By Claude Salhani-Trend:
The last time Azerbaijan found itself at the center of geopolitics in a major way was when Nazi Germany was hoping to occupy the important oil wells in this country. The fact that Germany was unable to grab the Azerbaijani oil wells was not for lack of trying on Adolf Hitler's part. Part of the reason for the Battle of Stalingrad was to secure the Baku oil fields.
Azerbaijan, at the time part of the Soviet Union, suffered tremendous consequences from the Second World War, known in the former Soviet space as the Great Patriotic War. Azerbaijan lost 210,000 soldiers and 90,000 civilians, out of a total population of just over three million people, or 9.10 percent of its population.
It is believed that the Soviet Union lost some 26 million people, by some estimates, as there are no precise figures. People were dying so fast it was hard to keep accurate count. That number breaks down as 10,700,000 military killed, and 15,900,000 civilians killed.
Last week Russia and the former Soviet republics celebrated their victory over Nazi Germany and parades were held throughout the countries, including of course the one in Moscow's Red Square. By one estimate, if all the Soviets military forces killed during the war were to parade in Red Square and would take them 19 days to file past the reviewing stand.
The memory of this tragedy is never too far off the minds of people in this region who still recall the years of war, partial occupation, and the years of subjugation that followed, as the Cold War settled in and they found themselves on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.
Today Azerbaijan is in the forefront of global politics once again, albeit in a much more favorable position. The recent turmoil that has beset upon Ukraine has repercussions far beyond its borders. And nowhere is this crisis followed with greater attention than here.
And while the Obama administration is short of one coherent foreign policy regarding Russia, (among others) believing that screaming "sanctions, sanctions, sanctions and more sanctions," will somehow convince the Russians to behave and go home. All this does little to help the immediate needs of some Europeans who might find themselves shivering next winter, should some of these sanctions actually go into effect.
Europeans need Russia's gas, or failing that, they need to replace it. And the solution needs to be found sooner rather than later.
In the immediate future the only countries able to provide the amount of gas needed to replace Russia's are Turkmenistan and to a lesser degree Azerbaijan. However, in order to have Turkmenistan gas reach its destination, it needs to pass through the Caspian Sea, via the Trans-Caspian pipeline, through Azerbaijan and onto Georgia, Turkey, and to its final destinations.
This can only happen if Azerbaijan is willing to risk displeasing Moscow, and if Russia doesn't overreact if Baku does. It might be worth reminding policymakers in the United States that the Russian border is only about 100 miles from Baku.
Relations between Washington and Baku are cordial but could be better. Washington wants to see more evidence of democratic progress, like civil rights and misses an opportunity to raise the issue.
Yet Azerbaijan today holds particularly strategic importance to the Western alliance. Because just as oil was center to Nazi Germany's victory in 1944, oil remains, along with gas today, at the center of the region's politics and policies.
Maintaining political and economic stability in a tough neighborhood is not a simple task. Iran is on one side, on the other Armenia, with whom it is for all intents and purposes in a state of war, and then there is Russia, with whom Armenia is closely aligned.
Every so often one can find reports in the media of arrests by Azerbaijani security forces of would be Iranian terrorists or Armenian agents provocateurs. The former Soviet countries of Central Asia with their mélange of ethnicities, nationalities, religions, and political leanings could be potentially explosive minefields, unless one treads very carefully.
While Russian is still widely spoken in this region and Russian culture is still very much alive, it is not difficult to deduct that the hearts lean very much towards the West and America. The US needs to return some of that affection and understanding.
Anyone still in doubt of how much influence the United States has gained in this part of the world should simply look at last Sunday's Eurovision Song Contest where countries such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary Romania, Slovenia, Ukraine and even Russia all chose to sing in English instead of their native language. Not to mention a slew of others too.
Claude Salhani is senior editor at Trend Agency in Baku and a political analyst specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and terrorism. You can follow him on Twitter @claudesalhani