Roamings and Reflections: Connecting Eurasia from Baku to Kyiv
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Roamings and Reflections: Connecting Eurasia from Baku to Kyiv

Roamings and Reflections: Connecting Eurasia from Baku to Kyiv

In this inaugural episode of the “Roamings and Reflections” series within the Newlines Institute Contours podcast, Newlines Institute Nonresident Fellow Eugene Chausovsky discusses his recent trip to Ukraine and Azerbaijan with Contours host Nicholas Heras. Chausovsky traveled to these countries to investigate the linkages between energy, infrastructure, security, and trade that are driving geopolitics in Eurasia. What he found was a striking similarity in the challenges and opportunities presented to the decision makers in Kyiv and Baku as they chart their next moves in a changing global system. The Roamings and Reflections series will highlight trips to the field – domestic and foreign – made by Newlines Institute team members, drawing out their timely, relevant, and actionable findings that are important to policy and geopolitics.

Nick Heras: Hello everyone. Welcome to this inaugural episode of the Roamings and Reflection series within the Newlines Institute Contours podcast. The Roamings and Reflections series will highlight trips to the field, domestic and foreign made by Newlines Institute team members, drawing out their timely, relevant, and actionable field findings that are of great relevance to policy and geopolitics. For this inaugural episode, I will be joined by Eugene Chausovsky, a non-resident fellow here at the Newlines Institute. Eugene recently returned from a trip to Ukraine and Azerbaijan, where he investigated the linkages between energy, infrastructure, security, and trade that are driving geopolitics in Eurasia. Okay, so Eugene, why did you travel to Azerbaijan and Ukraine? What was the purpose of it all? 

Eugene Chausovsky: Thanks, Nick basically, there’s a broader theme to this trip of connectivity. And what I mean by that is in the case of Ukraine, I was there to explore the status and the outlook of Ukraine’s integration process with the West. So I was speaking at an international energy conference, which I attend every year — that was the main reason for this trip — but I also met with people from government and the economic sphere, infrastructure ministry, NGOs, things like that. And then for Azerbaijan, it was also a play on a theme of connectivity. But in that case, it was exploring, the country’s plans in the wake of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and what they’re trying to do from an economic perspective. So I’m talking about energy, infrastructure, connectivity. And of course, all of the geopolitical challenges that come with those plans.  

NH: Let’s talk about Ukraine. What’s the mood on the ground right now in Kyiv? And what is animating the Ukrainian leadership? 

EC: That’s a difficult question to answer, but I would say from my conversations with people from all different spheres, there’s certainly been progress made in terms of Ukraine’s integration process with the West. Now, we have to keep in mind, it’s been about seven years now since the Euromaidan revolution. So quite a lot of time. But when you’re talking about things like actually gaining membership in the EU and NATO, they’re still pretty far away. I would say that there’s been some progress, and a lot of people do acknowledge that, but there’s also some frustrations over some lingering issues and some lingering challenges in terms of actually making that final step towards membership in these blocs.  

NH: What’s the hang-up? What is preventing Ukraine from pushing forward membership with — NATO, we know, the Russians are going to lose it and that might be a geopolitical crisis too far for both Brussels and Washington. But when it comes to EU, what’s the holdup? 

EC: There’s basically two different issues here. So on the one hand, you have the domestic component. Like I mentioned, Ukraine has made some progress. It’s passed reforms, certainly has rebuilt some of its economy in the wake of the conflict, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. There’s still lingering issues with corruption and with transparency and really just there’s still a lot of missing pieces there on the domestic front that hasn’t quite met the standards of the EU.  

But I would say that the other side of this, and the second aspect, has nothing to do with Ukraine at all, and that’s a sort of hesitation from the EU for expanding whatsoever with all of the things that have happened in terms of the financial crisis over the last decade, all of the economic issues that the EU has experienced, there’s really an enlargement fatigue in the bloc and we’ve seen that even more so in the wake of the Brexit situation. I would say that even if Ukraine were perfect, in terms of its reforms and its efforts at integration, which it’s not, it would still have a pretty difficult time convincing all 27 member countries to accept it into the bloc. 

