Geopolitical analysis of the relations between Azerbaijan and RussiaAzerbaijan’s foreign policy towards Russia has been mostly shaped by the historical and geographical factors connecting the two countries. The long-term Russian rule and influence in Azerbaijan have led the latter to be dependent on Russia in terms of governance, as well as educational, technological, and scientific development. When it comes to geography, Azerbaijan shares a 284-km length land boundary (as well as a maritime border through the Caspian sea) with Russia in the north, the fact of which has always been important for the Russian impact over the country.

Azerbaijan is also situated in a very strategic location, connecting Iran and Russia, which are historic rivals for the dominance in the South Caucasus. For centuries Russia and Iran fought over the region, but in the last decades, common economic, political, and security interests brought these powers closer, especially, in terms of their efforts against the Western influence. Metaphorically speaking, Azerbaijan has been stuck between “Scylla and Charybdis” throughout history.

Historically, the invasion of Dagestan, South Caucasus, and Central Asia had created a good platform for Russia to occupy Iran, but there was not ultimate success. Noteworthy to mention, during the Communist era, the existence of millions of Azerbaijanis in the north-western part of Iran was frequently used by the Soviet leaders to intervene its southern neighbour and even create a separate entity within its territory, although this was not possible because of the discrepancies between Soviets and Western powers over the control of Iran (Azerbaijan Democratic Party).  

Alexander Dugin’s view on Russia-Iran relations is also interesting to see Russia’s keen intention to keep its influence over Azerbaijan. According to Dugin, Iran is considered as one of the main strategic states, being able to make Heartland a global power, therefore, the relations with this state plays a crucial role for Russian interests. Integration with Ukraine is an inevitable condition for this purpose, whereas a strategic partnership with Iran seems substantial for the achievement of the aforementioned goal (Дугин А.Г.).  

Furthermore, Dugin also thinks that because of societal and cultural differences between Russia and Iran, a Moscow-Tehran axis should be based on realistic strategic calculations and pragmatic geopolitical partnership to achieve the realisation of the multipolar model of the world order (Дугин А.Г.). In this matter, Russia sees Azerbaijan as a transit country opening a gate to Iran and the start of the trilateral negotiations on close economic cooperation, as well as the fight against “terrorism”, and organised crime after the lift of sanctions against Tehran gives a message about those geopolitical moves.

However, the West, mainly the U.S., have also its plans to prevent these two regional powers from the close interaction. Washington`s “Great Central Asia” strategy by the US envisions the creation of the “cordon sanitaire” between these two states and includes the “Great Silk Way” states - Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, which have to be under the American influence (Дугин А.Г.). And after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, an independent Azerbaijan could be a corridor and strategic outpost of the West to the rich energy resources of the Caspian Sea and Central Asia (Дугин А.Г.). According to Natalya Narochnitskaya, the plans on distancing Russia from the Caucasus region, including Azerbaijan, threatens to eradicate the results of “bicentennial titanic efforts of Russia in the South” (Нарочницкая Н.А.).  

In fact, following the collapse of the USSR, Russia faced with a new reality of former union republics, which were identified as Russia’s “Near Abroad” (Colin S. Gray). Although these nations, including Azerbaijan, were recognised as foreign countries by Russia, the latter strove to keep them under its umbrella all the time, having never accepted to see them as truly independent.       

Natural resources (mainly, oil and gas in our case) should not be neglected as another factor in Azerbaijan-Russia relations either. As it is observed, the geoeconomic factors and “economic security” are believed to be behind most of the recent conflicts occurring in the world. Oil, for example, is seen as a “magic stick”, or “Midas touch” for most of economies and it can be turned into a political “weapon” in the hands of oil-rich states as well. The energy crisis of the mid-1970s, as well as the Islamic Revolution in Iran clearly showed the might of this weapon (Гаджиев К.С.).  

Russia, too, has always tried to show its economic and geopolitical might through energy resources, many countries are in need of. But this power may be under threat if future energy projects connecting the reserves of the Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan with the rest of Europe through Caucasus (in our case Azerbaijan and Georgia) are realised. Although the Kremlin tries to underestimate the potential of its competitors by boasting about its vast oil and gas reserves, these new frontiers could be considered hostile to Russian interests. 

As it is mentioned above, the existence of energy routes and projects extending past Russia in the southern border may seriously affect Moscow’s stance in the world, especially in Europe. Thus, Russia is keen to prevent great energy projects (for example, Nabucco, TANAP, BTC) in the Caucasus region, the aim of which was to reduce the dependence of Western countries on Russian oil and gas. As this factor is against economic interests of Azerbaijan, Baku, in its turn, relies on Turkey and Western states in promoting and implementing those projects.

