There are certain intriguing relationships between countries in geopolitics that puzzle the United States. Let’s consider a particularly unusual one that involves us directly. This story is so bizarre that it seems like fiction, yet it has received little media attention.

The State Partnership Program

The State Partnership Program, managed by the National Guard Bureau, establishes connections between states and territories of our country and the military, security forces, and disaster response forces of partner nations. The program, which originated in 1991, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is designed to foster mutually beneficial relationships. It is not difficult to understand why we were initially interested in partnering with Eastern Bloc nations that had recently gained their freedom but lacked resources.

Since its inception, the program has expanded from 13 partner nations in 1993 to over 100 today, with some states even having multiple partnerships. I have personally participated in multinational disaster relief exercises under the guidance of the State Partnership Program, and I found them to be enlightening in terms of cultural exchange. Overall, the program has its merits, but there are two partnerships that stand out as particularly “odd,” for lack of a better term.

In the South Caucasus, there is a region called Nagorno-Karabakh. For more than a century, both Azerbaijan and Armenia, which were part of the Soviet Union, have laid claim to this area. While internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh is inhabited by Armenian residents who consider it their own. There have been several conflicts where land areas have switched between the two countries, and as recently as 2020, Russia was acting as a peacekeeper between them (as I mentioned, it’s truly odd). To further complicate matters, Armenia is predominantly Christian, while Azerbaijan is Muslim, making the conflict a fertile ground for religious interference by other countries. Just last week, it was reported that Pegasus Spyware had allegedly been installed on the phones of multiple Armenian government officials by Azerbaijan. In other words, the relationship between these two countries remains highly contentious.

Conflict and Connections

You might be wondering, so what? Countries often have long-standing conflicts with each other. However, both Azerbaijan and Armenia are participants in the State Partnership Program, with Oklahoma partnering with Azerbaijan since 2003, and Kansas partnering with Armenia, also since 2003. These two states, which border each other, have traditionally had disagreements over relatively trivial matters like casino business and college sports.

The National Guard website, in its media guide, conveniently omits this peculiar dynamic. However, I did come across an interesting nugget on one of their slides:

Examples of SPP focus areas:

  • Disaster response and emergency response
  • Leadership development for staff, officers, and non-commissioned officers
  • Aviation operations, maintenance, and safety
  • Cyber defense and communications security
  • Infantry tactics
  • Engineering activities
  • Counter-terrorism
  • Military medical support

Collaboration Discussions on the State Partnership Program

While the specific activities for collaboration are agreed upon by each country and state, this opens up intriguing discussions, particularly in the area of cyber defense, where some training between countries and states has already taken place. Even though this training is conducted at the unclassified level, one can’t help but wonder who Azerbaijan is preparing to defend against if not Armenia, their biggest adversary. It could be speculated that they are concerned about potential saboteurs targeting their valuable oil reserves or even Russia, based on previous cyber attacks in the region.

Does the end justify the means in the State Partnership Program? In my experience, I would say yes. However, in the case of Azerbaijan-Oklahoma and Kansas-Armenia, unless the program’s scope extends to diplomatic efforts, it may be necessary to reassess these relationships.

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Joe Jabara, JD, is the Director, of the Hub, For Cyber Education and Awareness, Wichita State University. He also serves as an adjunct faculty at two other universities teaching Intelligence and Cyber Law. Prior to his current job, he served 30 years in the Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and Kansas Air National Guard. His last ten years were spent in command/leadership positions, the bulk of which were at the 184th Intelligence Wing as Vice Commander.