NH: It’s interesting because Ukraine is in such a precarious position. in the sense that it has is larger neighbor in Russia, which it is in the constant cycle of tension with — as you know, a few months back, we were all watching very closely including we had a podcast here for the Newlines Institute, is Russia going to go for it? is going to try to expand the campaign in Ukraine? And that hasn’t happened, but it is a tense situation. To what extent does Russia separatist movement play into the current dynamic right now that Ukraine faces itself as its trying to chart its future geopolitics?  

EC: That’s a great question, and I would say that Russia plays a major role in why Ukraine has not gained NATO membership as well, even though it’s made some pretty significant progress in reforms and it certainly increased its security relationship with NATO and the US. The fact that Article 5 would essentially put NATO on the line immediately once Ukraine joins the bloc into a direct conflict with Russia. That’s a big sticking point. This is something that I talked with an NGO that has operations right on the line of contact in eastern Ukraine. And it was really interesting, because while we didn’t see the major Russian invasion happen in that period that you mentioned when Russia was building up its military right along the border and there’s a lot of reasons that that didn’t happen. A lot of constraints that Russia itself is under.  

But that still doesn’t take away from the very real conflict that’s still going on; even with casualties slightly lower than they have been, there still a number of different attacks that take place, whether that’s physical attacks, cyber attacks, there’s a propaganda disinformation campaign, and that’s really impacting people, especially on the front lines who are living on the Ukrainian side and the separatist territories are still very much in the trenches there. Even though we didn’t see that major conflict break out, it’s still very active, just in different ways.  

NH: Can we pick up on this thread about the propaganda campaign? Because it’s really interesting how the Russians pioneered a form of hybrid warfare that’s really difficult to counteract — emergent kinetic and information and other domains all together. And Ukraine has, unfortunately, been the laboratory for that form of hybrid warfare. How would you characterize the nature of the information campaign that Russia is waging right now in Ukraine? And what effect does that have on Ukrainian civil society and also Ukrainian politics? 

EC: Ultimately Russia’s objective there is to undermine the pro-Western government in Ukraine and if that’s not possible, then just to sow as much chaos as possible and to try to weaken the confidence in the country and to sow doubt, especially in those populations that are in eastern Ukraine and near that contact line. I thought it was really interesting during my trip while I was in Kyiv, actually, Putin came out with this really long article or letter, essentially, about Ukraine, which was quite controversial, especially within Ukraine, and he made the argument that Ukrainians and Russians are one people in a spiritual and historical sense. That’s been a big narrative. And that’s something that Russia certainly used and was pretty successful in using, in terms of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine — I’m talking about the people actually in those territories. But of course, within Ukraine proper, a lot of people disagree with that, but actually, some people still agree, which is pretty notable. I’m not talking about the people in the separatist territories — I’m talking about people within Ukraine. So that just goes to show that this narrative that Russia is driving is effective to a certain degree, which, as I mentioned, is ultimately linked to trying to undermine Ukraine’s, pro-Western orientation, or the Ukrainian state as a whole.  

NH: Do you see any evidence that we’ll call Putin’s love letter to Ukraine has impacted the perspective of Kyiv on where it wants to go next? Especially if it wants to lean West? 

EC: I don’t think it impacts it in the sense that it’s going to change direction. If anything, it just solidifies the direction that Ukraine is trying to go. And that’s what Kyiv is trying to make the argument to the West, to the EU to NATO: Look, Russia is still very much a threat — have the military that didn’t go in, but that’s always conducting these exercises and having these troop buildups all along the borders, and then you have these cyber and hybrid propaganda campaigns that are constantly being waged. So Ukraine uses that to reform on the domestic end but try to get as much Western support as possible. Although as we mentioned, getting that actual membership still seems quite a bit of a ways away.  

NH: So, it seems that based on your findings Ukraine is caught in the gravitational pull between Russia and its bloc and the West, the EU, NATO, the United States, and others. So here’s my question for you: What is the plan that they have in Kyiv to keep themselves upright as they’re being pulled by both those blocs?  

