On 5th of May, following a private trilateral meeting in Qabala city, Azerbaijani Defence Minister, Colonel-General Zakir Hasanov, Georgian Defence Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, and Turkish National Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz agreed to hold joint military exercises on enhancing the combat readiness of the three countries armed forces in order to achieve the further development of trilateral cooperation on regional security. Simultaneously, the trilateral military activities, which arose huge concerns in neighboring Armenia, were mainly targeted to improve trilateral coordination on the protection of oil, and natural gas pipelines, railway projects, and the upcoming New Silk Road project. The minister of defense Zakir Hasanov mentioned that new military a memorandum would occur very soon. According to him, the memorandum, which is being prepared, will be the legal base of cooperation and allow trilateral activities to enter a new stage. Although the debates regarding the new memorandum have been delayed, Ms. Khidasheli notes that the trilateral memorandum will be signed in the upcoming ministerial meeting in Batumi, in August of 2016.
The trilateral alliance of Azerbaijan – Turkey – Georgia emerged in 2007 during the official visit of President Ilham Aliyev to Georgia. As a result of the trilateral meeting with then – prime minister of Turkey R.T.Erdogan in 2012, the so-called Trabzon declaration was signed, and further, the trilateral dialogue was strengthened by the adoption of Ganja declaration in 2014. But the turning point for trilateral cooperation became during the meeting in 2014 held in Nakhchivan when all countries signed an agreement for future cooperation and agreed to hold meetings in the same format twice a year. Following the agreement in 2014, and 2015 (Caucasian Eagle) joint military drills with the involvement of 80 military helicopters, 60 armored vehicles, and military staff were conducted. Although all three countries have different priorities and interests in foreign policy, the security issue of natural gas pipelines, borders security, and terrorism threat is the common concern of the three countries.
The necessity of launching the joint exercises for protecting the pipelines has emerged aftermath of the latest four-day war of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces with a separatist regime in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. When official Baku threatened attacks on Khankendi (the capital Stepanakert), the separatist regime in Nagorno-Karabakh in retaliation to the statements expressed its readiness to carry out artillery attacks on oil and gas communications of Azerbaijan. The current escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis poses a real threat to key projects of the Baku – Tbilisi – Ankara axle, in particular to the progressing New Silk Road (or Eurasian Land Bridge) project that intends to bypass Russian territory.
Although there are claims that the trilateral military exercises will lead to an anti-Russian military alliance in the Caucasus, the possible participation of Georgia and Azerbaijan in such a military alliance is very doubtful. Neither Azerbaijan is aimed to openly confront Russia in the region, nor Georgia, which internationally recognized territories are illegally occupied by Russia. Apparently, in retaliation to the trilateral military drills, the Russia-led Collective Security Organization launched large-scale drills for member states’ rapid response police forces in the “Baghramyan” training facility of Armenia. Officially, the main reason for the police drills is to create a practical basis for countering international terrorism and extremism. But in fact, the new trilateral alliance is the source of concern for the Kremlin-backed CSTO.
Hence, the trilateral partnership of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Georgia has reached the strategic partnership level, says Dr. Farhad Mammadov.
Notwithstanding the fact, Azerbaijan – Turkey has always been the closest military allies and it has given both countries more flexibility in the strategic but sensitive Caucasus. Deteriorated relations with Russia have prompted Turkey to increase its own influence in the South Caucasus by involving Georgia and Azerbaijan in regional projects. In this regard, Azerbaijani and Georgian territories are viewed by Turkey as one of the most key routes for its multi-billion-dollar economic projects in Central Asia. Since the role of Turkey in the economic life of the Central Asian region (namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan) is unquestioned, the country is aimed at establishing transport links across Eurasia and thus, threatening the Russian interests in Central Asia.
Seemingly, Azerbaijan is also interested in the further development of the strategic military cooperation with Turkey and Georgia and preferably seeks the support of regional countries for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. On the other hand, the joint military exercises is a good chance for Turkey to deepen cooperation with Azerbaijan in the military industry field. Even though Azerbaijan is one of the biggest purchasers of Russian-made weaponry, Turkey’s growing presence in a local army market will definitely increase the concurrency with Russia.
Yet, the trilateral initiative of Azerbaijan – Turkey – Georgia, allows both countries to take one more step to NATO, which is the main priority of the Georgian foreign policy agenda. Also, NATO is interested in developing a further partnership with the trilateral alliance. Therefore, the latest military drills give Turkey a large floor to integrate Azerbaijan and Georgia into the Trans-Atlantic security sphere that probably will trigger the relations with Russia even more. Despite the claims of several experts that the trilateral military cooperation will lead to the formation of the new regional military block, this does not seem to have been accomplished yet. However, the trilateral military alliance is necessary for official Baku to send an open message to neighboring Armenia. At last, the new trilateral partnership, being supported by NATO, is also necessary for three countries in the shadow of growing extremism and international terrorism threat. Thus the trilateral alliance will be the only guarantor of security in the South Caucasus.