Relations with the Russian Federation
Azerbaijan has always been of significant interest for the Kremlin because of its geopolitical location, and because of Russia’s desire to “monopolise all energy and transit routes to and from Europe.” Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union until 1991, when it gained independence follwoing the USSR’s collapse. There are still memories of the violence which proceeded their independence, including “Black January,” in which hundreds were killed or injured in Baku. This, along with the fact that Russia signed military agreements with Armenia—a country stil in conflict with Azerbaijan— contributes to distrust towards Russia in Azerbaijani society. Russia has often acted as the “main arbitrator for the territorial dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.” Despite Russia’s role in this conflict, it has been noted that it is far from impartial, as “instead of advancing the peace negotiation Russia continues to sells firearms and ammunition to both sides.” Russia was seen as supporting Armenia even before the actual collapse of the Soviet Union, and its continual role in the “frozen conflict” has been described as a way in which it continues to exert its influence in the region.
The Caucasus Barometer surveys conducted in 2007 and 2009 showed that “the number of people approving of friendship with Russia dropped significantly, from 80% to 54%” whilst “the number of people disapproving of friendship grew from 20% to 46%.” It is notable that the 2008 war with Georgia happened in between these two surveys. This conflict supported the notion that Russia played an aggressive role in the region, again illustrating that it is not an impartial arbiter when it comes to problems in the South Caucasus. More recently, the 2013 survey showed that 95% of people disapproved of women marrying Russians, and that only 1% of people considered Russia as country’s main ally, whilst 7% of people considered Russia as the country’s main enemy, ranked only behind Armenia. Moreover, 85% of people said that they would never accept Abkhazia as a formal part of Russia. Despite these statistics, there remains high approval for conducting business with Russians, which in 2013 stood at 86%, while only 13% of people disapproved. This is likely due to the fact that Russia is a “vital” economic partner of Azerbaijan, and is the major importer of Azerbaijani non-oil products.
Furthermore, 16% of respondents thought that Russian should be mandatory in schools, and 72% had at least a introductory-level knowledge of Russian. Since foreign ownership and funding in Azerbaijan is strictly controlled, the reason for the Russian language’s prominence cannot be considered as a direct Russian foreign policy tool. Nonetheless, the Russian language’s wide reach can be used to their advantage, and it has been noted that whilst previously “Russia’s main pressure tools for Azerbaijan were political issues such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” this is no longer the case, as “after 2012, Moscow’s strategy changed, and Russia’s language and educational tools, as well as information tools, were seen as essential.” Russian remains a lingua franca for several groups in Azerbaijan, “including members of the local political, economic and cultural elite.”
In a different survey, it was shown that only 16% of the Azerbaijani population supported their integration into the Russia-led EEU, whilst accession to the EU and NATO was supported by 72% of respondents. It also showed a higher levels of trust towards NATO and the EU compared to the EEU.
Azerbaijan has a Russian minority of over 100,000 people. According to Minority Rights Group International, “Russians are the third largest minority group” in Azerbaijan, and “they live mostly in the industrial cities and speak Russian.” Nonetheless, this group remains less than 2% of the Azerbaijani population. The community has been identified as a group vulnerable to Russian propaganda and influence.
There is little political acknowledgement of the Russian threat, and Azerbaijan’s leaders have instead consistently moved to create closer relations with Russia. In 2004, President Ilham Aliyev, who is still Azerbaijan’s current President, signed a Declaration of Principles with Russia, which outlined their bilateral relations and reaffirmed “the Azerbaijani leadership's loyalty to its strategic partnership with Russia.” That same year, Aliyev met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to discussthe “the expansion of military and military technical cooperation of the two countries.” In 2007, Aliyev reaffirmed Azerbaijan’s strategic partnership with Russia, their growing cooperation, and their mutual respect. In 2017 Aliyev stated that “the close ties between our peoples are successfully developing today. Just last night, at a regular meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin we reviewed our bilateral relations agenda and found that there are no issues that need to be resolved.” Similar statements have also been made regarding Azerbaijan’s relations with the EU and the US.