EC: So that’s an interesting thing and something that I’ve noticed more so on this trip that I have on my usual trips to Ukraine, which is that this Russia versus Western paradigm, it’s still very much in place. But Ukraine has shown some signs of growing displeasure with the West. I mean, Zelenskyy himself has come out pretty vocally, calling on the EU and NATO saying, guys, when are we going to actually get in? I mean, we’re doing everything that we can here. But because of the constraints that I mentioned earlier, that still looks to be pretty distant in the future. What I’ve noticed over the past year or so, and it really hit home on this trip, was that Ukraine is pursuing other options. And I’m not saying instead of the West — that’s certainly the primary foreign policy strategy that Ukraine has. But looking at a multi-vectoral foreign policy and here, Turkey plays a pretty interesting role. But Ukraine has ties with Turkey going back many years. They’ve cooperated in spheres like energy and even security and that I think has been growing. We saw Turkey play a pretty big role in Azerbaijan, helping Azerbaijan with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with things like [00:10:29]  TV to drones and providing weaponry that proved to be pretty influential. We’re starting to see Turkey provide Ukraine with similar weapons. Now I’m not predicting that Turkey is going to enter the Ukraine conflict and go directly against Russia. I certainly don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. But Turkey does play this role for Ukraine as a country that’s not a formal ally, necessarily, but can be a constructive and practical partner in terms of meeting some of its needs.  

NH: All right, so let’s pull on this a little bit because it’s interesting. It does seem that Erdoğan and his folks in Ankara are looking to create such an informal bloc of countries that aren’t necessarily aligned East or West. There’s Eurasian oriented. You spent a lot of time, Eugene, looking at the intersection of energy, security, and trade in Eurasia. So what is Ankara’s play in Ukraine? 

EC: For Ankara, I think Ukraine provides Turkey with quite a bit. Turkey, for one hand, can actually use some of the technology that Ukraine has within its own military-industrial sphere. So there’s a sort of swap there going on. It’s not just Turkey selling weapons to Ukraine and vice versa. There’s holes in each other’s defensive industries that they can. So that makes sense from a practical perspective. But also strategically Ukraine gives Turkey leverage. And we’ve seen Turkey build up leverage in a number of areas that it’s wielded in terms of its relationship with Russia. So Turkey and Russia have this complex relationship — I wouldn’t call them allies, and I wouldn’t call them adversaries. They cooperate in certain areas like energy, but also they are against each other in theaters like Syria, and even Nagorno-Karabakh. 

NH: Call them maybe frenemies?  

EC: Sure. Yeah, you can say frenemies. It’s really a case-by-case basis. But what they do have, Erdoğan and Putin, is a mutual understanding of each other. Unlike Russia’s standoff with the West, or even Turkey’s growing problems with the West despite its NATO membership, these are similarly structured governments are similarly structured regimes and so Putin, he can work with an Erdoğan. He can work with a [00:12:41]  she much more so than he can work with Western democracies just because they understand how they’re operating. They certainly have clashing interests, but they also find ways to maneuver those and work in a way that’s mutually beneficial while mitigating any major destructive tendencies.  

NH: Well we’ve seen this, too, with Erdoğan’s relationship with Orban and Hungary. And it’s interesting that there is it may be a growth opportunity for Turkey with some of these fragile democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. So let me ask you, related to that, is the fragile democracy in Ukraine, in a way, potentially best served by staying out of Europe, and staying out of NATO and joining the Third Way that seems to be emerging now in this multipolar, or some would argue nonpolar global environment? 

EC: I would say that the efforts that Ukraine has made towards integration with EU and NATO, those are real and I wouldn’t advocate for them to drop those efforts. What I would say is continuing to harp on membership specifically in these blocs, I don’t think that does Ukraine any favors. First of all because it only angers Russia, provokes Russia, but also because it doesn’t actually bring Ukraine any closer to membership. I think what Ukraine should do and what it is doing to a certain extent, is do the hard work on the ground to actually reform and to integrate. But at the same time, understand that that’s not going to produce immediate results. That’s where countries like Turkey, and I would even throw China in there — Zelenskyy had a call with Xi, they signed some major deals in terms of infrastructure, and Ukraine has actually even backed off of its criticism of the Uyghur issue. So these are issues that are all interrelated, and I think they happen simultaneously rather than one or the other.  

