Vladimir Putin wants to rebuild an empire. Once, it was called the Russian Empire; it was later called the Soviet Union; today, it is called the Eurasian Union. He has already drawn in Belarus and Kazakhstan, yet he wants and needs more — specifically, the industrial and popular strength of Ukraine, and the strategic location and competing energy reserves of Azerbaijan.
This nascent attempt to reforge the Russian Empire inherently relies on using Russian economic power, via its petrochemical reserves, to coerce or entice its former vassal states to once again come under Moscow’s dominion. This effort has until recently been successful; of late, Ukraine’s clever transformation of its energy policy and Azerbaijan’s growth as an alternative energy provider have jeopardized Putin’s dream.
Putin may be many very bad things, but he is also a terribly clever politician, and so he traveled to Baku yesterday to convince the Azerbaijanis to enter into energy partnerships with Russian state-owned energy concerns. (Putin made the trip on a warship as a sign of his commitment to subtlety and peace.) Yet merely defanging Azerbaijan as an energy competitor and potential guarantor of energy security is not Putin’s dearest dream; he would far rather draw Baku back into Moscow’s orbit.
That is not in the cards. Azerbaijan is obviously careful to stay on at least good terms with much larger and better-armed Russia, but its own petrochemical wealth and other alliances give it a modicum of independence otherwise lacking for many former Soviet republics. Moscow’s perceived backing of Armenia’s illegal occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani provinces, and the glacial resolution of that war crime under the Moscow-led OSCE Minsk Group process, have limited Russia’s influence with the government and the opposition.
Despite this, in advance of Putin’s trip, Moscow made it clear that it held in its hands the political fate of Rustam Ibraghimbekov, Azerbaijan’s dysfunctional opposition’s consensus choice for president. Ibraghimbekov is an acclaimed filmmaker and represents a rare moment of unanimity for the opposition; however, as is typical for a group who usually cannot be in the same place without a fight breaking out, their consensus choice holds dual Russian/Azerbaijani citizenship, and so is constitutionally precluded from running for the presidency in Azerbaijan. (Most former Soviet republics, like much of the world, forbid top elected officials from holding dual citizenship.)
Ibraghimbekov has petitioned to renounce his Russian citizenship, a process that can take a year or more, but which Vladimir Putin has let everyone know could be done overnight — a veiled promise and threat.
Yet this threat is toothless; to expedite the process would make the opposition’s consensus choice even less viable. Ibraghimbekov is a catastrophically bad choice for a presidential candidate, but he becomes absolutely toxic if he is perceived as a Russian puppet. Azerbaijan is small, but it is proud of its independence, and has no desire to be suborned beneath Russia’s heel again.
In the end, the visit accomplished little. Russian state oil company Rosneft penned a vague cooperation agreement with SOCAR, the Azerbaijani petrochemical company, leaving intact Baku’s strong ties to Western oil majors and plans to ship natural gas into Europe via a pipeline to be completed by the end of the decade. General talks on Nagorno-Karabakh yielded nothing substantive. Both sides agreed that disputes over the Caspian and its resources should be resolved.
Putin is in a race against time to rebuild his empire, as Russia’s population declines, its former slave states mature and grow apart from Moscow, and competition against its most powerful weapon (its petrochemical reserves) grows. He means to win; but based on Tuesday’s visit to Baku, the odds are growing longer every day.
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