Aliyev was also awarded the Order of Glory and Honour from His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, the highest decoration in the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2016, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Russia committed to closer ties in a collaborative effort against terrorism and organised crime, as well as regional economic cooperation projects. However, there is evidence that the relations between these countries are nuanced. In 2017, for instance, Azerbaijan rejected Russia’s choice of ambassador to the country. Moreover, Azerbaijan has been particularly unhappy with Russia’s attitude towards Armenia, and it has been reported that “although Russia sells weapons to both sides in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is clear that Moscow’s sympathies lie with Armenia,” which is a source of anger for Azerbaijan.
Nonetheless, experts on national security have begun to recognise that Azerbaijan may face a threat—especially in the area of cybersecurity—from Russia, Iran and Armenia. Thus, whilst “Azerbaijan has passed a cyber-act in order to deter the domestic intruders […] the actual threat comes from foreign hackers who conduct clandestine operations.” Despite this recognition, little is being done to formally acknowledge the cyberthreat, or to develop a holistic defence on a national scale in response.
Azerbaijan is a proponent of cyber laws, although it does not yet have a national cyber security strategy. In 2008, Azerbaijan’s campaign to promote cyber laws “was appreciated by the Council of Europe when it joined the Convention on Cybercrime.” Azerbaijan joined the European multilateral alliance which combats cybercrimes, and is an active participant against “unethical and immoral usages of internet and cyber-space.” In 2011, Azerbaijan joined the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime.
It appears that some of Azerbaijan’s efforts in countering cyberwarfare have been successful, and in 2012, over 9,000 interventions to the hosting system of the Special Security Service were prevented. Nonetheless, the country seems to be plagued with numerous cyberattacks, particularly due to their ongoing conflict with Armenia. Several cyberattacks have also come from Iran.
The Ministry Of Transport, Communication And Major Technologies has a website on the “Electronic Safety Service,” with warnings, information, advice, and a direct contact line, which is a useful service and educational tool for citizens. Furthermore, each year a conference about internet safety is held, and participants include members of higher education institutions, governmental representatives, NGOs, and information security specialists. Additionally, in 2017, it was announced that Kaspersky Lab would organize cybersecurity training for oil and gas personnel in Azerbaijani companies. However, Kaspersky Lab, a multinational cyber security company headquartered in Moscow, has faced allegations of having ties with the Russian government.
Despite these services, major development is needed in this area, especially since there is no national strategy or holistic approach to counter cyberthreats, which are not yet formally acknowledged as a major security threat. It is recommended that Azerbaijan develops “a comprehensive information warfare strategy designed to counter Kremlin-led messages and narratives.” Overall, Azerbaijan was ranked 48th in the global index on cybersecurity in 2017.
Publicly known intelligence activities
The Azerbaijan Ministry of National Security (MNS) was an intelligence agency within the cabinet of Azerbaijan. It was dissolved in December 2015 and replaced by The State Security Service and Foreign Intelligence Service. These agencies have not publicly expelled Russian agents or made statements about the Russian threat. However, it should be noted that the agencies had not made critical statements about many other countries either.
There are few NGO activities in Azerbaijan which focus on counteracting the Russian threat. This may stem from the Azerbaijan's government severe restrictions on the country's civil society sector, in particular regarding foreign funding, which has resulted in the closure of several NGOs. The government claims that this is in order to “to protect Azerbaijan from potential foreign influence and threats.” In reality, it means that NGOs have very little influence in Azerbaijan, and now most organisations are grassroots or volunteer based. An example of the latter is a hacker group called the “Pirates Crew.” This group has fought against cyberattacks directed towards Azerbaijan, such as in 2012, when they “crashed over 20 Iranian websites.”
In 2016, StopFake members provided a two-day training for young politicians, looking at fact-checking, political propaganda, and digital debunking. In 2017, the US Embassy granted scholarships to Azerbaijani journalists, allowing them to take a course aimed at improving their skills in recognising fake news and disinformation. Nonetheless, the professionalism of journalists, the cooperation between the media and state agencies, and the difficult social situations of media workers—who can as a result be influenced by foreign groups—remain significant problems in Azerbaijan.
 http://caucasusbarometer.org/en/cb2013az/MAINENEM/ second to Armenia, which had 90%.
 37% beginner, 28% intermediate, 7% advanced knowledge of Russian. http://caucasusbarometer.org/en/cb2013az/KNOWRUS/