The convergence between Russia and Azerbaijan that fuels the war

by Simone Zoppellaro

Overcoming the initial skepticism of several analysts about its possible endurance, the Russian war machine has shown that it can hold its own and challenge the broad coalition that has formed in support of Ukraine. Of course, this would not have been possible without Beijing's crucial help, which is not only political but also military and technological. “Russia is increasingly a vassal state of China,” Nathalie Tocci wrote a few days ago in La Stampa. A “paradox for a leader [Putin] who wanted to reconstitute an empire.” But it's not just Beijing, on a closer inspection.

Those drones produced and employed by Iran in its attack on Israel are the same ones used against Ukrainian cities to sow destruction. Then there is North Korea, which has found an unexpected role in this war that revives it in the international arena. But not only that: many European countries, including Italy, continue to violate sanctions to supply Moscow with products, technology and even war components. Light weapons and ammunition machinery made in Italy arrived in Russia after the beginning of the war, as shown by two IRPI Media investigations. A large gray area critical to the survival of the Russian war enterprise, which finds Central Asia, the South Caucasus and Turkey as key points of passage to get past sanctions. Therefore, as Jacopo Iacoboni wrote a few days ago quoting Farida Rustamova, “Russia's oil and gas revenues in the first quarter of 2024 amounted to 2.93 trillion rubles and returned to the level of the beginning of 2022,” i.e. “2.97 trillion rubles.”

In all this, Azerbaijan, a country capable of maintaining good relations with Moscow as well as with the US and Europe, is playing a not insignificant role. As expert Ilya Roubanis, a member of Caucasus Watch's editorial team and a researcher at the Athens Institute of International Relations (IDIS), tells us, “being 'non-aligned' means you can cherry-pick the platform you deem suitable for the question at hand. Baku does Baku. What does Brussels do instead? Our geopolitical Commission is giving Baku leeway’s comparable to what is historically afforded to other oil-producing nations,” with the result that “the EU’s human rights clause in foreign policy is no longer an actionable principle.”

Two European Parliament resolutions condemning as an “ethnic cleansing” the flight of more than a hundred thousand Armenians from Karabakh last year were not enough to call into question the political and economic relations between Baku and Brussels. Huge interests, especially after Russian aggression in 2022, especially for Rome. As Roubanis further explains, “Azerbaijan is building supply security, given a reliance on energy exports; Italy is building demand security, given sanctions on Russia. Now, this partnership is not a one-off. Pipelines create interdependence.”

In the beginning was TAP, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, which, after a long and contested gestation at the turn of the millennium, was built between 2016 and the end of 2020, when it went into operation. Result: more than 30 percent of all the Caucasian country's exports-primarily just hydrocarbons-come to Italy. After Algeria, it is the second most important country from which we buy gas.

Yet in an agreement made after the start of the war, Russia has returned to supplying Russian gas to Azerbaijan's state-owned company Socar to compensate for the growing demands of its European partners: even the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, responding to a parliamentary question in early 2023, said that “the Commission is looking carefully” at this renewed cooperation. There is also great concern in Rome about the possibility of Russian gas reaching Italy through TAP, as one of our sources within the government explains. As Roubanis explains, “Baku is possibly using Russian gas to substitute domestic production to sell its own gas abroad. That is what is widely admitted.” Even without necessarily violating sanctions, the expert adds, “the real issue is transit trade that is facilitated through the Caucasus, without which, the Russian war economy would be unable to function.”

And in the future? As Seymur Mammadov writes on bne IntelliNews, “TAP’s capacity will also be expanded to receive an additional 1.2 bcm of Azerbaijani gas by the end of 2025. From 2026, Italy will receive 1 bcm from this volume.” The Azerbaijani government, of course, denies the possibility of Russian gas transiting through this pipeline. But what is certain is that as Armenia increasingly looks to Europe and the United States to untether itself from Russia, Baku is finding convergences of interests with Moscow, starting precisely with energy and trade transits.

The real risk, then, is that the TAP now serves to feed not one but two of the most ruthless autocracies of our time, Russia and Azerbaijan. Not to look at their multiple interests in a key country like Italy, and their convergence, is to close one's eyes to the very roots of the violence that is increasingly advancing on our continent.

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