Ilham Aliyev BLAZING after declaring final victory in Nagorno-Karabakh 

  • Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev seized the opportunity to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh during Russian preoccupation with Ukraine and Armenia’s limited military alliances.
  • Aliyev restored national sovereignty in the eyes of the Azerbaijani public, gaining astonishing domestic popularity.
  • Aliyev kept his alliances by leveraging Europe’s energy dependence on Azerbaijan, and Türkiye’s robust military and diplomatic support.
Congratulatory address of Ilham Aliyev in 2015.  Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

Why is Aliyev’s heat level blazing?

Answer: Aliyev is blazing as his domestic support is through the roof following Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Aliyev has managed to raise his heat level by regaining control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a coveted territory with a century-old history of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Armenia took control over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994 after a six-year war that ended with a ceasefire. Despite the armistice that formally lasted until 2020, intermittent clashes persisted over ongoing tensions.

This was coupled with failed peace negotiations from both sides. The ceasefire officially ended in 2020 when Azerbaijan launched a military operation, regaining some territory in the disputed region. However, it was the 2023 military operation that marked a significant turning point for the country, leading to their complete reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev took office in 2003, and has been the leader during both Azeri offensives that aimed to take control over Nagorno-Karabakh, with his latest military operation making this goal a reality.

Within Azerbaijan, there has been consistent public support to reclaim control over the lost territories. Armenia’s takeover and establishment of a self-declared government in Nagorno-Karabakh had been viewed as an affront to Azeri national sovereignty and a continuous source of humiliation. This shared sentiment among the Azeri public has resulted in strong support for efforts to reclaim the region. The domestic pressure on President Aliyev to restore these territories intensified notably after Azerbaijan’s partial retake of the region in 2020. Demonstrations advocating for open conflict to regain control over Nagorno-Karabakh have emerged, amplifying pressure on Aliyev to address public demands.

With his successful 2023 military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh, Aliyev is blazing as he achieved the historic Azerbaijani goal of taking control over the lost territories, and restoring national sovereignty in the eyes of the Azeri public. The attainment of this final victory over Nagorno-Karabakh became feasible due to Aliyev’s strategic exploitation of regional circumstances that had not been in play before.

What is changing Aliyev’s heat level?

Answer: Aliyev took advantage of favourable geopolitical factors, namely Russian inability and European reluctance to intervene and diminished Armenian capacity to do so. 

Aliyev’s decision to initiate the 2023 military operation can be attributed to the alignment of three advantageous geopolitical factors. The decreased Russian support, marked by the inability to provide substantial military assistance  to  Armenia, European limitations in taking measures against Azerbaijan, and the Armenian inability for an effective defence.   

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has taken the role of a mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh disputes. As such, after the 2020 Azeri offensive, it was Russia who brokered the ceasefire agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Under the terms of the agreement, 1960 Russian Peacekeepers were deployed to monitor the ceasefire, and to guard the Lachin Corridor, which is the sole connector between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. 

Despite the terms of the ceasefire agreement, Russia did not prevent Azeri troops from establishing a military checkpoint along the corridor and did not intervene during the Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin Corridor, which started 10 months prior to the Azeri invasion. This lack of intervention signaled to Aliyev that Russia, preoccupied with its war in Ukraine, is unlikely to involve itself in the event of an open military conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Another factor diminishing the likelihood of Russian intervention was the deteriorating relationship between Russia and Armenia. Since Armenia’s emergence as an independent state, Russia has been a pivotal ally.  It has not only provided diplomatic support, but has also maintained military presence in Armenia, including a military base within the country. This military alliance is reinforced by their mutual membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). 

Previously, this guarantee of military support from Russia had served as a deterrent for Aliyev, preventing the Azeri President from making a move in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the significant decline in Armenian-Russian relations since 2018 has lessened the probability of direct Russian support for Armenia in case of a conflict. The ascent of the pro-Western Prime Minister Pashinyan in 2018 after the Velvet Revolution marked a departure from Armenia’s traditional alliance with Russia, causing notable tensions between the two nations.

This worsening relation between Russia and Armenia, coupled with Russia’s focus on its war in Ukraine have reduced the possibility of direct Russian intervention in the eyes of Aliyev, incentifying him to take action in Nagorno-Karabakh.

