Azerbaijan and the Israel-Hamas war: Implications for Regional Security Complex Theory in the South Caucasus
Referring to the South-Caucasus as a crossroads of cultures has become a cliché. Yet as is the case with so many clichés, there is a large amount of truth to it. Azerbaijan in particular – as a Post-Soviet, oil-rich, Muslim-majority, Turkic state – appears to be such a crossroad. In terms of the state’s security, being in this position has led to Azerbaijan being forced to face the consequences of current instability in both the post-Soviet space as well as the Middle east. However, scholars tend to ignore the large extent to which Azerbaijan has become embedded in Middle Eastern security dynamics, instead regarding the state as part of a Post-Soviet or Caucasian regional security complex. This paper will therefore engage with Buzan’s theory of Regional Security Complexes to argue that Azerbaijan is moving away from the post-Soviet security complex, and getting more and more entangled in a Middle Eastern security complex. It will conclude that Azerbaijan should therefore currently be regarded as what Buzan identifies as an insulator.
The applicability of regional security complex theory in the South Caucasus has been topic of discussion even before Buzan & Waever coined their theory in 2003. In 1996, Bruno Coppieters argued that the Caucasus (North-Caucasus and South-Caucasus) show sufficient interdependency in their security relations and interests to be considered an independent regional security complex (RSC). He additionally posits that the region shows sufficient independency from major powers Russia, Türkiye and Iran, yet also recognizes that each of these three regional powers regards itself as having special interests in the region. For Russia, this special interest is conceived of in terms of its ‘near abroad’; for Iran, it is conceived of as ‘the new middle east’; and for Türkiye, it is conceived of as part of ancient Turkic ‘Turan’.In their influential 2003 book Regions and Powers: the Structure of International Security Buzan and Waever themselves also recognize the specifically dense regional security relations amongst the South Caucasian states. Yet rather than an independent RSC, they conceive of the South Caucasus as a complicated mini-complex that takes on certain aspects of an insulator, yet is deeply embedded within a wider Russia-Centered post-Soviet RSC. They thus acknowledge the role of multiple regional powers in the Caucasus, while stressing the dominance of Russia as the dominant force in defining regional security. In contrast to both Coppieters and Buzan & Waever, Thomas de Waal in 2005 argues that there is no coherent security complex between the three Caucasian states. Focusing mainly on how to conceive of Georgia’s relation with its two Caucasian neighbors, de Waal suggests that security relations in the Caucasus are characterized by conflicting interests and each Caucasian state siding with different foreign powers. He additionally stresses that connectivity between states is a key component of forming a coherent region, yet connectivity and formats of cooperation is exactly what is missing between the three Caucasian states.
While all three publications discussed above propose different ways to place the South Caucasus (or in case of de Waal specifically Georgia) in RSC theory, none of them specifically contemplate how to conceive of Azerbaijan within RSC theory. Moreover, autumn 2023 has turned out to be a turning point in Azerbaijan’s security situation, with both Azerbaijan’s military operation in Nagorno Karabakh and the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war calling for a reconsideration of the generally held belief that Azerbaijan is still part of a Post-Soviet security complex, and to rethink Azerbaijan’s position within RSC theory. This next section will therefore review recent security developments in and around Azerbaijan, and argue that Azerbaijan is slowly untangling from the Russia-led post-Soviet security complex, getting more entangled in a Middle Eastern security complex instead. It will conclude by reengaging with the theories set out above, and argue that Azerbaijan should be regarded as an insulator.
