Whenever Azerbaijan comes up in conversation in London, I’ve found that a general discussion soon turns to the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, over which Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bloody war in the early 1990s. Surely there would be broader topics to discuss here in Baku: what sort of impediments do foreign investors face? How has Azerbaijan used its hydrocarbon wealth? What’s the political mood like following the October 2013 presidential election?
My hopes, however, were dashed on arrival. After coming off the plane and hailing a taxi, an exchange of pleasantries with the driver soon turned to Nagorno-Karabakh. The driver, as it turned out, was a war veteran with bullet wounds to show for his experience. “It was dreadful – look, I was shot in my right shoulder and arm and I lost many good friends during the war”. His conclusion was simple: “was it worth fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh like this? Of course not, and I hope we don’t repeat the same mistake”.
It was refreshing to hear his views, but in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, further conversations about Nagorno-Karabakh ensued. Baku was abuzz with speculation about the possibility of Russia egging on its ally Armenia into making a rash move against Azerbaijan. “If we were to do anything to provoke Putin” one analyst said, “the Russians could easily use Nagorno-Karabakh to bring Azerbaijan to heel”. Asked about the likelihood of escalation, however, most of my interlocutors counselled caution. One seasoned journalist pointed to Russia’s preference for a “no peace, no war” situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, and contrasted Baku’s foreign policy pragmatism with Georgia’s more bellicose posture. “Ilham Aliyev wouldn’t behave as impetuously as Mikhail Saakashvili”, he noted.
But the spectre of military action isn’t restricted to Nagorno-Karabakh. The Caspian Sea states have been engaged in an arms race in recent years, and Moscow has repeatedly shown its willingness to support its regional aims with military power. This point was underscored when Russia made a snap show of force in late April and began a military exercise in the Caspian. Could Russia really afford confrontation in both Ukraine and Azerbaijan, I asked. “Probably not”, one analyst said, “but would that really stop Putin?” Whatever the likelihood of a confrontation between Azerbaijan and Russia, the unexpected annexation of Crimea has caused a stir, and for the moment few people in Baku are willing to discount an escalation in relations.