Ukraine’s Strategic Partners: Azerbaijan in Ukraine’s Information Space (2)

expert of the Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy,
specially for BlackSeaNews

Part 1. Strategic partners of Ukraine: The southern flank in the mirrors of the national media. Azerbaijan – Ukraine — can be found here.

Part 2. Azerbaijan in Ukraine’s information space

The official placing of the Republic of Azerbaijan among Ukraine's strategic partners has provoked mixed reactions from the media community, politicians, public figures, experts and general public, up to the statement that «currently, there are no political or economic grounds for such a partnership». One of the reasons for dissatisfaction is the authoritarian nature of the Azerbaijan's regime, also the ongoing human rights violations, in particular, related to the freedom of the press, expression of criticism and persecution of political opponents, as well as the revealed facts of political corruption, both domestically and at the PACE level. 

Nevertheless, Ukrainian media coverage of Azerbaijan remains mostly positive; as it is often emphasised that our countries face similar threats, primarily related to the aggressive separatism enticed by Russia and Armenia — the latter not without Russia's support — respectively.

At the same time, people in both countries feel pain and indignation caused by the inability of international institutions and mechanisms to put an end to unprovoked aggression and violence and save civilian lives and critical infrastructure. Let's not forget, in particular, four (!) UN Security Council Resolutions of 1993, as well as the 2005 PACE and 2008 UN General Assembly resolutions demanding the immediate withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from Azerbaijan’s occupied territories that remained unfulfilled, just like the numerous resolutions on Ukraine. 

During the tenure of Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Ukraine Azer Khudiyev (06.09.2016 – 12.03.2020), his numerous interviews stressing the common problems and challenges, were publicised by Ukrainian media. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, some Ukrainian observers believed that Azerbaijan’s Covid-19 state policy had been quite successful and called on the Ukrainian authorities to follow suit. That, however, contrasted with the opinion of the Azerbaijani human rights activists who believed that the lockdown was used to cover-up further human rights restrictions and intensify criminal prosecution of dissidents.  

Details of the successful development of bilateral relations over recent years were provided by the Ambassador of Ukraine to the Republic of Azerbaijan Vladyslav Kanevskyi in his May 29, 2021 interview to the «Dom» TV channel, while the analysis of the current situation, forecast to 2025 and recommendations for the Ukrainian government are to be found in the policy paper by Andriy Chubyk, an expert at the «Ukrainian Prism» Foreign Policy Council. Azer Khudiyev, who became an Advisor to the Minister of Finance of Ukraine and Vice President of the Academy of Financial Management under the Ministry of Finance of Ukraine, runs his own blog in the internet-edition “Livyj Berig” (Left Bank); his insightful and often poignant publications are occasionally reprinted by Azerbaijani media.

In addition to individual publications in various media, the internet portal BlackSeaNews has a regular section on Azerbaijan, same as since April 2017 does the European Pravda. Starting in November 2013, i.e., still President Yanukovych’s term, information about Azerbaijan, Ukrainian-Azerbaijani, Armenian-Azerbaijani and Turkish-Azerbaijani relations can also be found on the Espresso.TV, with the number of articles sometimes 6-10 per day.

The BlackSeaNews portal takes the first place in terms of quantitative indicators and variety of topics related to Azerbaijan; in January 2023, there were 26 such materials, in February – 10. Espreso.TV comes in second with 6 and 2, respectively. In addition to news, the European Pravda publishes in-depth analysis on the matter. The number of relevant publications is directly proportionate to the outbreaks of violence and escalation of hostilities between the parties to the Azerbaijani-Armenian armed conflict; publications during the in relatively calm periods their number drops to 1-2 per week or even per month.

In particular, increased interest to the Azerbaijan occurred during the April 2016 «four-day war» (which we will not consider here). But the main surge of attention and respective coverage by the Ukrainian media took place in 2020. On July 12, military clashes broke out not in the occupied territory, but directly in the densely populated Azerbaijan-Armenia border areas near the oil and gas pipelines used by Azerbaijan to export its energy resources via Georgia to Turkey while bypassing Armenia and Russia. Obviously, there was a direct threat to this critical infrastructure.

The killing of the well-known and highly respected Azerbaijani general, Polad Gashimov, on the very first day of the fighting, had further stirred up the pro-war sentiment in the society. People demanded that the government immediately launch a full-scale offensive and finally return Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) and seven occupied districts by military force. Thousands of volunteers expressed a desire to join the fighting ranks. Despite the lockdown rules that forbade staying outside for more than two hours a day and gathering in groups over five people, on July 15, a demonstration in Baku under the slogans «Commander-in-Chief, announce mobilisation!», «Karabakh is Azerbaijan!», «Glory to the army!» and «Heroes do not die!» gathered thousands of people. At night, some demonstrators broke into the parliament building, after which the police began pushing people out of the square with water cannons and tear gas.