On September 19 2023, Azerbaijan launched a military operation in Nagorno Karabakh that led to the surrender of the de facto authorities that had controlled the area ever since the early 1990’s. By bringing Khankendi/Stepanakert under Baku's control, Azerbaijan has managed to eliminate what used to be its number one security concern. Moreover, the passivity of the Russian ‘peacekeeping’ troops – stationed in the region in accordance with the trilateral statement of November 2020 – despite an occurring violation of the ceasefire showed that Moscow was either compliant with Baku’s military offensive, or that it was unable and/or unwilling to act upon it. The failure of the Russian ‘peacekeepers’ to protect the status quo codified in the trilateral statement indicates its lack of vigor and waning influence in the region, possibly due to the country being preoccupied in Ukraine. Additionally, the surrender of the de facto authorities of Nagorno Karabakh and the subsequent mass exodus of the region’s ethnically Armenian population eliminates any further need for Moscow’s ‘peacekeepers’, making it likely that they will have to leave the region in 2025 as per the trilateral statement. Moreover, the bilateral statement issued by Armenia and Azerbaijan in December 2023 and the subsequent trend of bilateral rather than multilateral peace-negotiations further underline Moscow’s decreasing role in the region’s security dynamics. All of this suggests that Azerbaijan’s security dynamics are slowly but surely disentangling from Russia’s.
Instead, recent security developments indicate that Azerbaijan's security is increasingly intertwined with Middle Eastern dynamics. In case of Azerbaijan’s military operation in Nagorno Karabakh, one should underline the roles played by Türkiye and Israel in enabling this operation. Erdogan's reelection as Türkiye’s president in May 2023 solidified Baku's confidence in continued Turkish support for its claims in Nagorno Karabakh. This assurance greatly influenced Baku's decision to carry out the military operation in September 2023. Additionally, Azerbaijan utilized predominantly Israeli-manufactured weapons and drones in its military operation, acquired through its strategic partnership with Israel. This alliance, which previously aided Azerbaijan in winning the Second Karabakh War in 2020, also supports the country's autocratic regime by supplying Israeli-produced Pegasus spyware. In return, Azerbaijan serves as a crucial oil supplier for Israel and collaborates on exploring natural gas extraction options off Israel's Mediterranean coast. Azerbaijan’s security therefore seems more interwoven with developments in Israel and Türkiye than in Russia.
Yet Azerbaijan’s entanglement in Middle Eastern security dynamics is most obvious when looking at the implications of the Israel-Hamas war and its widening regional scope for Azerbaijan’s security. The Azerbaijani-Israeli strategic partnership described above has allowed Israel to establish a foothold in a country that shares a border with Jerusalem’s arch nemesis Iran – a valuable asset for Israeli intelligence. Iran, on the other hand, has grown increasingly more suspicious of Azerbaijan and its ever closer links with Israel. The last decade has been characterized by growing animosity between Baku and Tehran, marked even by occasional (rumors of) Iranian military buildup along its border with Azerbaijan. The increase of these tensions are not only due to Azerbaijan’s partnership with Israel, but also due to Azerbaijan’s fear for Iranian religious influence and Iran’s fear for Azerbaijan mobilizing the approximately 30 million ethnic Azeris living in Northern Iran. While Baku has not openly proclaimed support for any party in the aftermath of Hamas’ terrorist attacks on 7 October 2023 and the subsequent war in Gaza, the war has only increased the importance of intelligence from Baku for Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s continued partnership with Israel is much to the dismay of Hamas’ primary sponsor and supporter Iran. Iran’s missile strikes on what it claimed were Israeli intelligence posts in Iraq and Pakistan, and the latter’s retaliation strikes on Iran on 18 January 2024 have further shown that Iran does not fear expanding the conflict to the wider region in order to attack Israeli targets. In addition, the military involvement of Pakistan – another close ally of Azerbaijan – further drags Azerbaijan into the conflict through the involvement of a growing number of its allies. Finally, airstrikes on Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen by a US and UK led international coalition have further increased the number of players involved in the conflict, and further increased international animosity against Azerbaijan’s neighbor Iran. Despite not – yet – being militarily involved in the conflict, the facts presented above show that Azerbaijan’s security currently cannot be analyzed in isolation from further Middle-Eastern security dynamics.
