The Russian political class, epitomized by the ruling United Russia party and its leaders, might well be one of the most destructive phenomena that has swept the country in recent decades. Anything goes to ensure their grip on power stays firm, and the pleasures of command over the masses remain undisturbed. These days, the Kremlin is concomitantly a “war party” that stirs up conflicts on its periphery; an imperialist movement seeking to undo what has been created by history, yearning for the time of conquests and expansion; and a gerontocratic plutocracy that locks the youth out of politics and the economy and throttles technological development (Riddle Russia, January 4). Few seem to care that such policies are strangling the country and holding it back; nevertheless, the costs are enormous and growing.
In early May 2023, Turkish Defense Industry Agency President İsmail Demir announced that Turkey is modernizing the Azerbaijani Air Force’s Sukhoi Su-25 attack aircraft. This overhaul involves the integration of indigenously developed weaponry on Azerbaijan’s fighter jets and the addition of intelligence systems, according to Demir (Milliyet, May 10).
Another Turkish source further indicated that the upgrade consists of a precision-guided wing kit, developed by the TÜBİTAK Defense Industries and Development Institute, that converts 1,000-pound Mark 83 bombs and 500-pound Mark 82 bombs into long-range smart weapons, giving the Su-25s the ability to hit enemy targets from a greater distance and with greater accuracy (Savunmasanayist.com, May 9).
As of 2021, Azerbaijan reportedly operated 11 Su-25 fighter jets (Flight Global, 2022). Such is the “bang for buck” offered by these jets, developed in the Soviet Union in 1970s. So much so that the Azerbaijani Air Force has given them several mid-life upgrades, modifying them, among other capabilities, to carry Turkish and Azerbaijani guided munitions, and enhancing their survivability through the addition of Belarusian Talisman jammers, which are credited with saving some of these aircraft from being hit by Armenian surface-to-air missiles during the Second Karabakh War (Oryx, November 11, 2022).
Thus, it is perfectly natural that Azerbaijan seeks to extend the service life of its small Su-25 fleet with upgrades and modifications. However, what is surprising here is that the modernization is being carried out by Turkey, which does not operate any Russian combat aircraft, rather than Russia.
Previously, Azerbaijan cooperated much more closely on such matters with Russia. In the wake of its defeat in the First Karabakh War, the Azerbaijani state mobilized all its resources and spared no expense in an effort to reclaim lost territories. To this end, special attention was paid to strengthening relations with Russia and concluding bilateral agreements that would ensure Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, despite the overwhelming evidence that Russia was far from an impartial arbiter in the conflict.
Furthermore, Azerbaijan also sought to strengthen its military cooperation with Russia. In 2003, for example, it signed an agreement with Russia on military-technical cooperation, which ensured “joint development, production, supply of weapons and military equipment, ammunition, spare parts, training and auxiliary facilities, provision of services for military-technical purposes” and much more (Docs.cntd.ru, March 2005). This document also stipulated the “commitment to the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of borders” of the signatory states.
After signing these documents, Azerbaijan went on a shopping spree, buying Russian-made weapons and military equipment in higher quantities. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimated that, between 2006 and 2016, the share of Russian weapons as a part of Azerbaijan’s total arms imports hovered around 22 percent. In 2020, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stated that the biggest supplier of weapons to his country was not Turkey or Israel, but rather Russia, which was also exporting arms to Armenia. “Unlike Armenia, we pay for the Russian supplies,” Aliyev emphasized. “Armenia receives weapons from Russia for free” (Interfax, October 24, 2020).
By September 2018, Baku had purchased more than $5 billion-worth of arms and ammunition from Moscow (TASS, September 1, 2018). Additionally, Azerbaijan produces some weapons under Russian licenses, in particular AK-74M assault rifles; and since 2010, the naval forces of the two countries have engaged in joint exercises in the Caspian Sea and participated in naval maneuvers with the other Caspian littoral states. Azerbaijani military personnel have even been trained in Russia: Since 2000, Azerbaijani officers and cadets have had the option to receive their education at the academies of the Russian Ministry of Defense for free.
Moreover, Azerbaijan’s ties with Russia have not been limited to collaboration on politics or defense matters. In 2019, bilateral trade between the two states reached $3 billion per year, according to official Azerbaijani data, and was expected to increase rapidly. On top of that, Azerbaijan has become a key hub for transit cargo. For example, it is a party to the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) project, or Middle Corridor, which seeks to connect India with Russia and Europe via Iran. Azerbaijan has invested large sums in its roads and infrastructure, hoping to become better prepared for the launch of the INSTC (see EDM, September 20, 2021). Thus, as Baku has become a more proactive and independent geopolitical operator, it has sought to expand relations with other neighbors, including Turkey and Israel (see EDM, February 14).
Meanwhile, for its part, Turkey has been steadily moving into the South Caucasus, establishing itself as an important economic partner and power broker in this traditionally Russian sphere (see EDM, June 28, 2021). The 2021 Shusha Declaration raised cooperation between Turkey and Azerbaijan, with Ankara and Baku agreeing, inter alia, to work jointly on defense industry projects. In April 2022, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov emphasized in a meeting with Chief of the Turkish General Staff Intelligence Corps Rafet Dalkiran that “reforms are underway to bring the Azerbaijani army up to the standards of the Turkish Armed Forces” (Azernews, April 12, 2022). Later, in December 2022, the two sides launched joint military drills along Azerbaijan’s border with Iran, due to heightened tensions between Baku and Tehran (Eurasianet, December 7, 2022). Overall, Turkish military exports to Baku have risen dramatically since 2017, while Russian sales came to a halt in 2019, according to data from SIPRI.
It seems that there is little that Russia, bogged down in eastern Ukraine, hit hard by Western sanctions and short on bargaining chips, can do about the new reality of the burgeoning Turkish-Azerbaijani relationship, at least in the short term. And with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s re-election on May 28 (rather paradoxically, both Baku and Moscow hoped for this result), Baku will likely continue to strengthen its military and defense ties with Ankara even further.