On Turkey

Turkey’s Overlooked Role in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War

January 21, 2021
Haldun Yalçınkaya
6 min read
The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended on November 10, 2020 with the former acknowledging defeat.

Various factors explain Azerbaijan’s military victory, with two considered by observers as “magic bullets”: the role of unmanned aerial vehicles sourced from Turkey and Israel, and the advisory role of Turkish senior military personnel in Azerbaijan’s operational plans and command. But, while exceedingly important, these factors do not sufficiently explain the outcome of the conflict. There is an additional significant factor. Soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Turkey began building Azerbaijan’s armed forces, along with those several other former Soviet republics. Azerbaijan’s recent victory against Armenia was the result of this thirty-year effort.

The Necessity of a Well-built Army

During the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijan’s armament program and Turkey’s contribution to it were widely discussed. While its defense industry is a significant supplier to Azerbaijan’s armed forces, Turkey is far from being the largest one. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia is Azerbaijan’s top defense supplier followed by Israel, Ukraine, Belarus, and, only then, Turkey.

Moreover, superior weapons and equipment alone do not win wars. One can argue that human capital and organizational capacity are equally, if not more, important. Carl von Clausewitz’s seminal book, On War, presents two issues, friction and the fog of war, that necessitate, for the sake of military victory, highly trained personnel and a perfectly harmonized command structure. After a military operation begins, it inevitably changes due to an infinite number of factors, no matter how perfectly it has been planned. In fact, operational plans are destined to fall short. Clausewitz described these factors as “friction” and the environment of such uncertainty as the “fog of war.” According to him, the party with the greater capacity for eliminating these factors gains advantage in a war. This requires advanced human capital and organizational capacity, both of which are the result of meticulous training.

History is full of examples of better-trained and/or better-commanded armies defeating ones that were better equipped. More recently, oil-rich countries that import the most advanced weapon systems have not demonstrated any significant success in military conflict. That is to say, even if an army is well-equipped a lack of highly trained and precisely commanded troops could prevent it to reach its goals during a conflict.

Turkey’s Army Building in Azerbaijan

Turkey’s most significant contribution to Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War was neither the drones it supplied nor the military advisors it allegedly provided, but three decades of meticulous army building.

These efforts started at the end of the Cold War. After Azerbaijan became independent in 1992, it had two options: it could build an army based either on the legacy of the Red Army or on Western standards. It chose the latter, not least because of Turkey’s offer to help. Sharing a language, though with different dialects, the two countries had a record of military cooperation going back to the 1917 Russian Revolution. In 1918, the Ottoman military assisted Azerbaijan’s independence efforts. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and Azerbaijan’s independence, “two states, one nation” became a motto for a close relationship between the two countries. At the same time, Azerbaijan’s relationship with NATO also formed the basis for Turkey’s military assistance and army-building process.

The first agreement on military training cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkey was signed in 1992. Ratified in the Turkish Parliament the following year, it was implemented vigorously. Within the framework of this agreement, cadets, young officers, and mid-level command staff of Azerbaijan’s armed forces would receive an education at the Turkish Military Academy, the Turkish War Academy, the Gülhane Military Medical Academy, and the non-commissioned officer schools. The army-building process started with training and education in Turkey, and later moved to Azerbaijan. Turkey also contributed to the founding and reorganization of military education and training institutions in Azerbaijan.

This collaboration reached its highest point with the Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support of 2010. From that point on, Azerbaijani military personnel participated in Turkish military exercises and conducted military visits to Turkey, and vice versa.

As a result of this uninterrupted education and training process, the Azerbaijani military developed a strong human-resource capacity as well as effective command skills. Over the course of three decades, the traditions of strict discipline and obedience in the Turkish armed forces overtook the former Soviet influence on the Azerbaijani army, with the education and training process led by the Turkish land forces replicated by the navy and air force as well.

Turkey’s army-building process in Azerbaijan was in line with NATO policies toward partner countries. After the end of the Cold War, NATO established partnership tools and mechanisms including capability building, interoperability, and transformation through education, training, and exercises. Azerbaijan began its relationship with NATO in 1992 by becoming a member of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council. Later, it joined the Partnership for Peace Program and developed an Individual Partnership Action Plan with NATO. Azerbaijan’s participation in NATO’s operation in Kosovo under Turkish military command at the end of the 1990s was an important turning point for its partnership with NATO. The second one was Azerbaijan’s participation in the International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan under the command of the Turkish armed forces.

Azerbaijan’s participation in NATO operations has shown that a military from the former Soviet Union can achieve the alliance’s standards through an army-building process led by Turkey. The transformation of the Azerbaijan armed forces is just one example. Since the end of Cold War, Turkey has provided military and non-military assistance to more than thirty states in the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Africa as part of bilateral or multilateral arrangements. It co-founded and continues to advise military academies in Afghanistan, Georgia, and Somalia, in addition to Azerbaijan. It is also in close military cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia, which are other littoral states in the Black Sea. Turkey has also strongly supported the membership of two other Black Sea countries, Bulgaria and Romania, in NATO. Its Black Sea policies and military support constitute a robust example of its capacity to contribute to transatlantic cooperation. Accordingly, Turkey continues to fulfill its responsibility to export NATO standards in its region and its army-building efforts in Azerbaijan should be seen in this perspective.

Turkey was for a long time the object of army-building by others. Its modern military capacity and traditions are largely a result of efforts by the United States (and before of Prussia/Germany). Until the end of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire subscribed to the Prussian/German military school in the second quarter of nineteenth century, based on its victorious legacy through history. During and soon after the Second World War Turkey adopted U.S. military education and its armed forces were rapidly modernized by the United States, first bilaterally and then through NATO, after it became a member. Therefore, the military “school” Turkey is using to help others rebuild their armies is one it acquired earlier through the transatlantic alliance.

Turkey’s army-building capacity was clearly one of the leading factors contributing to Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and the most important difference between the conflict of 2020 and the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. While the first conflict was between two armies with a Soviet military legacy, the second took place between an army still living in the previous century versus a modern army with Western standards. The role Turkey played in Azerbaijan demonstrates not only its army-building capacity, but also its potential to further contribute to the transatlantic alliance in its region and beyond.

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