Azerbaijan's parliament officially ratified on Tuesday a comprehensive agreement on strategic partnership and mutual assistance between Azerbaijan and Turkey, a deal that was reached in principle during an August meeting between Turkish President Abdullah Gul and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev. The agreement reportedly covers an array of issues and consists of nearly two dozen articles, ranging from economic to humanitarian to military-technical cooperation. But the two most important clauses of the agreement boil down to this — "If one of the sides suffers an armed attack or aggression from a third country or a group of countries, the sides will provide reciprocal aid" and "both countries will cooperate to eliminate threats and challenges to national security." The intricate details of the document remain up in the air — it is unclear what specifically is meant by "provide reciprocal aid" and "cooperate to eliminate threats" — and the full text of the document has yet to be released as of this writing. But the message of the agreement is clear, and there is nothing subtle about it. Turkey and Azerbaijan are back together as strategic allies. Traditionally, Ankara and Baku have had very close and cooperative relations. Azerbaijan is one of the most independent of the former Soviet republics, and therefore avoiding complete domination by Russia has been one of Baku's primary pursuits since the Soviet Union's collapse. Turkey was a natural partner — the two countries share ethno-linguistic ties (Azerbaijanis and Turks are seen as historical brethren) and Turkey provides a counterbalance to a Russia that has been resurging throughout its periphery in recent years, not excluding the Caucasus. This counterbalance manifests itself politically, economically, and in terms of energy supplies, as Turkey provides Azerbaijan with a western outlet for the latter to diversify its oil and natural gas exports beyond the Russian-dominated transit route to its north. Turkey, dependent on Russia for natural gas, also gets to diversify its energy imports from Moscow. The big question moving forward is will Turkey stay true to its promise in coming to Azerbaijan's defense in its time of need.
This balance between Turkey and Russia suited Azerbaijan just fine, and Azerbaijan was careful not to get too cozy with either of its large neighbors. But Turkey, as a re-emerging regional power, began looking elsewhere to expand influence in this neighborhood. This included beginning a process in early 2009 to normalize relations with Armenia, which happens to be Azerbaijan's arch nemesis. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war from 1988-1994 over the disputed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh — to this day, the two sides do not recognize each other's claims. When Turkey began negotiations with Armenia, Azerbaijan emphatically insisted that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue be settled first before Ankara would even think of looking to re-establish relations with Yerevan. However, Turkey did not make brokering a peace deal over Nagorno-Karabakh a prerequisite for normalizing ties with Armenia, and Turkish-Azerbaijani relations as a result effectively deteriorated. The big winner out of this situation was Russia, which was able to take advantage of Turkey's attempted foray back to its old Ottoman neighborhood in the Caucasus. Turkish security guarantees to Azerbaijan came under serious question and Baku began to look to expand its energy and political cooperation with Moscow. Protocols to normalize Turkey's ties with Armenia stalled in both countries' parliaments, where they remain stuck. Russia had effectively dealt Ankara a reality check that it was Russia that remains the dominant power in the region, and Turkey lost on both counts — Armenia and Azerbaijan. Moscow drove this point of dominance further in recent months, when Russia signed a comprehensive military deal with Armenia, which has remained a stalwart Russian ally since Soviet days. Armenia houses a Russian military base in its territory, with a lease that was extended by 25 years in a landmark military deal in August. Russia then announced that it had deployed the S-300 missile defense system to Armenia that same month. In the meantime, no such plans were made for Azerbaijan, and Baku was increasingly nervous about the budding Armenian-Russian security relationship to its immediate west. There was an enormous incongruence — even though Azerbaijan had been building up its own military and its defense expenditures surpassed Armenia's entire budget, Baku knows it is simply no match to the military might of Moscow, assuming Moscow sticks to its agreement in defending Armenia. And as geopolitics tells us — particularly in the cauldron that is the Caucasus
— there can be quite a difference between a nation-state's intention at the time, and what it is ultimately capable of. Russia can show it has no intentions of joining Armenia's side in the event of a military confrontation, but that possibility cannot be discounted completely as Azerbaijan knows it is unable to stand alone against a Russian-backed Armenia. This is a region still deeply unsettled and Azerbaijan had to end Turkish ambiguity on these issues. Geopolitics also tells us that alliances are never permanent. In trying to establish ties with Armenia, the Turks sold out the Azerbaijanis on Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia is now increasing its position in Armenia, requiring containment. The Turks have re-evaluated their expectations of the Russians, and therefore, they look at Nagorno-Karabakh with different eyes. Azerbaijan has been driven back into the arms of Turkey. A close relationship between Azerbaijan and Turkey therefore makes sense for both countries. But it is the Russian situation, particularly in Armenia, that is driving this and relocks Turkey and Azerbaijan into a strategic alliance, recreating the geopolitical reality of the Caucasus. This alliance, ratified just one day after a joint Russian-Armenian Anti-Missile Defense Command Center has been opened in Armenia, stipulates explicitly mutual defense. But laws can be broken, and the big question moving forward — not just for Azerbaijan, but for all countries in the Caucasus — is will Turkey stay true to its promise in coming to Azerbaijan's defense in its time of need, especially when that means a confrontation with the Russians that the Turks have been attempting to avoid.