for exiting from Afghanistan as the US troops pull out of Afghanistan entirely, along with its NATO allies, Bryza says.

Finally, it is of interest to the US to see democratic and market economic reform in the South Caucasus, as they ensure security and stability in the region.

“In the case of Azerbaijan there have been some significant internal reforms since 2014: restructuring government institutions, government services thanks to the ASAN system, the electronic governance. I think Washington is pleased to see increased efficiency of Azerbaijan’s state-owned enterprises, especially SOCAR, Azersu, Azergold. This is really good news,” the expert says.

Another American expert on the Caucasus, professor at the Montana State University, Thomas Goltz, also notes that while the South Caucasus – and particularly Azerbaijan – play a very big role in certain thinking circles as a “geopolitical pivot,” the reality is such appreciation/analysis is not “main-stream” US foreign policy. The expert believes that this is too early to tell if the US approach to the South Caucasus has changed under the Biden administration, but he doubts it.

“All US administrations since 1991 have massively favored an “Armenian” point of view due to well-entrenched domestic lobby groups; the passing of the notorious Section 907 is the best example of this bias,” Goltz says in a comment for Azeri Observer. [Ed note: Section 907, which has been law in the US since 1992, banned most assistance to the Government of Azerbaijan, but is currently under a waiver.]

The expert stresses that the results of the 44-day war of September-November 2020 were obviously a wake-up call for many in the US demonstrating that the “frozen” conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan was clearly not “frozen” and highlighting the failure of the OSCE Minsk Group, whose passivity has not only not resolved anything in the last 30 years, but has also allowed the emergence of Russia as the essential and only new “peace” broker, excluding the US and France and other would-be players. However, how the US reacts to this in a meaningful way remains to be seen.

Speaking about the US interest in the region, the American expert noted that “the key US interests have been and are and will remain “containing” Russia and Iran via Azerbaijani oil & gas exports via non-Russian/Iranian export routes to Europe.”

The Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels, Amanda Paul, also agrees that over the years there has been a visible reduction of US focus on the South Caucasus region.

“Washington’s pivot away from Europe and Eurasia to the Indo-Pacific has played an important part in Washington shifting attention away from the South Caucasus,” the European expert says, commenting on the US-South Caucasus relations for the Azeri Observer Magazine.

According to the expert, Biden is preoccupied with domestic challenges these days – notably the COVID pandemic – and more pressing foreign policy issues, such as dealing with the Chinese and Russians, returning to the Iranian nuclear deal and pulling out of Afghanistan.

In terms of individual countries in the South Caucasus, Paul says that Georgia has received the most attention from Washington, not just in terms of defense and security support, but also political support, explaining that Georgia is fully committed to fully Euro-Atlantic integration, namely membership of NATO and EU which makes it a very different case in regards to Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

“When it comes to Azerbaijan, Washington has always viewed the country as crucial for diversifying the energy security of Europe, and as an important transport corridor,” she stresses.

Speaking about the clashing interests of great powers in the South Caucasus, Paul notes that Turkey’s growing role in the region can reduce Russia’s footprint there.

“There is clearly growing competition between Moscow and Ankara. However, there does not seem to be a clear policy from Washington vis-a-vis Turkey’s growing influence and how it could be used to benefit the US in the region,” Amanda Paul advises.

Russian expert on the South Caucasus, Alexander Karavaev, speaking about the role of relations with Washington for Baku, notes that the US remains the main force determining the framework of the world processes and world relations for the last 30 years.

“For Azerbaijan as a regional leader and a country with serious ambitions to strengthen its influence, it is very important to have communication with the main world leader at the highest level,” the Researcher at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in an interview with the Azeri Observer, adding that Azerbaijan successfully works on developing information exchange with the White House and other US institutions who make decisions, and prepare reports for the president, which determine his decisions.

Meanwhile, he notes that unlike Azerbaijan’s cooperation with Russia, China, Turkey and important European powers, which have both political and economic components, quite independent from each other, the Azerbaijan-US ties are almost purely based on political and geopolitical interests. The economic cooperation has a very limited role due to the huge distance between the two countries, and it cannot bring the bilateral relations to a higher level.

According to Karavaev, in the 1990s when huge American oil and gas companies such as Chevron and ConocoPhillips came to the region, the US, who usually supports its economic giants, paid much more attention to economic cooperation with Azerbaijan. Now, after 25 years, the main part of the revenues from oil and gas projects in Azerbaijan goes not to the companies of the Euro-Atlantic group, but to Azerbaijan National Oil and Gas Company, SOCAR. Therefore, American economic interests in Azerbaijan have faded away.

Another important sphere of cooperation between the two countries in the last two decades was the transit of goods through Azerbaijan to Afghanistan during the US military operation in that country. However, now the US troops are pulling out from Afghanistan, this sphere of cooperation is going to become history, the expert says.

Alexander Karavaev also reminds us that the US is still one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, mediating between Azerbaijan and Armenia, all the while, he notes, this group is evidently in crisis, and cannot propose any plan which will help reach long-standing peace in the region.

“Russia and Turkey have practically pushed other members of the Minsk Group, including the United States, away,” the Russian expert says.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijani policy analyst, Fikret Sadikhov, believes on the contrary that the role of the South Caucasus in Washington’s foreign policy has increased over the last years.

“President Biden’s letter to the Azerbaijani president on May 28, where he praises the role of strategic partnership as well as bilateral cooperation, demonstrates this,” Sadikhov advises, who is also a professor with the Western Caspian University, commenting on the bilateral relations for the Azeri Observer.

The expert reminded us that the Minsk Group is interested to implement some priorities in the region in the post-conflict period, and the US as one of its co-chairs, has repeatedly stated this.

“After the 44-day war and the liberation of the territories of Azerbaijan, Washington will apparently focus on security and stability in the region,” Sadikhov says, adding that the US energy interests also remain among the priorities, as the United States wants the large-scale projects that are being implemented at the initiative of Azerbaijan, to be realized.

Speaking about Azerbaijan’s relations with big regional powers, the expert noted that despite US tough relations with Russia and Iran – which are not expected to improve in the near future – Washington unlikely strive to break Baku’s good-neighborly ties with Moscow and Tehran, as they understand that they are important for the country.

“As for Turkey, who is an important ally of the US, despite certain disagreements, and a leading NATO member, the convergence of our positions and joint statements and foreign policy initiatives in the international arena fit fully into the framework of US foreign policy values,” Sadikhov added.

Summarizing the aforementioned, both the US and Azerbaijan will benefit from closer cooperation; however, its further enhancement will highly depend on the Biden administration. What role the US sees for the South Caucasus in their foreign policy remains to be seen.