But dependence on oil and gas connecting Azerbaijan and Russia is also alarming, taking into account of their current economic situations. The stop of China`s economic boom and new technologies in oil exploitation and in renewable energy, as well as the lift of sanctions over Iran resulted in the decrease of oil prices and fall of economies of both countries. This is a warning signal for the stability and existence of the regimes ruling in Azerbaijan and Russia, which were implementing their power and influence through their hydrocarbon reserves. In this regard, it is possible that Russia’s aggressive and dictating foreign policy will shrink in near future, being replaced with the pursuit of the cooperation with regional powers. This is also related to Azerbaijan, which started to reconsider its economic and political relations with Western countries after feeling the “breath” of crisis. But the ongoing crises in the Middle East, as well as the political turmoil and the shift in the foreign policy of Turkey (a close ally of Azerbaijan) towards Kremlin increased the Russian impact in Azerbaijan, by also guaranteeing Aliyev’s regime to strengthen its position inside the country. 

However, the recent developments with Ankara cannot distract Moscow from its long-term policy in the region which aims not to allow Azerbaijan to maintain a stronger relationship with Turkey in terms of energy and security (The Next Stage). But this seems not easy as Turkey seeks for the closer cooperation with South Caucasus countries, especially Azerbaijan, and increases its economic and strategic position in the region at the present time. Noteworthy to mention, after the forceful intervention by Russia in Georgia and Ukraine, Azerbaijani government also decided to take a careful stance (the main aim is to survive rather than to become a power) in its foreign policy towards Russia. The current regime has always stressed its balanced politics and neutrality (as well as independence in foreign policy), but the equilibrium seems really hard to be kept in geopolitical reality. Furthermore, the weakness of the Western military involvement, mainly NATO, in the region lessens the willingness of Azerbaijan authorities to openly act against Moscow. After the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia managed to deploy its troops in the breakaway territories of Georgia and additional 5,000 soldiers are present in Armenia (Stratfor). And “while there is no military presence in Azerbaijan, forces loyal to Moscow surround the country to the north and west, forcing Baku to keep Moscow's strategic interests in mind during any decision-making” (Stratfor). Besides, another important moment is that Russia does not interfere the domestic affairs of Azerbaijan, especially when it comes to human rights and democracy, the fact of which makes Moscow more friendly rather than Washington or Brussels for Baku.    

Having said that, the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh also affect the relation between Baku and Kremlin, the problem of which can be considered one of the key points to preserve the existence of the Russian interests in the region (and the military presence). However, there are different approaches towards the emergence of this conflict. According to some Russian scholars, the “Pandora’s box” of the region belongs to the group of “artificial, carefully planned geopolitical conflicts, which were aimed to discredit the central authority and abolish the Soviet Union” (Лукьянович, Н. В.). From the geopolitical point of view, this conflict, kindled by the ethnic differences and nationalistic rhetoric through many years, mostly serves the interest of Russia, by destabilising the region and preventing region countries to collectively act and integrate towards the West. Moscow, by procuring both of the conflict sides with weapons, makes them play “Russian roulette” with each other, the result of which may be catastrophic for the whole region in future in case of a high level of armament. 

There is a need to mention that the Caucasus hosts three out of four separatist areas in the former Soviet Union. And the most common thing about all those breakaway areas is their close ties with Russia. Therefore, claims by some pro-Russian political analysts about those conflicts do not seem real as they create instability in the region, by increasing the dependence of region countries from Russia. The outbreak of the April skirmishes in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016 and Russia’s active involvement as a mediator showed the role of this conflict for Russia to preserve its position as a dominant power in the South Caucasus. When it comes to the effects of the recent processes on Russia-Azerbaijan relations, it can be said that Moscow has a lot of offers to make to Baku which seem hard to be refused. As the Kremlin has a great influence over Armenia, it can make its regional ally return several occupied regions to the control of Azerbaijan. But this possible “favour” can result in the accession of Azerbaijan to Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Besides, Azerbaijan can be demanded to reduce its oil and gas exports to Europe, which can affect the economic and strategic power of Azerbaijan in the region (Jeffrey Mankoff).

Overall, the strategic importance of Azerbaijan makes this country “a hot point” for various actors, including Russia. Although official Baku recently treats Moscow as a “close neighbour” and a “strategic partner”, there are lots of grounds to be sceptical towards Russia, especially because of Moscow’s expansionist interests in the South Caucasus and the recent events in the post-Soviet states as mentioned above. It should not be forgotten that geographical closeness between these two countries does not enable Azerbaijan’s government (but the lack of the political will should not be neglected either) to act fully independently and move towards the West, the fact of which can positively impact on future development of the country. For this reason, preserving the balance between the West and Kremlin which are in a continuous clash over so-called “cordon sanitaire” should be an imminent duty for Azerbaijan in current reality.




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