In military jargon, officers sometimes talk about ‘shaping the battlefield’, referring to measures that set the conditions for operations. Sometimes these actions are taken even before the fighting begins. Manipulators, disinformers, or autocratic rulers often try to rhetorically shape the battlefield when they arrest journalists, close down independent or investigative media, flood social media platforms with spam, or twist the agenda by diverting attention in order to avoid uncomfortable issues. All these tricks are classics, and they are relevant to this week.
A stranger in New York
Speaking to a half-empty hall, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made another attempt during the UN General Assembly in New York to derail the international focus by avoiding any mention of the obvious: Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
Instead, Lavrov spent most of his time blaming the West for everything from creating an unjust world to waging a hybrid war on Russia. His manipulative claims included narratives such as:
On EUvsDisinfo, we have debunked such manipulative and false claims many times. Just look through our database using search words like ‘UN Charter’, ‘Orange Revolution’, ‘Minsk Agreement’, ‘peace talks’, or ‘sanctions’. You can also find numerous in-depth articles examining these claims. But a quick-fix correction of these falsehoods is simply to exchange the words ‘West’, ‘US’, or ‘Ukraine’ with ‘Russia’, and vice versa. The result will give a more sober reflection of realities.
At a press conference in New York, Lavrov also claimed that Russia would recognise Ukraine’s territorial integrity within its 1991 borders (when the Soviet Union broke up), provided Kyiv remain outside political alliances and respect Russian minorities.
This deceptive talk manipulates the discussion and deflects attention away from the basic facts: Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, started an armed conflict in eastern Ukraine later in the spring of 2014, and launched an open, full-scale invasion in February 2022. These actions do not suggest a readiness to ‘respect territorial integrity’. They also contradict Putin’s words and Russian laws suggesting that Crimea and the four occupied regions in southeast Ukraine are now forever Russian territory. It is all verbal acrobatics by Lavrov.
A blitz operation in Nagorno-Karabakh
The Nagorno-Karabakh situation has been complex and tense for years. Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought several wars over the region. Last week, Azerbaijan launched a blitz effectively taking control of Nagorno-Karabakh. See this brief explainer.
The High Representative issued a statement on 21 September stating that the EU condemns the military operation by Azerbaijan against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, deplores the casualties and loss of life caused by this escalation, and calls on Azerbaijan to allow immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to the population in need.
On Sunday 24 September, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan criticised Russia and the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation, calling out its dysfunctionality. Later, the Armenian PM’s chief of staff accused Russian state officials and media of unleashing a ‘hybrid war’ against Armenia. He pointed to Moscow’s claims blaming the US for the military defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Kremlin’s support for widespread public protests in Yerevan.
In the Kremlin’s mindset, lingering in Cold War times, no country smaller than Russia has a mind of its own. EUvsDisinfo has collected many disinformation cases exposing one of the most popular pro-Kremlin narratives, ‘Puppet of the West’. The Kremlin’s disinformation machinery deploys it on every convenient occasion. The events in Nagorno-Karabakh are no exception. And this time, the disinformation ‘loudspeakers’ are at their highest volume.
Blame the West, again
A recent statement of the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry blames Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and, of course, the West. It was not the first time that pro-Kremlin outlets have focussed their attention on Armenia’s ‘uncomfortable’ leader, from Moscow’s point of view. Neither was it the first time that the Kremlin coupled a democratically elected leader with Western influence. Ukraine is another example.
On Thursday 20 September, leading Russian state TV outlet Channel One blamed the US for provoking tension. Pro-Kremlin outlets and state platforms, including the main TV stations, tried this week to shift the blame for the recent Azerbaijani military operation and the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh to European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and President of the European Council Louis Michel, by implying that they responsible for Yerevan having to give up the rest of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Earlier, the editor-in-chief of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, banned from entering Armenia since 2022, lashed out at the Armenian prime minister and added a pinch of blame for NATO. Former President of Russia and Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev published a telling message supporting the same narrative: He claimed that a ‘colleague from a fraternal country’ had ‘lost the war, but strangely stayed in place’. Then, Medvedev wrote tendentiously, his colleague ‘decided to flirt with NATO, and his wife took biscuits to our enemies. Guess what fate awaits him…’. Let’s just say that Medvedev is not the best storyteller.
Follow the Kremlin line
According to the independent Russian investigative journalism outlet Meduza, on Wednesday 19 September, the Kremlin distributed guidelines to Russia’s state-controlled news media telling them to blame Armenia and the West for Baku’s deadly shelling of Nagorno-Karabakh. Meduza has obtained a copy of these instructions – Temnik in Russian – which again illustrate the Kremlin’s direct control of the pro-Russian information landscape. See our analysis of the Temnik system.
It takes a truly manipulative approach to try holding European leaders or the US accountable for a conflict that ignited in the wake of the Soviet Union’s break-up
Perhaps these disinformation claims reflect a desperate attempt by a frustrated Moscow to avoid uncomfortable questions about why the presumably all-powerful Russia, with Russian ‘peacekeepers’ on the ground, was unable to prevent Azeri military action.
Censorship in occupied areas of Ukraine
In another attempt to shape the public information space, the head of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, signed decrees introducing a curfew and imposing military censorship on mail, internet communications, and phone conversations. This is noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, Moscow’s strawmen like Pushilin usually claim that the locals are patriotic and Russia-loving. Second, Russia has been busy setting up transmitters for Russian TV radio stations while cutting off internet access to the rest of Ukraine from occupied areas. So why take such steps when there should be nothing to worry about?
Kara-Murza moved to Siberia
What is a more classic act by autocrats than to silence people by moving them far away? In an act likely intended to intimidate and that also rings of the gulag, Russian authorities transferred the opposition journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza to a penal colony in the Omsk region. Kara-Murza was convicted in a highly politicised trial to 25 years in jail for allegedly committing treason, participating in the activities of an ‘undesirable organisation’, and spreading ‘fake news’ about the Russian army. See here our series of articles analysing the changing Russian information space following the introduction of censorship laws in March 2022.
Also on our disinformation radar:
- ‘Stoltenberg confirmed that Russia invaded Ukraine because of NATO’. No. this is another sinister but silly manipulation of a quote and its context. The NATO Secretary General cut through all the Kremlin smoke and mirrors by underlining that Putin wants to control his neighbours by establishing a sphere of influence and he already started the war back in 2014. See the real quotes here.
- ‘Strike on Sevastopol carried out by the collective West’. No, Ukrainian armed forces acted in self-defence as enshrined in the UN Charter’s Article 51. The Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters is an occupation force illegally stationed on the Ukrainian Crimea peninsula.
- ‘Russia destroyed a Leopard tank crewed by German troops’. Also, no. Moscow tries hard to allege, through shocking news, scandals, and conspiracies, that the West has launched a war on Russia. But again, outlets presented no credible evidence or documentation. Without the time or location and with only vague information, this is yet another attempt to boost militarist and patriotic sentiment among Russians.