Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Karabakh War (September 29–November 9) has had a transformative effect on the country. It not only changed the attitudes of its population, whose members now feel themselves to be heroes rather than victims (see EDM, January 21), but also bolstered the diplomatic weight and possibilities of the Azerbaijani government in its dealings with other regional states. In prosecuting a triumphant war against Yerevan, Baku demonstrated its own ability to act. But just as importantly, Azerbaijan has shown to peoples and governments in the Caucasus and Central Asia that it is a force to be reckoned with, in part thanks to its growing links with Turkey. Moreover, that alliance makes possible an appealing path to the outside world for all who join it. That reality is causing countries east of the Caspian to look westward to and through Azerbaijan in their economic planning and political calculations.
At the same time, however, these developments are generating concerns in Moscow and Tehran, which oppose east-west trade routes that bypass their countries’ territories and instead favor north-south corridors linking Russia and Iran together. As a result, Azerbaijan’s recent successes in expanding links with Central Asia set the stage for new conflicts between Azerbaijan and its Turkic partners, on the one hand, and Russia and Iran, which have far more significant naval assets in the Caspian, on the other (see EDM, November 27, 2018 and February 20, 2020; Casp-geo.ru, December 24, 2019; Chinalogist.ru, November 21, 2019).
One of the clearest signs of Baku’s expanded influence in the wake of its victory is that Turkmenistan has now reached an agreement with Azerbaijan on the joint exploitation of oil deposits on the Caspian seafloor. The accord ends that dispute and opens the way for broader cooperation not only between Baku and Ashgabat but also between Azerbaijan and the other countries of Central Asia. Symbolic of this change is that the two countries agreed to rename the field “Dostluk,” Turkic for “Friendship.” That name replaces the separate names, Kypaz and Serdar, that Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, respectively, had been using for the deposit in the past (Stanradar.com, January 22; see EDM, January 27).
Moreover, Kabul, Baku and Ashgabat recently reached another important agreement: promoting what is known as the Lapis Lazuli corridor, linking Afghanistan with Turkey via Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. While cooperation on the transit route itself is years in the making, the deal to significantly deepen that collaboration was notably reached after Baku’s victory gave it new influence by demonstrating that Azerbaijan is a growing force to be reckoned with in the region (Mfa.gov.tm, January 16; Casp-geo.ru, January 21; see EDM, February 10).
The above two moves are only the most immediately significant of what has been taking place more generally between Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan. Another and potentially even more important development in that regard involves Kazakhstan. In the last month alone, officials there have announced plans for a radical increase in the capacity of Port Aktau so that Kazakhstan can export goods via ship to Azerbaijan for further dispatch to Turkey and Europe (Casp-geo.ru, February 8, 17). Discussions of such cross-Caspian trade had been going on since the sea’s five littoral states—the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan—agreed in August 2018 on the delimitation of this body of water. But again, those talks did not appear likely to take concrete form until after the November 2020 Russian-brokered ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The expansion in maritime trade between Central Asia and the South Caucasus is not something Moscow and Tehran are happy about because it not only bypasses them but also gives the countries on both sides of the Caspian greater opportunities for freedom of action. To signal their common displeasure as well as ability to block such trade unless the two are given the chance to play a role in its organization, the Russian and Iranian navies held a joint exercise on the Caspian even as the Karabakh war ceasefire accord was being worked out in Moscow (Deutsche Welle, October 16, 2020; Vesti, October 12, 2020). In the past two weeks, to underscore their opposition to continued regional developments, the two countries again held joint naval drills in the Caspian (EurAsia Daily, February 17).
Such moves, of course, do not mean Moscow and Tehran are about to use military force to block east-west trade between Central Asia and Azerbaijan; but they are a sign of the increasing unhappiness of both about what has happened since Baku’s victory made it a more attractive partner for Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. And Russo-Iranian actions are a reminder that they have the capacity to cause trouble in the future, especially since the Russian flotilla in the Caspian far exceeds the capacity even of the rapidly modernizing but largely coastal defense and search-and-rescue fleets of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan (Russ-flot.narod.ru, Zakon.kz, accessed February 18, 2021; Topwar.ru, August 16, 2011). At a minimum, joint exercises by Russia and Iran raise concerns about the broader intentions of those two countries and the all-too-real risk that one or both may take more actions in the future to show their capacity to disrupt trans-Caspian ties.
Many analysts have focused on the impact of Azerbaijan’s victory in Karabakh on ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran, where they form, by some estimates, a third or more of the population and are a matter for concern for Tehran (see EDM, October 22, 2020); other experts have looked at how the lessons of the Second Karabakh War are influencing the thinking of leaders in other post-Soviet states with their own Russian-backed “frozen” conflicts, raising the possibility of military force being used to resolve these situations (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 9, 2021; see EDM, November 9, 2020, December 16, 2020, January 5, 2021, January 13, 2021). But perhaps the most important fallout of Baku’s win on the battlefield is to be found in the new way that the countries of Central Asia increasingly view it as a bridge to the West—something that will only increase the influence of Azerbaijan (and behind it Turkey) in the Turkic republics of that region.