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Azerbaijan touts itself as alternative to Russian energy as Ukraine crisis deepens

April 24, 2014
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photo - Elin Suleymanov. Photo from the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan website.
Elin Suleymanov. Photo from the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan website. 

America has a pint-sized ally that's working on a solution for easing tensions with Russia in coming years.

Azerbaijan, a country on the Caspian Sea with legendary oil wealth, is building a natural gas pipeline to feed the riches of the Baku oil field to Europe in a move that will make other American allies less dependent on Russian supplies and more free to counter Russian territorial aims.

The biggest pipelines supplying natural gas to Europe run from Russia through Ukraine and could be disrupted by war. That has hamstrung some European politicians who want to curb Russian aggression but keep Russian energy supplies flowing.

Azerbaijan's ambassador to the U.S., Elin Suleymanov, talked about oil, the Ukraine crisis and his country's lingering issues with neighbor Armenia during a Tuesday visit to the Air Force Academy.

"People say the Crimea is unprecedented, we say that's not true," Suleymanov said while detailing his country's often tempestuous relations with neighbors.

A section of Azerbaijan was seized by Armenia after a majority of ethnic Armenians in that region voted for a break, triggering six years of war that ended in 1994. Azerbaijan remains upset the U.S. and other western powers won't support its claims for the return of that land.

"Unless and until you have a consistent policy on sovereignty, things like that which happened in Ukraine will keep happening," Suleymanov told cadets.

Despite lingering issues over the disputed territory, Azerbaijan has grown into a key U.S. ally. The nation of nine million citizens is located between Russia and Iran.

Since regaining independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, the majority Muslim nation has formed a secular government and counts Israel as one of its closest trade partners.

Azerbaijan has sent small contingents to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and serves as a hub for supplies headed to NATO troops battling the Taliban.

The nation has tied its future to European desire for oil and natural gas.

Shortly after separating from the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan reached an oil accord with western corporations called the "deal of the century." Western investment allowed construction of a pipeline that sends 1 million barrels a day to a port in Turkey.

"Idaho has good potatoes, Azerbaijan has good oil," Suleymanov told cadets.

Now, amid the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. and other powers are backing a plan that would send natural gas to Europe through a pipeline that bypasses Russia.

The $45 billion project is expected to be finished by 2018 and Suleymanov said it would give Europe choices on how to meet energy needs.

"Today, the energy security of Europe is a most important issue," Suleymanov said.

While touting itself as an energy alternative to Russia, Azerbaijan must tread lightly.

With Russian territorial ambitions growing, Azerbaijan doesn't want to test its relations with its northern neighbor.

"We try to avoid confrontations with any neighbor," Suleymanov said.

But as its oil wealth grows, so does Azerbaijani pride.

"Our independence is the greatest achievement of my people," the ambassador said.

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