NH: So let me ask you, does Ukraine benefit in the future, almost position itself as being the receiving terminal of One Belt, One Road, spreading across Eurasia, how does Ukraine contend with Nord Stream? How do they contend with the fact that in a lot of ways, Russia is trying to isolate it and apply pressure to it, particularly economically? I mean, is there a China shovel pass, so to speak, that Ukraine can catch? 

EC: I’m glad you brought up Nord Stream because the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, it seems to be have been finalized, and that was a major point of discussion during my time in Ukraine, especially at the energy conference. But that’s important because that goes to show the constraints that Ukraine faces. And when you’re talking about Belt and Road Initiative and attracting China, attracting all of these players, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The extent that Ukraine can pursue Belt And Road depends on how much it’s willing to tolerate in terms of its Western relationships. Because if it goes really hard on China, or if it goes all in on Turkey, that can jeopardize the moves that it’s already made in all of the investment that’s already put into integrating with the West. So I think ultimately comes down to a careful balancing act — knowing the priorities and knowing how to balance them as much as possible, all the while knowing that it’s heavily constrained that no matter what it does it’s ultimately surrounded by these bigger and more powerful countries. So it’s about diversification and balancing and the extent to which it can maneuver all of these players. 

NH: Before we fly from Kyiv and Ukraine to Baku and Azerbaijan, are there any thoughts or saved rounds, so to speak, that you’d like to relay to our audience about Ukraine? 

EC: No, I think we covered pretty much all of the main issues. I mean, like I said, I was exploring connectivity as a topic and it was really interesting how it plays out in different ways. So the integration with the West, whether you’re talking about the institutional integration or infrastructure, directly ties with the conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s role there, and that directly ties into Ukraine’s relationships with other countries like Turkey and China. So, this is all interconnected.  

NH: Okay, so moving to Baku, what is the mood right now in Azerbaijan? And what’s Aliyev up to?  

EC: The mood in Azerbaijan is actually quite positive. And I should say that this is my first trip to Azerbaijan in about 10 years, whereas I go to Ukraine every year, I have a more immediate point of comparison, it has been quite a while. It’s been a decade since I was last in Baku. The skyline looks a lot different. There’s clearly been a lot of development, a lot of translation from energy wealth into major projects within the city and broader region. And of course, people are quite pleased with the recent territorial gains that Azerbaijan made militarily in the latest conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. That was about six months ago, that’s still pretty tenuous. There was some cease-fire violations, some shootouts even while I was there — not in Baku, of course, but closer to Nagorno-Karabakh. So I would say people are happy, but there is a little bit of unease. And I think from Aliyev’s standpoint, the major emphasis right now, is that the conflict from his point of view is over and he’s trying to translate that into economic projects. Whether that’s roads, railways, building up not only in the newly reclaimed territories but also going beyond the region. But, a lot of issues, there are a lot of challenges there, and that was what I was there to explore.  

NH: Let’s pull on this thread because it seems that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is a bit unresolved. About a week ago we have some statements from Aliyev talking about how he wants essentially, to have Azeri authority over that Nagorno-Karabakh, as part of a peace treaty brokered with Armenia. Obviously, it is a very geopolitically important conflict; it is also important in the context of domestic U.S. policy.  

As you know, very recently, the Pallone Amendment passed in the House of Representatives, it passed pretty strongly and I mean essentially it put requirements on the Department of Defense to verify that U.S. training and assistance to Azeri forces have not been utilized for human rights abuses and it basically cited the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in that context of why the amendment was created and passed in the House. My question to you is, it seems though that Azerbaijan in many ways has been cocooned, if you will, from blowback from this conflict, even though it is presented in a domestic political challenge here in the United States, at least in terms of the congressional discussion. How did the folks on the ground in Baku view the U.S. perspective on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? And also, what was the feeling towards the future of U.S.-Azeri relations while you were there?  

EC: I like your term of being cocooned. I would say unlike Ukraine, Azerbaijan has not really cast its lot in with the West. Instead, Baku has — I’m talking about going back to the early post-Soviet days up until now — it’s pursued a more of a diversified and non-aligned foreign policy. For all of the issues that Azerbaijan gets criticized for in the U.S., which has a very influential Armenian lobby, even countries like France, similarly they certainly feel that criticism. It impacts them but not to the extent of a country like Ukraine, which is actively trying to integrate with the EU and NATO. From that perspective, it’s just one factor amongst many when Azerbaijan makes its both its domestic and foreign policy decision making.  

