“Azerbaijan has proven to be a reliable partner of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization],” declared President Ilham Aliyev in December 2021 during his visit to NATO Headquarters in Brussels. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed this statement by referring to Azerbaijan as “a valued partner.” Stoltenberg supported his assertion by referencing Azerbaijan`s strong military cooperation with Turkey, its gas supplies to several NATO member states, as well as the country’s contribution to the NATO mission in Afghanistan (President.az, December 14, 2021).
August 2021. Afghanistan. As the United States and its allies evacuate the war-torn country during the Taliban’s subsequent takeover, soldiers of two countries—Turkey and Azerbaijan, both Muslim-majority nations—defend the critical Hamid Karzai airport and secure the successful exodus of government personnel and nongovernmental organization, dubbed the “Kabul airlift” (Caspian Post, August 16, 2021). Azerbaijani and Turkish soldiers stay in the country until the end and are among the last military personnel to depart. In offering his gratitude, Stoltenberg thanks Azerbaijan—in addition to the United States, the United Kingdom and Turkey—for its central role in securing the airport (Azernews, August 21, 2021).
Azerbaijan’s contributions to the NATO effort started in 2002 with 22 peacekeepers and rose to 120 by the time of the withdrawal. In addition to ground support, Azerbaijani units had facilitated the Afghanistan-bound supply logistics for the allied forces by securing the transit routes for around 40 percent of the needed military cargo (Caspian News, August 26, 2021).
Established in 1992, relations between Azerbaijan and NATO have evolved over the decades, with the former having participated in various programs of the military bloc, including the Partnership for Peace program and the NATO-led missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo (Nato.int, August 25, 2021). At some point, especially when other states in the post-Soviet space, such as Georgia and Ukraine, actively aspired to become members of the alliance, Azerbaijan`s path seemingly diverged from its fellow GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) partners: In truth, Baku never sought NATO membership and instead opted for “equidistance” from rivaling blocs (Top-center.org, March 18, 2021). Such a balancing policy was designed to maintain room for maneuver amid the growing confrontation between Russia and the West as well as to avoid irritating the Kremlin, which was quite sensitive about the NATO-bound paths of Georgia and Ukraine.
Nevertheless, Azerbaijan, through its bilateral relations with Turkey, enjoys an almost de-facto security guarantee from a NATO member—as some Azerbaijani experts put it, an indirect NATO “umbrella” (Top-center.org, June 15, 2021). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an even announced in June 2021 that a Turkish military base could be set up in Azerbaijan under the recently signed bilateral Shusha Declaration, aimed at strengthening the two countries’ defense partnership (EurAsian Times, June 17, 2021)—a message that was received in Moscow with a great deal of irritation and discomfort (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 18, 2021).
Close relations with Turkey have enabled Azerbaijan to modernize its armed forces and bring them closer to NATO standards (Report.az., December 5, 2022). During the Second Karabakh War, this modernization, coupled with state-of-the-art weaponry from diverse sources (including NATO members), proved itself more effective than the Armenian Armed Forces, a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member that stuck with Soviet/Russian military philosophy and technology.
Emboldened by this triumph, and perhaps due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Azerbaijan has been more enthusiastic in expanding cooperation with NATO in the past year and a half, with this deepening of ties “positively assessed” by senior officials of the alliance (Turan, April 29, 2022).
As such, mutual visits have indeed intensified over that period. In December 2021, Aliyev visited NATO Headquarters, declaring that Azerbaijan is “very happy to have a high level of interaction with NATO” (President.az, December 14, 2021). Aliyev’s foreign policy advisor, Hikmat Hajiyev, has joined a number of meetings with NATO officials in Brussels, most recently in May 2023 (Report.az, May 2). The NATO secretary general’s special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, Javier Colomina, has been to Azerbaijan four times since 2021. During his most recent trip to Baku, Colomina met with Hajiyev and Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov (Report.az, May 26), as well as Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov, to discuss practical cooperation as well as joint defense planning and review processes. The NATO official’s previous visits included meetings with Aliyev (President.az, April 28, 2022) and Hasanov in April 2022 (Mod.gov.az, April 29, 2022), as well as with Bayramov in October 2021 (Mfa.gov.az, October 18, 2021) and January 2023 (Mfa.gov.az, January 19).
Furthermore, in November 2022, Baku hosted NATO Days, which aimed to strengthen the alliance’s close cooperation with Azerbaijan, a “key partner nation” as described on the official NATO website (Shape.nato.int, November 28, 2022). As part of the proceedings, a delegation headed by Rear Admiral Gunnstein Bruåsdal, deputy chief of staff for the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe Partnerships Directorate, visited Azerbaijan`s military facilities, held a series of meetings and congratulated “the Azerbaijani Forces for their excellent progress, where various force components have successfully achieved full operational capability, through our Partnerships Operational Capability Concept scheme.” The chief of staff of NATO Allied Land Command, Lieutenant General Mustafa O?uz, also paid a visit to Azerbaijan in March 2023 (Trend, March 9).
During an interview in December 2022, Colomina stated that Azerbaijani-NATO cooperation had returned to pre-pandemic levels and that the two parties were working “to develop a new partnership framework document, called the Individually Tailored Partnership Programme (or ITPP), which should set us on an ambitious course for the years to come” (APA, December 19, 2022).
According to a senior NATO official, Azerbaijan successfully uses NATO cooperation tools and is among the most active countries in these programs. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry keeps a list of the NATO tools and programs its military has taken part in, such as the Individual Partnership Action Plan, activities within the Planning and Review Process, the Operational Capabilities Concept, the Defense Education Enhancement Program, as well as the Science for Security and Peace Program (Mod.gov.az, accessed June 24).
Azerbaijan`s closer military cooperation with Turkey and NATO is evolving simultaneously with Baku’s drift away from Moscow: Several Russian-made Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jets in the Azerbaijani Air Force have been modernized (following NATO standards) by Turkey, rather than Russia (Ordu.az, May 12; see EDM, May 30).
Within these positively developing relations, each side has its concerns as well. While not engaged directly in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace negotiations and the Karabakh issue, NATO nevertheless fully supports mediation efforts by the United States and European Union but has raised concerns about the protests and Azerbaijani-installed checkpoint along the Lachin road (Nato.int, January 20; APA, May 2). For its part, the Azerbaijani side is troubled about possible military aid to Armenia, which is a member of the Russian-led CSTO, by individual NATO states, such as France (Azertag; Reytinq, May 13).
While these concerns will be addressed, it is apparent that Azerbaijan has opted for deepening its cooperation with NATO. In turn, the alliance also seems keen in taking advantage of the growing level of interaction between the two sides amid the tense Russian-Western confrontation.
By Leyla Aslanova
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