Azerbaijani T-72's lead BMP's during the military exercises on May 20, 2020. (Photo by Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense/released)

At the end of May, the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense announced the conclusion of their Large-Scale Operational-Tactical Exercises as part of their combat training plan for 2020. The week-long exercises included some 10,000 military personnel, 120 tanks and armored vehicles, 200 missile systems, 30 aviation units, and various unmanned aerial vehicles.

According to a statement from the Azerbaijan MOD, "During the exercise, the combat readiness, planning and operation of various military units will be developed, and the small and large scale capabilities of the strike groups will be checked." The MOD released a statement at the conclusion of the exercises stating, "According to the exercises leadership's evaluation, the troops fully achieved the goals assigned during the completed exercises. The military personnel amassed its practical experience and skills in carrying out combat operations and also demonstrated real abilities in the field."



The Azerbaijani Military Exercises can be likened to exercises held at Fort Irwin, CA and Fort Polk, LA, the U.S. Army National Training Center and Joint Readiness Training Center respectively. Units come to these training centers to validate their planning, tactics, crews, and equipment in preparation for deployment.

However, rotations to NTC and JRTC were cancelled in March due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. The 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the Washington Army National Guard and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, NY were on deck for the now-cancelled NTC and JRTC rotations. In lieu of their training exercises, the 81st BCT was made available to Washington state governor Jay Inslee to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2nd BCT remained at Fort Drum to continue to train for their next mission. NTC and JRTC rotations have yet to be rescheduled.

Soldiers train for their worst day of combat in "The Box". (U.S. Army photo from army.mil/released)

U.S. relations with Azerbaijan began immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991 when the U.S. formally recognized 12 former Soviet republics, including Azerbaijan, as independent states. In March 1992, respective embassies were opened in Washington and Baku. Due to its strategic location in the region, Azerbaijan has been an integral contributor in the War on Terror. The country has provided troops as well as overflight, refueling, and landing rights to U.S. and coalition aircraft in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, at the height of combat operations, over one-third of nonlethal equipment such as fuel, food, and clothing used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan traveled through Baku.

Relations have also been influenced by the ongoing dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In 1988, the local Karabakh provincial government appealed to the Soviet Union to transfer them from the Azerbaijani SSR to the Armenian SSR. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in the Karabakh region and Armenia held spontaneous mass demonstrations, the first of their kind in the USSR, in support of the appeal. The demonstrations sparked clashes between Azeris and ethnic Armenians in the Karabakh region, which continued through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Clashes turned into a bona fide war in January 1992 when the Nagorno-Karabakh parliament declared the region's independence and intention to join with Armenia. Formal hostilities ended in May 1994 with a Russian-brokered ceasefire and the de facto independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh. However, the region is still recognized by most nations as part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Consequently, clashes have continued to erupt along the border to this day.

Ethnic Armenians of the Artsakh Armed Forces conduct exercises in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. (Photo by the Artsakh Defense Ministry/released)

The Azerbaijani Military Exercises have raised alarm and garnered condemnation from the Armenian MOD.

"It is noteworthy that the exercises are exclusively offensive in nature, during which massive strikes of missile-artillery, aviation, and high-precision weapons at the operational depth of the enemy will be utilized," the Armenian MOD stated, calling them, "a threat to the regional security environment."

On May 20th, the U.S. Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper expressing concern over the Azerbaijani Military Exercises and a $100 million allocation of U.S. security assistance to Azerbaijan. The letter was co-signed by Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Jackie Speier (D-CA), Vice Chairs Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) as well as Representatives Judy Chu (D-CA), Katherine Clark (D-MA), Jim Costa (D-CA), T.J. Cox (D-CA), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), James Langevin (D-RI), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Grace Napolitano (D-CA), Linda Sanchez (D-CA), Albio Sires (D-NJ),Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Tom Suozzi (D-NY) and Juan Vargas (D-CA). The full text of the letter to Secretaries Pompeo and Esper is reprinted below.

Dear Secretaries Pompeo and Esper:

We are gravely concerned about the military exercises reported to be held by the Republic of Azerbaijan from May 18 to 22, 2020. These exercises are dangerous, violate diplomatic agreements and have the potential to destabilize security in the South Caucasus at a time when the COVID-19 global pandemic has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and threatened the health of many more. We strongly urge the Department of State and the Department of Defense to condemn these egregious actions taken by the Azerbaijani military.

Even in normal circumstances, these exercises would be unacceptable due to their offensive nature and the failure to follow diplomatic notification practices. On May 14, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry released information describing military exercises that would take place from May 18 to 22. Azeri reports state that the exercises are expected to include 10,000 servicemen, 120 artillery and armored vehicles, 200 missile systems, 30 aviation units, and various unmanned aerial vehicles. The failure to provide adequate notification as prescribed under the 2011 Vienna Document and the size of the exercises demonstrates Azerbaijani President Aliyev's intention of further aggravating historical tensions with the Republic of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh.

We are especially concerned that over $100 million in security assistance the United States has sent to Azerbaijan over the last two years through the Section 333 Building Partner Capacity program has emboldened the Aliyev regime. This taxpayer funding defies almost two decades of parity in U.S. security assistance to Armenia and Azerbaijan. The aid appears to have allowed Azerbaijan to shift resources toward offensive capabilities and further threaten Armenian lives and regional stability as the Co-Chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues warned in letters sent to you in September and November of 2019.

We cannot allow Azerbaijan to use the global coronavirus pandemic as cover for these dangerous military operations. We urge you to immediately condemn the reckless actions of the Azerbaijani military and to work with our allies and international partners to halt the provocative actions being taken by the Aliyev Regime.

We look forward to your prompt reply to this request.

Sincerely,

U.S. Representative Frank Pallone. (U.S. House of Representative Official Portrait, 113th Congress/released)

The following day, May 21, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Lynne Tracy announced during a Facebook Live appearance that the Trump administration is ending USAID's humanitarian Artsakh demining program. In response to criticism over the defunding of the program, Ambassador Tracy underscored the benefits of the demining program and its successes over the past 20 years, but noted that the U.S. is, "preparing populations for peace...to help toward that goal of achieving a lasting peaceful settlement of the conflict."

For decades, this region and its inhabitants have navigated a tumultuous era of changing borders and armed conflict. The U.S. has had to walk a fine line between these two conflicting nations as they continue to clash, both politically and militarily, over this area in the Caucasus region. This path of attempted neutrality between the two nations may not be an option for the U.S. in the future if tensions continue to rise.

Nagorno-Karabakh Army T-72 tanks on parade. (Photo by the Nagorno-Karabakh Army/released)

Disclaimer: The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and the Republic of Artsakh refer to the same region. Nagorno-Karabakh is derived from the Soviet name for this region and recognized by Azerbaijan and the international community, while Artsakh is the Armenian name for this region and utilized by Armenians to advocate for the sovereignty of the region. The people of the region generally prefer the Republic of Artsakh, but both are technically correct.