And this was something that actually was brought up to me, which I thought was quite interesting in Baku, is that it — with all of the criticism for democracy and human rights that Azerbaijan gets — this is again from the Azerbaijani perspective — they really talked up the fact that there’s been political stability in Azerbaijan, which has allowed for the government to implement a more longer-term strategy. And that was contrasted with other countries in the region, like Armenia and even countries like Georgia, which are more democratic but have shifting governments every four to five years — and that’s not including revolutions or changes of power. So to me, I thought that was an interesting parallel and really fits within this Putin or Erdoğan or Xi model as opposed to the Western model. Where on the Western model, you have democracy, right? But you have much more turnover in terms of the government. We’ve seen that here even in the U.S. going from Obama to Trump to Biden, whereas in your Russias Chinas, Turkeys, and even Azerbaijan — these are countries that have leadership that’s in power for a long time. Now, you could criticize that, for sure, but you can also look at it from the perspective that that gives them more time for maneuver.  

NH: Turkey obviously plays a very strong role in the dynamic in the Caucasus, whether it’s Georgia in relation to tensions with Armenia, negotiated the cease-fire of the most recent Nagorno-Karabakh with Russia, and also the personal relationship that they have and Erdoğan have. … As you know, they went on several I’ll call propagandistic tours. They had the victory parade at the end of the conflict this past fall. They’ve hatched the infamous train ride through Nagorno-Karabakh this year. And it seems that in a lot of ways Aliyev looks up there to Erdoğan. To what extent is that impression true? And what is Aliyev’s vision for what’s next in terms of his geopolitical ambitions, as it seems that he is steadily resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to his favor? 

EC: I think it’s certainly true, what you mentioned about Aliyev and Erdoğan. That’s something that really has stood out to me while I was in Baku is that you had really, and more so that can remember 10 years ago, but Turkish flags everywhere throughout the city — talking about in front of businesses, side by side with Azerbaijani flags. It’s certainly true that Aliyev looks up to Erdoğan and they paint themselves as these joint partners. As far as what’s next, here’s where Azerbaijan has some issues. For all of the gains that it made militarily in Nagorno-Karabakh, it still was ultimately beholden to bigger players with more influence and here I’m thinking about Russia. So Putin was played the mediator in terms of ending the major round of fighting that we saw back in October and November of last year, and part of that mediation included the deployment of almost 2,000 Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh to keep the peace. And so that is a workable arrangement for Aliyev at the moment.  

But he’s trying to translate the military gains into economic gains, and there there’s a lot of resistance from Armenia. There’s resistance from even other countries like Russia and even Iran. Because some of Azerbaijan’s goals to become this East-West hub in to build on the Southern Corridor, whether that’s for energy or for transport, it goes, I don’t want to say counter but it can complicate Russia’s plans or Iran’s plans for like a North-South corridor. So I think that despite the gains that Azerbaijan made in Nagorno-Karabakh, specifically translating them into broader regional initiatives is proving to be much more difficult and problematic. 

NH: It’s really interesting, Eugene, because as you know, Azerbaijan was part of CSTO, then it withdrew from CSTO, it’s been over 20 years now. Armenia is still part of CSTO. In a lot of ways, Republic of Armenia depends heavily on Russian security guarantees, essentially, from the Armenian perspective, not only in terms of an alliance but also to guarantee their independence. And so, there’s this perception of some of the statements Aliyev has made domestically about territorial ambitions that are inside the internationally recognized borders, the Republic of Armenia, but as well as some hints coming from Ankara that there might be an opening for a thaw in Armenian-Turkish relations and potential reopening of that border, some movement between Georgia and Armenia in terms of talking about trade links. So it’s a confusing witches’ brew right now in the Caucasus, in that intersection of security energy, trade and geopolitics. What is a more hopeful peaceful path forward for these countries that don’t all get along with each other, but have some strong interests and doing business with each other potentially? 

