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a tectonic shift in the greater caspian region

A Tectonic Shift in The Greater Caspian Region

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A tectonic shift in international relations is under way between Azerbaijan and the independent nations of Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.  For the first time since their independence three decades ago, these countries are actively getting to know each other, searching for ways to work together, and planning to increase their connectivity.  Ironically, this is taking place in the greater Caspian region, which Moscow had always declared its special sphere of influence, as a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s criminal war in Ukraine.  Rather than hunkering down to avoid opprobrium from Moscow, these countries are carefully and prudently looking outward to strengthen their independence by building new relations among themselves. 

During an April 23-30 visit to Azerbaijan by a senior delegation of the Caspian Policy Center, we heard repeatedly from government ministers and other senior officials, including think-tank leaders and university professors, that Azerbaijan “still maintains good relations with Russia” but now feels less dependent on Moscow, in part because the international sanctions regime against Russia has helped to loosen former ties.  An official at a leading think tank in Baku told us that his organization is starting to meet with think tanks in Central Asia for the first time ever and that this has come at the specific instruction from one of President Ilham Aliyev’s senior advisers.

This newfound outreach is not just at the think-tank level.  One of our ministerial interlocutors pointed out that President Ilham Aliyev himself had met with four of the presidents of Central Asia in the month of March alone.  He added that the reality is that the strong presence of Russia in the region had kept Azerbaijan from closer relations with Central Asia before the war in Ukraine, but that Moscow’s hold has now loosened and that those cross-Caspian relations are quickly growing, in part with the help of the Organization of Turkic States.  He predicted that an Azerbaijan-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan alliance would soon emerge.  

Part of this development is coming from the growth of the Middle Corridor for transporting goods from China through Central Asia, across the Caspian Sea, and transiting the South Caucasus countries onward to Europe because the traditional route through Russia is now decidedly limited.  An ADA University professor in Baku told us that transport through Central Asia and Azerbaijan has increased 70 percent since Russia invaded Ukraine.  Several other professors remarked that this transit corridor now needs to be institutionalized and that they hoped the United States would help with advice and assistance to accomplish this goal.  They suggested that the United States could help specifically with “soft infrastructure,” advising the involved countries how to harmonize their customs and other cross-border technicalities.  To emphasize this point, one said, “We are ready to listen and to do what is needed.”

Of special interest, one of our most senior interlocutors looked at the growing Azerbaijan-Central Asia paradigm from the security point of view.  He pointed out that Central Asia had been used to Russia providing security for the region but that the war in Ukraine has caused somewhat of a security vacuum in Central Asia.  That has opened up new possibilities.  He noted that Azerbaijan, with Türkiye, can provide new security for Central Asia.  He added that he hoped the United States would press Europe to support these developments that are being designed to build new, positive, and lasting alliances.  To summarize, he said that new security in the greater Caspian region will lead to new prosperity.

It’s important to note that this development in international relations is not just Baku looking eastward across the Caspian Sea to Central Asia.  We heard the same thing a month earlier in Tashkent and Astana when a former foreign minister repeatedly used the term, Central Asia plus, to emphasize how important it is for the greater Caspian region as a whole not only to work together but also to look outward and beyond the region’s traditional competing partners (https://www.caspianpolicy.org/research/security-and-politics-program-spp/central-asia-plus ).  He, like others of our senior interlocutors in Central Asia, noted that no one single country can solve the current problems of the region.  He emphasized that it’s essential for the five in Central Asia not only to work more closely together among themselves but also to join hands to build broader and stronger external relations.

As a former U.S. diplomat who lived and worked in Central Asia and the South Caucasus since the fall of the Soviet Union, I see this new-found desire by these countries to build horizontal relations among themselves, rather than just carefully balance their relations among Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States, as possibly the most important development in the post-Soviet space in the last 30 years.  It marks a significant leap forward for these countries as they build new international relations among themselves.  

It’s ironic it that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered this tectonic shift in international relations by countries the Kremlin once considered safely in its hip pocket! 


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