The implications of the Israel-Hamas war not only reflect on Azerbaijan’s regional security, but also have strong implications domestically. It is estimated that the majority of Azerbaijanis supports Israel and its actions in Gaza.Despite this, Baku has to take into account growing discomfort and grievances with Israel’s acts in Gaza, not least amongst its more devoutly Islamic part of the population. As the Aliyev regime has faced protests and opposition from exactly these more religiously inspired groups in the past – which occasionally even turned violent – Baku will have to be particularly careful to not agitate this part of its population. Moreover, Türkiye’s strong support for Palestine, which goes paired with heavy anti-Israel rhetoric, stands in stark contrast to Azerbaijan’s partnership with Israel. In the light of Türkiye’s soft power and the ubiquity of the ‘two states, one nation’ narrative in Azerbaijan, this substantial divergence in the countries’ foreign policy risks destabilizing Baku’s authority. The fact that Azerbaijani state media has paid specific attention to explaining this discrepancy between the two ‘brother nations’ indicates that Baku recognizes this internal threat of delegitimization as well. The facts above therefore show how the Israel-Hamas war has had significant domestic security implications for the Aliyev regime, and therefore how Azerbaijan’s domestic security has also become entangled with wider Middle Eastern dynamics.
Yet not only Azerbaijan’s state-security has become more entangled with Middle Eastern security dynamics, but also its economic situation. Over the last few years, Azerbaijan has successfully consolidated its position as a key player in international transport, being part of the Eurasian Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (map 1), more commonly known as the Middle Corridor, as well as the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC, map 2). The Middle Corridor connects Europe to China by railways through Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Türkiye. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this route has become a relevant alternative to the Northern Rail route, which connects China to Europe through Russia and transported the majority of land cargo between Europe and Asia. Yet the Middle Corridor not only fulfills an economic function, as it also connects Türkiye to the other Turkic states, therefore providing a logistical and economic foundation for Türkiye’s cultural-ideological project of connecting the Turkic world - in Coppieters words: Turan. For Azerbaijan, the Middle Corridor thus further economically and culturally embeds the country in the concept of Turan. Likewise, the INSTC – which connects India, Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia – also gained relevance after the invasion of Ukraine. In the light of Western sanctions on Russia, Moscow has shifted its economic focus to southern and eastern markets, and also has been looking for increased economic interaction with strategic partner Iran. Azerbaijan plays a key role in this route as the one country connecting Russia to Iran. The recently proposed inclusion of Iran in BRICS further underlines Azerbaijan’s position as the key connection between BRICS states.
The most efficient and popular alternatives to both the Middle Corridor and INSTC are naval routes that go through the Red Sea and Suez canal (map 2). These naval routes are faster, cheaper, and able to carry a higher volume of cargo. However, the recent attacks of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen on containerships in the Red Sea, and the consequent counterattacks of an international coalition led by the US and UK have drastically lowered the amount of ships daring to use this most efficient route. As a result, The Middle Corridor and INSTC has increased. This again shows how Middle Eastern security dynamics have a direct impact on Azerbaijan’s economy and geopolitical significance, and thus how Azerbaijan’s geopolitical relevance is heavily embedded in Middle Eastern security dynamics. Yet the fact that both routes in the first place gained in relevance after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also indicates how Azerbaijan’s economic situation is also still tied to post-Soviet security dynamics.