EC: As a reality check to what I was hearing in Azerbaijan, I did speak to some people that I know in Armenia, just to get a sense of their thoughts, because a lot of Azerbaijan’s ambitions and goals, do include building infrastructure, and building ties with, with Armenia, or at least would need Armenian involvement. And I’m thinking, for example, a road and railway Azerbaijan has called it the Zangezur Corridor. Armenia has issues with the term corridor because that implies some challenge to this sovereignty. But that’s basically a line that would go through southern Armenia, it would link up Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhchivan and then go onward to Turkey. So, I wanted to get a sense of what people in Armenia thought about plans like that, and there’s certainly a lot of resistance and political challenges. From the Armenian perspective, the conflict is not over. They still see some hopefully diplomatic ways, but even potentially security ways to correct what happened, or at least to adjust the current state of things.  

But at the same time, I did hear quite a bit that Armenia is in an economic difficult situation. Armenia badly needs investment. And one of the things that Armenia has wanted to do for quite some time, is open the border with Turkey because that’s closed right now out of Turkish solidarity with Azerbaijan. Now that is potentially something that could be mutually beneficial, but as with all things in the Caucasus these things are all interconnected. And so opening of the border with Turkey would have to probably have some involvement of Azerbaijan as well, so that they don’t feel left out. So essentially this is a long way of telling you that it’s very complicated. All of this stuff is sticky, and I get the sense that there’s not going to be any immediate progress in terms of major infrastructure, but there are certain tactical practical projects that can be at least experimented with –  minor infrastructure, minor trade and an easy opening, something like that that could potentially build on each other, if we can keep the security elements of the region at bay and to really emphasize the mutually beneficial elements of the economic projects.  

NH: Okay. So I don’t want to forget about Georgia, because it seems that people often forget about Georgia. What is the situation when Georgia, and what role does it play in potentially a future energy trade agreement, that could benefit multiple countries, including countries that are hostile to each other — at least they’re hostile toward each other now, in the Caucasus? 

EC: Yeah, Georgia is an interesting case here because we don’t hear a lot about it because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is very much centered on Armenia and Azerbaijan. But Georgia plays an important role. It’s been a major transit country for Azerbaijani energy to Turkey and beyond to Europe. Georgia has relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan in terms of these infrastructure projects. But Georgia has been having its own issues lately in terms of its own EU and NATO integration. There’s been a lot of political turbulence in Georgia. They actually just pulled out of an EU-mediated agreement between the ruling party and opposition parties. So that situation is a little bit shaky there right now, too. But I think ultimately, if any of these regional infrastructure projects are to happen, it really needs the buy in of all three Caucasus countries, Georgia included, and it can really be beneficial for them but there’s a lot of political and security challenges to navigate in the process.  

NH: All right, so I want to return back to Turkey and get in the head of Ankara. As you know and as well-known over the last several years, Turkey’s put itself in different places on the map in the greater Middle East as well as, in Central Asia and the Caucasus that give it a lot of potential opportunities to exert its influence and to spread its power in the future, if not right now. Now that Turkey has been so heavily involved in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is open in discussions with the Chinese, where turkey plays in the Belt and Road Initiative, Turkey is obviously a member of NATO, and an important actor in terms of European security, as well as the future of Europe and the Mediterranean space. How does the Caucasus link up with the Mediterranean in Europe, in terms of what Turkey’s thinking about moving forward?  

EC: I’m glad you asked this because I think Turkey played a pretty important role in actually both of the places that I visited. Not only Azerbaijan, but also Ukraine. Azerbaijan, it’s had the traditional ties and it’s built up quite a role for itself. In Ukraine, and I would extend that to Eastern Europe, it’s more of a burgeoning role, but one that’s becoming increasingly important. And as you say, that extends out into the Mediterranean. So to me Turkey is really a key player and a key question mark, and one that’s going to become increasingly important because we’re getting into this multipolar world, we’re getting out of this bipolar or unipolar world. You have Russia that’s still an active player. China, increasingly important and really challenging the U.S. You have the Europeans as well. And then you even have these regional players that punch above their weight like Turkey. So I don’t have all of the answers for you in terms of what that means moving forward, but what I can say is that Turkey’s role, I think will become increasingly important in all of these theater.  