On July 13, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine issued a statement calling on the parties to make every effort to de-escalate the situation and continue to seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict on the basis of the observance of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan within its internationally recognised borders, as well as the relevant UN Security Council resolutions of 1993. Armenia's response was to summon Ukrainian Ambassador Ivan Kuleba to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while the public staged protests outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Yerevan.

For all the authoritarianism of President Aliyev, he seemed unable to ignore the prevailing social moods any longer, so it was likely then that a decision could be made
to launch the Second Karabakh War (SKW) — a plan the country had been carefully developing since the defeat in the First Karabakh War of 1992-1994 and the loss of NK and 7 adjacent districts, referred to by Armenians as the «security zone».

The SKW began on September 27, 2020, lasted 44 days and ended on November 10, 2020 with Azerbaijan's victory, formally enshrined in a joint trilateral Statement by Aliyev, Pashinyan and Putin, hastily – and unexpectedly – signed in Moscow late on November 9. Unexpectedly, because Azerbaijan won the most important battle of the war for the city of Shusha only the day before, on November 8, having closely approached the so-called «capital» of the unrecognized «Nagorno-Karabakh Republic» (NKR). 

The most unpleasant surprise of the document, including for Ukrainians, was paragraph 3 that stated: «A peacekeeping contingent of the Russian Federation (RPC) numbering 1960 servicemen with firearms, 90 armored personnel carriers and 380 units of automotive and special equipment is being deployed along the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Lachin corridor».

Some observers believe that the step had been forced upon Aliyev after the accidental shooting down of a Russian military helicopter a few hours earlier, while others emphasise his desire to save the lives of the personnel and avoid additional losses. The same night, surprisingly quickly, the Russian military began deploying to their destinations, thus finally cementing their presence in all three South Caucasus countries. Although the term of the RPC is 5 years, it can be automatically extended if neither side declares its intention to terminate the provision 6 months prior to expiration (paragraph 4 of the Statement).

The SKW attracted a lot of attention from the Ukrainian and international media with the course of events actively discussed in all kind of mass media, including personal blogs, Telegram channels, social networks, publics and various forums.

In addition to the purely military aspects, Ukrainians focused on the failure of a diplomatic and political solution to the armed conflict, despite repeated attempts and negotiations within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group, drawing certain analogies with the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements, and paying tribute to the success of the Azerbaijani army and the cohesion of the Azerbaijani society.

Lessons of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War for Ukraine were analysed both in the expert community and at the General Staff of the AFU level. Oleksiy Arestovych's almost daily posts on the war on his Facebook page caused sincere admiration of the Azerbaijani audience. However, his «openly pro-Azerbaijani and anti-Armenian» posts were sometimes harshly criticised not only in Armenia, but also in Ukraine, where his reputation has since been seriously damaged due to his scandalous comments on popular TV programmes. Meanwhile, other Ukrainian experts covering the war were subjected to the much harsher, often mocking, information attacks by Russia.

Ukraine's official position was initially very cautious: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed «deep concern», joining a concordant chorus of voices calling for an immediate end to the violence, and without any mention of the occupation of the Azerbaijani territory.

But on September 30, 2020, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said: «One of the cornerstones of Ukrainian foreign policy is to support the territorial integrity of states. And we have consistently supported the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, just as Azerbaijan has supported our territorial integrity within internationally recognised borders».

Ukraine's Permanent Representative to international organizations in Vienna, Yevhen Tsymbaliuk, made a similar statement during a special meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council on the escalation of the situation along the contact line in the conflict zone in NK. And on October 2, President Zelenskyy emphasized that «in recent years, Ukraine and Azerbaijan have established close relations at both the economic and geopolitical levels. Therefore, Ukraine has stood and will continue to stand in support of this state», thus abandoning the widespread policy and practice of addressing «both sides of the conflict». In this regard, Ambassador Elmira Akhundova thanked the Ukrainian leadership and noted that practically all representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and MPs with whom she met supported the position of the Azerbaijan. 

However, a number of well-known Ukrainian political analysts believe that the victory was not unequivocally Azerbaijan's and that it was Putin who has actually received the biggest dividends. This opinion is shared by some foreign experts; at the same time all analysts unanimously convinced that Armenia and its leader, Nikol Pashinyan, have become the main losers in this war, while Turkey has strengthened its position in the region.

For many Ukrainians, the most important lesson of the Second Karabakh War was probably the following: «...all those who say that only through negotiations can we solve…» — look at Karabakh. 30 years of negotiations have resulted in neither the liberation of this land nor the freezing of hostilities. The result was only occupation and shelling, shelling and more shelling».

