During the Second Karabakh War, the Azerbaijani army achieved notable military success and proved itself worthy in combat by implementing the training, exercises, intelligence and other military expertise gained over the past 30 years.
However, with this war, the country also had the opportunity to observe some deficiencies in its army and decisive steps have been taken to eliminate them in the post-war scenario. The close cooperation between the two strategic allies of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Türkiye in military training and exercises has been remarkable. The reason for the close cooperation in the military realm between the two states comes down to the mutual trust between the duo as allies and the warm relations between the countries’ political elite and people.
Military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Türkiye has been continuous since the 1990s and the military model designed by Türkiye during this period has proven suitable for Azerbaijan’s goals and purposes.
Moreover, even before the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijani soldiers and officers who were trained in Türkiye acquired the necessary skills to respond to the demands of the Azerbaijani state and people in terms of professionalism and fighting spirit. For this reason, even before the war started, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev announced after a joint exercise in Azerbaijan in August 2020 that the Azerbaijani army would switch to the Turkish army’s model. The results obtained in the Second Karabakh War have accelerated this process.
The end of the war did not reduce military activity in the region but revealed new threats and targets. On the one hand, thousands of armed Armenians maintained their presence in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, where Russian peacekeepers were temporarily located, contrary to the tripartite declaration of Nov. 10, 2020. On the other hand, Armenia began to frequently violate the cease-fire on the border and resumed buying weapons from Russia, Iran and India. Iran, which hadn’t carried out a military exercise in 30 years when Azerbaijani lands were occupied, has carried out three such exercises in the last two years, with the one held in November 2022 seen as a direct threat to Azerbaijan, a fact that Iranian officials did not conceal.
Meanwhile, France has been taking steps to disrupt the final peace talks between Baku and Yerevan, which has encouraged revanchists in Armenia. In response to the environment in the region, Aliyev said at an international conference held in Baku on Nov. 30 that: “Those who have insidious plans against Azerbaijan or Türkiye should know that the Turkish army is not alone. The Turkish army is not only (the) Türkish army, it is also our army, and our army is also Türkiye’s army.”
‘One Army! One Fist!’
A few days after this statement, the Azerbaijani and Turkish armies commenced joint drills in Azerbaijan. This exercise held on Dec. 4-5 was called “Fist of Brotherhood” by Aliyev before later being described as “One Army! One Power! One Fist!” by the Turkish Defense Ministry on social media.
In the video clips relating to the exercise published by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense, the Azerbaijani and Turkish armies can be seen working together to build a pontoon bridge for tanks and special units to cross over. Additionally, special forces are seen crossing the river and attacking the other side in boats.
Commenting on the motive behind these exercises, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated, “Of course, there are reasons for everything. The reason for this is to be able to eliminate the undesirable but existing problems in those borders on the spot.” This was actually a message to Iran, which recently conducted two military exercises on its border with Azerbaijan and has threatened Baku in statements. However, this is not the first time Türkiye has offered support to Azerbaijan in response to Iranian pressure. Previously, in 2001 and 2010, Türkiye sided with Azerbaijan.
At the same time, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said, “We accept that any threat or provocation is against Türkiye. Anything against Azerbaijan is directed against both countries. We see our friend as a friend together, and we see our enemy as an enemy together.” As a matter of fact, in the Shusha Declaration signed between Ankara and Baku after the Second Karabakh War, it was stated that if one of the parties was attacked, the other would assist.
Of course, this was not the first exercise held between the two countries, according to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense, more than 20 joint military exercises were held between the two countries in 2022 alone. The purpose of these exercises is explained by the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry as follows: “The military personnel of both brotherly countries ensure combat coordination during troop interactions, improve management, exchange experience and increase professionalism of personnel.” In short, the exercises accelerate the transition of the Azerbaijani army to the Türkish model and create a single army that can act jointly during threats.
A decision by the Supreme Military Council in August 2021 increased the number of Turkish generals in Azerbaijan to four. The most striking Turkish appointment was that of Bahtiyar Ersay as head of operations of the land forces of the Azerbaijan Task Group Command. Together with other generals, Ersay played an active and influential role in the transition of the Azerbaijani army to the Turkish army model. This appointment was welcomed in Azerbaijan due to his previous success in other military operations. A year after this appointment, Ersay became an adviser to Azerbaijan’s minister of defense and wears the uniform of an Azerbaijani general.
Restructuring the Azerbaijani army
Participating in a program on Azerbaijan state television after the December exercise and commenting on its purpose, Ersay said, “I think that through these exercises, the two armies gained the ability to plan, coordinate and execute in a short span of time, so that they could act rapidly.”
According to Maj. Gen. Kenan Seyidova, the 5th Army Commander of Azerbaijan, these exercises help all the units of the two militaries act in a coordinated manner.
Other efforts are also being made with the aim of adapting the Azerbaijani military to the Turkish model and creating a single army. After the Karabakh victory, the Azerbaijani army was restructured. Land forces, commando units and a National Defense University (NDU) were established in the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. The aim of the NDU is to develop the command level in the military training domain in order to adopt measures to help adapt the Azerbaijani army to the standards of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). A command and control center was also established to command the newly formed land forces, ensure their coordination with other army units, evaluate information correctly and present it to higher-ups.
After the Second Karabakh War, the number of Azerbaijan army special units was increased. Later, mountain commando units were formed and first received training in Türkiye before they were deployed in Azerbaijan. The first of these commando units was established in the strategically important town of Hadrut, which had been liberated. President Aliyev inaugurated this unit, stating, “Commando units will increase the strength of the Azerbaijani army. Such brigades will be more than one in the Azerbaijani army.” The second commando brigade was established in Kelbajar after its liberation from Armenian occupation and was inaugurated by Aliyev on June 26, 2022.
In short, the military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Türkiye that started in the 1990s evolved to a new stage after the Second Karabakh War. At this stage, although the Azerbaijani army is small compared to the Turkish army, the foundation has been laid for the militaries of the two countries to coordinate and act as a single army during a possible conflict scenario.
There is political will in both countries when it comes to the issue and new threats in the region require this ability.
Cavid Veliyev, Head of Department at the Baku-based think tank Center of Analysis of International Relations (AIR Center)