Vicken Cheterian

Why did Ilham Aliev Stop the War?

In the early hours of April 2 a sudden war erupted in the Caucasus. All-along the heavily fortified Karabakh war-front, where Armenian fighters defend their highlands, while Azerbaijani soldiers are posted in the dry lowlands, heavy artillery fire pounded the defences of the opposite side. Next, elite troops attacked enemy lines, supported by tanks and helicopters. One would have thought that two brigades of the same Soviet army were fighting each other if it was not for the Israeli-made drones used by Azerbaijan. 

Under the fog of war and nationalist enthusiasm, information flows largely mixed with propaganda, it is necessary to scrutinize the facts to understand who started the war? Why did it stop after five days? And what are the long-term consequences of this short but intense war?

The fact that in the first 24 hours the Azerbaijani side advanced in eight different positions on the frontline, including the overrunning the village of Talish in the north-eastern corner, clearly shows that this war was initiated by Baku. The scale of the attack, the usage of combined arms – infantry, artillery and air force – testifies that the attack was carefully planned. 

Why this war? In case the timing of the war was a surprise – both Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents were in the US for Nuclear Security Summit – yet it was largely expected. Ilham Aliev inherited the presidency of Azerbaijan from his father in 2003, but he radically shifted policies towards Karabakh. His father Heidar Aliev had spent the last few years of his life negotiating with his Armenian counterpart to find a peaceful solution based on recognizing the self-determination of Karabakh Armenians, in return for the occupied Azerbaijani provinces, and had indeed come very close to signing an agreement in 2001. But Ilham Aliev overthrew past diplomatic initiatives and hardened his position: he repeated that in case Armenians do not surrender Karabakh Azerbaijan would take it by war.

Ilham Aliev was lucky; two years after he came to power the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline construction was completed. Oil flew to the west, and petrodollars into his pockets. Oil financed social stability in Azerbaijan, as well as high level of corruption as the most recent Panama Papers reveal. It also made Azerbaijan one of the major military spenders. In 2003 Azerbaijani military budget was 175 million dollars; this was increased to 4.8 billion in 2015. The young Aliev promised to make his military spending more than twice the entire state budget of Armenia. As he bought more and more weapons, his threatening discourse became louder and louder. While his father had promised “the highest form of autonomy” to Karabakh Armenians, the young Ilham started claiming that Armenia itself was ancient Azerbaijan.

Yet the business model of Azerbaijan is in crisis since a little while. Oil production started prematurely decreasing five years ago. Worst, the international oil prices collapsed in 2014, falling from $110 a barrel in mid-2014 to just $33 in early April. The state income, heavily dependent on oil exports, was cut four to five times. This forced the central bank to liberalize the national currency (manat) exchange rate, which immediately lost a third of its value in December 2015. The economic difficulties caused much social unrest. Many observers expected a military escalation to divert attention of the public attention from the real internal problems. Yet the scale of the attack proves something else: Ilham Aliev intended to bring significant change by occupying land under Karabakh control to boost his legitimacy tarnished by the collapse of his oil-based economy.

Why did the war stop? In spite of billions spent on armament, modern weapons bought from Russia and Israel, the Azerbaijani army failed to bring change on the frontline, apart from advancing 200-300 meters over several places. Yet, no locality had been “liberated” by Azeri army at the time of cease-fire. In case Azerbaijan had continued the attack, the consequences would have been heavy, as the increasing number of casualties would have caused political instability in Baku. Since 1991 three leaders of Azerbaijan lost their power as a result of military defeats, and Ilham Aliev risked the same.

International reaction: World leaders called for immediate stop to the war, with only one exception: Erdogan who declared that he supported Azerbaijan “to the end”. But Turkey has no real influence on this conflict. Russia is the key player here, and Moscow made “balanced” declarations. But the war also revealed that Azerbaijani army has bought advanced Russian weapons, which made Yerevan ask the question: how could Armenia’s military ally sell modern weapons to the enemy? What is the value of being a Russian ally anyway? 

Diplomacy: The military escalation, and the brutal violence against elderly civilians mutilated by Azerbaijani army, poses the question: can we continue the past diplomatic initiatives by simply inviting two sides to talk to each other? The last fighting made it clear: One is fighting for “territorial integrity”, the other for “self determination”. Azerbaijan is fighting to take land, while Armenian side is fighting to defend its people. 

In spite of the unnecessary losses, there is one very positive side to this war: now Ilham Aliev is freed from any illusion that his army is able to take Karabakh in a short heroic war. May be it is time to get serious.