In other words, it was Azerbaijan that refuted the thesis that the war in Donbas had no military solution. Later on, against the backdrop of the successful resistance of the Armed Forces and the entire Ukrainian people to Russian aggression, the myth that the occupied territories could be returned by political and diplomatic means only was dispelled also in respect to Crimea.

It is worth noting that until September 27, 2020, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had been considered only in the context of a number of other post-Soviet «frozen» conflicts, with a very limited list of its elements relevant to Ukraine — see, for instance, the analytical report Rethinking Ukraine's De-occupation Policy in the Framework of Russia's Hybrid War Against Ukraine, 2020, Section 6, pp. 118-122, where one of the conclusions states:

«The practice of international settlement proves that roadmaps, plans and even agreed documents do not guarantee negotiations progress». The thesis, by the way, had been later confirmed by the allegedly «already achieved» agreements on the settlement of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict through a peace treaty between the two states and reintegration of Karabakh Armenians into the Azerbaijani legal, social and economic space (which have not been implemented yet).

Another surge of attention to Azerbaijan occurred on the heels of a sharp escalation and resumption of armed clashes in mid-September 2022.

This time, some Ukrainian TV channels and online publications accused Azerbaijan for allegedly invading the territory of Armenia. This turn immediately provoked a strong negative reaction from a number of Azerbaijani experts and public figures, who referred to Inter, Ukraine24,, and; they were joined by leaders of the Ukraine’s Azerbaijani diaspora also expressing their resentment and disappointment.

Therefore, those Ukrainian journalists who have unconditionally claimed that Azerbaijan had violated the territorial integrity of Armenia would be best advised to study the issue more closely, taking into account, in particular, the discrepancies between the different versions of maps that make it difficult to outline precisely the still undelimited and undemarcated sections of the Azerbaijan-Armenia state border.

By the way, the German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock adheres to a similar position; at a joint press conference with her Armenian counterpart Ararat Mirzoyan she noted that the lack of delimitation of the state border is the main cause for border skirmishes and clashes between the militaries of the two countries.

Nevertheless, the generally favourable attitude of Ukraine's media and politicians toward our strategic partner in the South Caucasus far outweighs the aforementioned criticism. The fact that Azerbaijan is neither a member of the Euro-Asian Economic Union (EAEU) nor the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), but is closely allied with Ukraine's important partner, Turkey, certainly adds to its positive perception in Ukraine.

The Azerbaijani-Turkish ties clearly played a special role in the Second Karabakh War, leading to the de-facto unification of the two states’ armed forces immediately after the war. It is also noteworthy that in contrast to the Russian theses of «one nation» or «brother nations» in Ukraine, the well-known Turkish high-ranking officials’ stance about «one nation, two states» doesn't invoke any negative reaction from the Azerbaijani authorities or society.

Moreover, on December 6, 2022, during the joint military exercises, Turkey’s Minister of defence Hulusi Akar unequivocally stated: «Any threat to Azerbaijan, no matter where it originates, will be regarded as a threat to Turkey» and «Our friend's friend is our friend, while our friend’s enemy is our enemy».

The exercises themselves, titled «Brotherly Fist» and conducted under the «One Nation, Two States» motto should have attracted more attention from Ukrainian military experts due to their unprecedented scale, location in the three border districts with Iran, a variety of modern weapons, including American-made F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets, the presence of both defence ministers and so on.

All of that makes collaboration within the Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Turkey triangle, launched during the time of Ukraine's fifth president, Petro Poroshenko, and continued by his successor, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, more relevant as ever. The geopolitical alliance enjoys significant support of Ukrainian politicians, diplomats and general public, which has also been noticed by the Azerbaijani media.

One of the triangle cooperation promoters is the well-known Azerbaijani political analyst Ramiz Yunus, who currently resides in Washington. He is often invited as a commentator by Ukrainian TV-channels (1; 2; 3; 4; 5); among numerous favourable responses to the programmes with his participation many belong to the citizens of Azerbaijan, (who usually exhibit enhanced «ethnic sensitivity» in their reactions to international and bilateral events).

The same applies to interviews with the influential Azerbaijani military analyst Agil Rustamzade: «There are really two analysts from God in the CIS, Ramis Yunus and the other Rustamzade, both of whom are Azerbaijanis» (1; 2; 3; 4).

Ukrainian experts also call for a comprehensive study and use of Azerbaijan’s experience in restoring infrastructure of the de-occupied territories.

The reports on the infrequent trips of Ukrainian journalists to the recently liberated Azerbaijani territories draw analogies with Ukraine’s «scorched land» occupied by Russian troops or destroyed by massive shelling.

