Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in Azerbaijan on Tuesday with multiple issues on his agenda, including energy and transport cooperation, the expansion of mutual trade, business and investments. But one other topic topped his list.
At a joint press conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev, Zelensky described why national security issues pertinent to each country are viewed as critical to regional security.
“We discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. We support each other in the issue of restoring the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our countries,” Zelensky said in the press conference in Baku on Tuesday, according to the Azerbaijani president’s official website. “We are talking about the restoration of internationally recognized borders.”
“Ukraine was forced to defend its freedom and sovereignty,” he said. “We are doing everything to restore peace and the territorial integrity of our state. Unfortunately, the same threat faces Azerbaijan, which seeks to restore its territorial integrity. But I am convinced that our countries will successfully pass these tests. I believe that the long-awaited peace will triumph in both Ukraine and Azerbaijan.”
President Aliyev said Azerbaijan has always been committed to regional security, which has only been hampered by the conflict between South Caucasus neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.
“As a result of Armenia’s military aggression, 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory has been occupied – Nagorno-Karabakh, which is our historical land, and seven adjacent districts. A policy of ethnic cleansing has been implemented in these territories and more than a million of our compatriots have become refugees and internally displaced,” President Aliyev said at a dinner he hosted Tuesday evening.
The conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan erupted shortly after the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991. Armenia launched an all-out military campaign to occupy the region. The full-scale war lasted until the ceasefire in 1994 and resulted in Armenia occupying all of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts. Armenia routinely violates the ceasefire agreement and still has not fulfilled the four UN Security Council resolutions to immediately and unconditionally withdraw its forces from the occupied regions.
Elkhan Shahinoglu, a political analyst who leads the Atlas Research Center in Baku, said President Zelensky’s choice of Azerbaijan as his first destination to visit in the South Caucasus sends a message to Armenia.
“In Baku, it was emphasized that both countries unanimously support each other's territorial integrity and condemn separatism,” Shahinoglu told Caspian News. “Ukrainian president’s saying, ‘It is about restoring territorial integrity within the internationally recognized borders’. This statement reaffirms Ukraine's taking a side of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This is Zelensky's necessary message to Armenia.”
Ukraine’s territorial integrity was hit by the crisis in Crimea in 2014. It was then followed by anti-government riots by Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. The crisis eventually destabilized the Donbas region of Ukraine. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed 13,000, wounded 40,000 and displaced 1.5 million internally, according to the BBC.
In a report published on the official website of the European Council on Foreign Relations, both the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the conflicts in Donetsk and Lugansk have been classified as “grey zones” that “litter” the map of Eastern Europe.