The next war in the Caucasus: Taking Ilham Aliyev seriously

28 March 2024
Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan
Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan

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In 1988, when tensions rose between the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and the rulers in Baku, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous region within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, covering an area of 4,400 km2, with no land border with the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Low intensity violence erupted into full-scale fighting in early 1992. In the following year and a half, some 30,000 people were killed.  Armenians took control of Nagorno-Karabakh and of seven regions of Azerbaijan surrounding it, five fully (Lacin, Kelbecer, Cebrayil, Zengilan, Gubadli), and two partially (Agdam, Fuzuli). One million Azeris left their homes behind and became internally displaced persons.

On 5 May 1994, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia signed a protocol in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, calling for a ceasefire. Six days later, on 11 May, all parties signed an agreement and the ceasefire entered into force on 12 May. Representatives of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh agreed in Moscow on ceasefire lines and the deployment of international observers.

Over the next three decades, international attempts led by the OSCE to broker a peace agreement repeatedly failed. The ceasefire was largely observed until 2008, when serious clashes took place along the line of contact. During the following eight years, sporadic clashes grew in intensity, culminating in four days of heavy fighting in April 2016. On 5 April 2016,  parties agreed on a new ceasefire.

On 27 September 2020, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale military offensive and took back all of the seven occupied regions, and some areas within Nagorno-Karabakh, including the town of Susa. On 9 November 2020, parties agreed on another ceasefire.

On 12 May 2021, Azerbaijan launched its first incursion into Armenia itself, occupying a few kilometers of Armenian territory.

On 12 September 2022, Azerbaijan launched another incursion into Armenia itself, occupying additional strategic outposts.

On 12 December 2022, Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin corridor – the only land route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

On 19 September 2023, Azerbaijan took back all of Nagorno-Karabakh in a single day of fighting. On 20 September, parties agreed to a ceasefire, ceding control of the region to Azerbaijan.  An estimated 100,000 people – almost the entire remaining Armenian population – fled over the next few days.

In the wake of Azerbaijan’s military victory in September 2023, a question inevitably arises: is this the end of the fighting?

Some may refer to remarks made by Ilham Aliyev at a military parade in Nagorno-Karabakh on 8 November 2023, just weeks after Azerbaijan’s victory:

“We do not need a new war. We have achieved what we wanted, restored international law, restored historical justice, restored our national dignity and showed the enemy his place. The enemy kneeled before us, and today I am speaking here before the victorious Armed Forces of Azerbaijan. That is, we have fulfilled all our tasks.”

However, those with a longer memory and an acquaintance with Aliev’s long-standing habit of clearly telegraphing his intentions will look back on a decade of repeated irredentist claims.