The Azerbaijani experience of bringing such areas back to life has been deemed extremely valuable for Ukraine after the future victory in the Russian-Ukrainian war. It is noteworthy that this and similar views cause true rage in the Russian media, one of which blatantly accused the author, Mikhail Gannitsky from UNIAN, of all imaginable «sins», without bothering to observe even the minimum standards of journalism ethics. Unfortunately, the Russian response, with corresponding malicious comments, has been reprinted in the Armenian press.

Recently, interest in Azerbaijan has also been driven by its growing role in supplying energy resources to a variety of countries, primarily of the European Union.

In addition to political, economic and social aspects, the publications on the Ukraine-Azerbaijan relations also pay certain attention to cultural events.

However, it should be pointed out that information about culture-related events is provided mainly by the State Information Agency UKRINFORM, while popular news websites seem to be not very interested in them (1; 2; 3; 4). Among the recently covered events was the first Vesnyanka charity spring festival-fair of Ukrainian and Azerbaijani culture, held with great success in Baku in April 2023.

In my opinion, translations of Azerbaijani books into Ukrainian also shouldn’t be overlooked. Let’s recall, for example, Yusif Vezir Chemenzeminli's autobiographical novel Students, presented at the opening of an auditorium named after him at the Taras Shevchenko National University on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Ukraine-Azerbaijan diplomatic relations.

The author, a prominent public figure, writer and diplomat, participated in the historic proclamation of the Ukrainian People's Republic and was later appointed Ambassador of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic to the UPR. The book covers his Ukrainian period of life. Interestingly, according to unconfirmed reports, Chemenzeminli is also considered the author of the cult Ali and Nino novel, translated into Ukrainian as well.

A well-known Ukrainian researcher and public figure, Maksym Mayorov, who attended the presentation, vividly described both the event itself and the life of that remarkable person on his Facebook page, quoting particularly interesting excerpts from his book.

To summarize, prior to the outbreak of the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war, Ukrainian media paid considerable attention to Azerbaijan, often mentioning the strategic nature of the partnership and readily quoting officials, some of whom even called it «exemplary».

Baku's «manoeuvring» between Kyiv and Moscow since the start of the unprecedented Russian aggression of February 24, 2022, has inevitably led to some disappointment and decrease in interest in the country, which has been reflected in the dropping number of publications in the mass media, in particular, on popular websites that cover international affairs.

Currently, Ukrainian media outlets are focused mostly on those Azerbaijani publications that contain critical assessments of Moscow's policy and emphasise the importance of jointly opposing its «imperial ambitions» (1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6).

At the same time, the difficulties in Azerbaijan's positioning itself in connection with the Russian-Ukrainian war find understanding among the Ukraine's top leadership. According to President Zelenskyy, «This is one of the few countries whose balance of neutrality can be understood, because they live under a threat of the war breaking out».

Another point worth mentioning is that sometimes, Azerbaijani events of certain importance for Ukraine remain, regrettably, either unnoticed by the Ukrainian media or receive only fragmentary mentions, containing sometimes inaccuracies that create the impression of negligence. Later, we will illustrate this point with the example of the dramatic events in the Lachin corridor that began in December 2022.

Given the importance of the lessons of the Karabakh wars, the negative experience of futile international efforts to peacefully resolve this armed conflict at the negotiating table, the policies and practices of Azerbaijan regarding the post-war reintegration of the previously occupied territories, and, in general, events related to the internal situation and international policy of Azerbaijan, Ukrainian media should probably pay attention to the Republic of Azerbaijan and Ukraine-Azerbaijan relations on a more regular basis.

It also makes sense to consider and cover them in a broader geopolitical context, especially that of the democratic world's confrontation with modern autocracies and dictatorships and, accordingly, on countering the influence of those on states that are trying to balance between them or adhere to conditional neutrality.

In particular, it is important to monitor and analyse the dynamics of events within international and regional organizations, such as the CSTO, the EAEU, the Customs Union and other structures in which Russia plays a leading role and into which it is persistently trying to drag Azerbaijan (1; 2; 3; 4). Undoubtedly, all possible assistance and support for the pro-Western (not in the geographical but in the political sense) and pro-democratic course of Azerbaijan — including in the information space — fully meets Ukraine's national interests.

Needless to say, this topic requires attention, sensitivity, and an extremely cautious approach not only on the part of Ukrainian diplomacy, but also in the media sphere. Given the inevitable limitations of the steps and statements that official representatives of the state can afford, the role played by the mass media in bilateral relations is ever-increasing. Success in this area depends not only on the quality of the content and the much-needed high skill of the media community members, but also on the choice of personalities — invited experts, analysts and commentators — as well as on the nuanced approach, tonality and emotional colouring of the coverage.

To be continued.