Nagorno Karabakh: what is the British view?

Since the beginning of the military escalation in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, Great Britain has been conspicuously silent on this issue. Given that London has traditionally attached significance to its relations with Baku, this silence was rather unexpected. However, on October 19, the BP Regional Director in Azerbaijan Gary Johns issued a statement on behalf of the company, de-facto endorsing Azerbaijan and emphasizing the strategic significance of Azerbaijani energy communications for Great Britain. Even more interestingly, on the following day UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab emphasized the strategic character of the British-Turkish relationship, calling Ankara “an ally and a friend”, in a way rebuking the attempts of some European countries (such as France or Austria) to re-evaluate the Western position on Turkey. 

What do these statements come to signify? It must be stated that London’s attention to Azerbaijan has been traditionally strongly related to British oil and gas industry: BP has long been the biggest, and since recently, de-facto single Western operator company in Azerbaijan. This strong presence on the ground engendered British interest in supporting stability and security of the fragile region. At the same time, Britain has never had an Armenian lobby as a political factor and thus, unlike some Western countries or Russia, could have taken a purely pragmatic stance towards the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This approach helped London to gain significant trust in Baku. After Brexit, as UK no longer feels obliged to sail in the European policy mainstream, it can afford not paying even lip service to the general European foreign policy, strongly relying on the multilateral approach which often hinders political flexibility. 

Raab`s statement on Turkey fits the framework of the contemporary British foreign policy pretty well. The current Conservative ruling elite came to power with the promise of “global Britain”, which would substitute the restrictions posed by the intricate European legislation and standards with the ability to build trade and military alliances around the world, restoring, as they believe, Britain’s natural role as a global, rather than regional power. This strategy requires building strong relationships, including free trade agreements and strong cooperation with as many regional centers of power around the world, such as Japan, India, China, Brazil, etc. Turkey is perceived as one of such critically important countries, both from the economic and geopolitical points of view. Besides its large lucrative market, it is also a so-called “gateway to the Middle East”, and Ankara’s pro-active position in the region can be helpful for London in terms of influencing the political processes in the region which it for a long time considered its playground.

Strong partnership with Turkey bears crucial significance for one of the major strategic directions of London’s foreign policy - containing Russia wherever possible. It is not a coincidence then that both London and Ankara put their military cooperation with Ukraine to the qualitatively new level almost simultaneously. Hence, it is quite understandable that the success of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh suits British interests on various levels. By endorsing Ankara almost simultaneously with expressing indirect support to Baku, the UK sends an important signal to those countries (primarily France) which would like to use the ongoing conflict for isolating Turkey and juxtaposing its “imperial ambitions” to the Western interests. It can be also interpreted in terms of the post-Brexit relationship between London and Brussels. It is already obvious that London is clearly unwilling to coordinate its foreign policy with the EU and will instead try to align with those countries who share similar positions on a number of strategic issues, such as Italy, Poland and probably Germany.