As for Europe, there are two factors which constrain the EU’s ability to take measures against Azerbaijan: Azerbaijan’s gas diplomacy and the United Nations’ recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani sovereign territory. 

Azerbaijan has established itself as one of the major providers of hydrocarbons to Europe. Following the  Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent European sanctions on Russia, European nations have increasingly relied on Azeri energy as an alternative to Russian imports. This energy partnership was formalised with the EU signing a gas agreement with Azerbaijan in 2022, outlining the plan for Azerbaijan to double its gas exports to the EU by 2027. This energy reliance on Azerbaijan makes imposing European sanctions and other measures on Azerbaijan unlikely.

Furthermore, the United Nations recognises Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory. This limits the ability of nations who aligned themselves with the rule-based global order from taking actions against Azerbaijan, leaving them with limited alternatives beyond voicing condemnation through rhetoric.

Due to the absence of Russian military aid and Western intervention, Armenia found itself without allies, weakening its position. The 10-month blockade preceding Aliyev’s military operation left Nagorno-Karabakh vulnerable, as the Lachin Corridor blockade restricted essential supplies, causing a shortage of food, medicine, and fuel, further weakening the population and the government’s resistance capabilities.

What is driving Aliyev?

Answer: Aliyev is driven by a sense of duty and desire to complete his father’s legacy through restoring Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. 

For President Aliyev, regaining control of Nagorno-Karabakh has been a long-standing foreign policy goal. ​​He has consistently emphasised this objective, outlining ongoing efforts to strengthen military capabilities, bolster diplomatic and economic ties with other nations, and isolate Armenia in order to reclaim the lost territories. One of the driving forces behind this dedication has been the Azeri public’s unified support in taking back Nagorno-Karabakh, and the prospects of astonishing domestic popularity coming with this historic achievement. However, domestic popularity had not been the only factor to motivate Aliyev in taking control over the disputed territories.

Aliyev’s commitment to reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh is rooted in fulfilling what his father, Heydar Aliyev, couldn’t achieve during his presidency. Heydar, credited with stabilising Azerbaijan amid civil unrest and losses in the First Nagorno-Karabakh war, couldn’t retake the territories due to Armenian military superiority, leading to a ceasefire.

For Aliyev, his father’s legacy is foundational for Azerbaijan’s success, guiding the country’s future. Heydar’s leadership, characterised by a cult of personality known as Heydarism, influences Aliyev, who portrays his father as the “national leader” and a symbol of modern, independent Azerbaijan. With deep respect for Heydar’s rule, Aliyev sees reclaiming the territories as fulfilling his father’s aspirations and completing Heydar’s unfinished mission. The dedication of 2023 as the year of Heydar Aliyev, following the Nagorno-Karabakh victory, underscores the significance of Heydar’s legacy in Aliyev’s leadership.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Azerbaijan’s triumph signals a power shift in the South-Caucasus, with Türkiye rising as a dominant force as Russia’s influence weakens in the region.

As Russia became preoccupied with its war in Ukraine, its attention has shifted away from the South Caucasus. Filling the power vacuum left by Russia, Türkiye capitalised on Azerbaijan’s victory. Turkish-Azerbaijani relations have been extremely tight with the Shusha Declaration in 2021 cementing this alliance. 

The agreement involves a mutual military assistance accord, particularly evident through Turkish provision of crucial military equipment to Azerbaijan, especially through Turkish drones, which played a significant role in Azerbaijan’s success in Aliyev’s 2023 (and 2020) offensive. This active involvement countered Russian inaction, contributing to the increasing influence of Türkiye in the region.

The South-Caucasus, full of oil reserves and gas pipelines, has long been the place of competition for influence between Russia and Türkiye. Previously, the former held considerable control over these territories as part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991. As the Eastern Bloc disintegrated and post-Soviet states gained independence, a new opportunity was created for regional powers to extend their influence in the South-Caucasus. One of these regional powers has been Türkiye, who, seeing this shift, aimed to capitalise and establish a stronger foothold in the region. Nevertheless, despite the dissolution of the USSR, Russia persisted in its efforts to maintain control, thereby limiting Türkiye’s ability to expand its influence in the area. 

However, Aliyev’s 2023 military operation cemented the ongoing shift of power dynamics in the South Caucasus, lessening Russian involvement and boosting Turkish influence in the region.