The data presented above shows how Azerbaijan is slowly untangling from a Russia-led post-Soviet security complex, and becoming more entangled in what Buzan defined as a Middle Eastern Security complex. It also shows how Azerbaijan is becoming more involved in Coppieters’ concepts of Türkiye’s Turan and Iran’s New Middle East, not least through its role in regional transport corridors. While Armenia still seems the primary point of reference in Baku’s security policy, the surrender of the de facto authorities of Nagorno Karabakh and the subsequent bilateral statement issued by Armenia and Azerbaijan has marked the beginning of a new era in Azerbaijan’s relation to the South-Caucasus. Instead, Baku is increasingly facing new unique security concerns regarding the Middle East, which are to a far lesser extent shared by the other Caucasian states. It therefore seems outdated to look at Azerbaijan as part of a unified Caucasian security complex as suggested by Coppieters, nor can it any longer be considered as part of a wider Russia-led post-Soviet security complex. In arguing for Georgia’s relative detachment from its South-Caucasian neighbors, de Waal draws specific attention to a lack of connectivity as an indicator of such detachment. One only has to refer to the fact that Azerbaijan’s land borders have been fully closed since 2020 to see how de Waal’s argument should lead us to also consider Azerbaijan as an independent entity in the South Caucasus. Yet interestingly enough, connectivity by means of the Middle Corridor and INSTC does show a growing link between Baku and Turkic and Middle Eastern regionalism. We should therefore reconsider Azerbaijan as a case of what Buzan calls an insulator, not fully part of either a post-Soviet nor Middle Eastern security complex. It is an independent entity on the edge of these two security complexes, being heavily affected by dynamics in both of them. Considering Azerbaijan as an insulator can help further understand the complex ways in which its security is embedded in current transregional dynamics. In times in which both the Post-Soviet space and the Middle East are heavily affected by aggression and instability, Azerbaijan is thus a country to be watched closely.
Buzan, Barry, and Ole Waever. Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Coppieters, Bruno. "Conclusions: The Caucasus as a Security Complex." In Contested Borders in the
Caucasus, edited by Bruno Coppieters, 193-204. Brussels: VUBPress, 1996.
de Waal, Thomas. "Georgia and its Distant Neighbors." In Statehood and Security: Georgia after the
Rose Revolution, edited by Bruno Coppieters and Robert Legvold, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005.
 Bruno Coppieters, "Conclusions: The Caucasus as a Security Complex," in Bruno Coppieters (ed.), Contested Borders in the Caucasus (Brussels: VUBPress, 1996), 194.
 Ibid., 195-196.
 Barry Buzan and Ole Waever, Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 422-423.
 Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and its Distant Neighbors," in Statehood and Security: Georgia after the Rose Revolution, ed. Bruno Coppieters and Robert Legvold (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005), 308-309.
 Simona Scotti, “Türkiye’s Evolving South Caucasus Policy under Re-Elected Erdoğan,” commonspace.eu, August 31, 2023, accessed January 28 2024, https://www.commonspace.eu/opinion/turkiyes-evolving-south-caucasus-policy-under-re-elected-erdogan
 Max Saltman, “Israeli-Azerbaijani arms trade comes under scrutiny,” CNN, October 4, 2023, accessed January 28 2024, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/10/04/middleeast/azerbaijan-israel-weapons-mime-intl/index.html
 Amnesty International, “Armenia/Azerbaijan: Pegasus spyware targeted Armenian public figures amid conflict,” amnesty.org, May 25, 2023, accessed January 28 2024, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2023/05/armenia-azerbaijan-pegasus-spyware-targeted-armenian-public-figures-amid-conflict/
 Rovshan Mammadli, “Perspectives | Azerbaijan walks fine line as Turkey-Israel relations deteriorate,” eurasianet.org, November 9, 2023, accessed January 28 2024, https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-azerbaijan-walks-fine-line-as-turkey-israel-relations-deteriorate
 “War between Israel and Palestine: which side is Azerbaijan on?,” jam-news.net, October 9, 2023, accessed January 28 2024, https://jam-news.net/war-between-israel-and-palestine-which-side-is-azerbaijan-on/
 Mammadli, “Perspectives.”
 Brendan Murray, “Suez Canal Traffic Drops to Lowest Since 2021 Blockage,” Bloomberg, January 17, 2024, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-01-17/suez-canal-traffic-drops-to-the-lightest-since-the-ever-given
 Bruce Pannier, “The Middle Corridor Is Opening,” caspianpolicy.org, January 22, 2024, accessed January 28 2024, https://www.caspianpolicy.org/research/economy/the-middle-corridor-is-opening
 De Waal, “Georgia,” 308-309.
 Buzan & Waever, “Regions and Powers,” 41.