NH: It’s funny because the way you’ve talked about your experience in Azerbaijan prompts a question in my mind: To what extent is the current Azeri-Turkish relationship dependent on the personal relationship between Erdoğan and Aliyev, and what are these institutional connections that are being made between turkey and Azerbaijan that can endure beyond let’s say, Erdoğan leaves power sometime in the next several years? 

EC: So I think it’s both — obviously Aliyev and Erdoğan played major roles within their respective countries. I mean these are strongly centralized, increasingly centralized, governments, but at the same time I think that both leaders understand pretty well the kind of strategic imperatives and the constraints that their nations are under and so they’re pursuing that to the best that they can, factoring in those constraints. So we’ve seen institutional ties being built up between Turkey and Azerbaijan in the military-security sphere. Certainly in the economic sphere. Turkey is always a big player in all of Azerbaijan’s goals when it comes to energy because of how important Turkey is both as a market but also as a transit state. So I think that it is certainly dependent on the personalities of Erdoğan and Aliyev, but it also is something that I think would endure beyond those specific people as well  

NH: Was anything in particular that surprised you when you were in Azerbaijan, that we don’t really understand here in the United States or we don’t get in the news that really just sort of leaped out to you when you were there on the ground? 

EC: Compared to Ukraine, Azerbaijan, you really feel like they’re both former Soviet countries, they have a lot in common in terms of their history, but Azerbaijan is something very different. And even compared to my previous visits to Georgia and Armenia, Azerbaijan has really broken out of the Russia-West paradigm. And it’s not just Turkey, you go around Baku — it’s been called the Dubai of the Caspian that, I don’t think that’s an overstatement. Certainly, nowhere near the size, the heft of a Dubai, but Azerbaijan has really leveraged its geographic position, its transcontinental position, to attract a lot of interest. Now, I don’t want this to sound like an endorsement. I’m just saying that you can see, having traveled around the former Soviet Union quite a bit, a lot of these countries or a lot of places within these countries, you can see that there is has been a lot of economic decay, or they’re struggling economically, or they’re in some kind of transition process, and Baku, certainly feels much more dynamic at least, than I remember it feeling just 10 years ago.  

NH: So would you say that — and we talked about this in this discussion — we increasingly now in our world order, there are states that don’t fit into certain types of paradigms, and in fact there as you point out, there’s a different model, right? There’s the Xi, Putin model that some states or leaders within states across the world are beginning to adopt. To what extent would you say that Azerbaijan under Aliyev represents a subcategory of that model, and if states don’t want to completely follow China or Russia, where does Azerbaijan fit in terms of a model? 

EC: Well, certainly it’s not — I wouldn’t compare it to China as a one-party state that doesn’t really hold elections. I would say it’s more along the lines of Russia or Turkey, which are these quasi, faux democracies. I mean they hold elections; you could argue that those elections are not always free and fair. But what I will say is that these countries’ leaderships that have been in power for a long time are very in tune to what their citizens feel. Even if they’re not necessarily represented at the ballot box in a free and fair way, these leaderships know that if they go strongly against your average citizen’s needs or wishes they can face some serious problems. And so in that sense I would put Azerbaijan more and that camp.  

By the way, Ukraine has elements of that as well, even though it’s certainly more democratic and it’s elections are more free and fair by international standards. It still has that post-Soviet culture dies hard. That takes a while. And that’s what Ukraine is in the process of transitioning out of. So I think you described it well, in terms of it’s somewhere in between. 

NH: Well thank you, Eugene. I want to give you the opportunity, if there’s anything we haven’t covered in terms of key moments from your trip. Are there anything you’d like to relate to our audience that we haven’t discussed?  

EC: This was a great reminder about the importance of seeing a place from the ground up. It’s one thing to cover it from Washington, D.C., but really gives you much more nuance and certainly for me it was really helpful to put a lot of my ideas to the test on the ground. So from that sense it was really interesting to see how both countries, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, are evolving and put that in the broader geopolitical context that we talked about.  

NH: Well, thank you, Eugene, and thank you to everyone listening to us, and joining us as Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy continues to provide you with critical geopolitical information and analysis, fresh from the field. 

Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.   

Azerbaijan, Eurasia

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