For a long time Russia has portrayed itself as Armenia’s main security guarantor, with thousands of servicemen deployed there through its 102nd military base and FSB border guards watching over guarding Armenia’s borders with Iran and Türkiye on the basis of bilateral agreements from 1992 and 1995. However, when developments in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh became less manageable for Russia, the Kremlin tried to compensate with a disinformation campaign targeting, above all, Armenia’s political leadership and the so-called ‘collective West’.
Handling the peace
The history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is complex. Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought several wars over the region in recent decades. The 2020 war resulted in Azerbaijan getting control of parts of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as seven surrounding districts. See this brief explainer.
Following the 44-day-war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, Russia deployed its peacekeepers to the region as a part of the November 2020 Trilateral Statement signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. The deal’s fine print was ambiguous about Russia’s mandate and obligations, with the exception of the deployment of its peacekeepers along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin corridor – the artery linking Armenia with the region. Back then, President Putin proclaimed: ‘We believe that the achieved agreements will create the necessary conditions for a long-term and full-fledged settlement of the crisis.’
However, over the course of 2022-2023, media reported that Russian peacekeepers were not fulfilling their commitments and that most people in Nagorno-Karabakh had been left unprotected. According to analysis of the situation, Russia was distracted by its invasion of Ukraine and had lost its grip on the South Caucasus.
On 19 September 2023, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale military operation that gave Baku total control over Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result, almost all Karabakh Armenians fled the region. According to statements by spokespersons for the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the events of September 2023, Baku did not inform Russia of its intentions or did so only at the last minute. Although, reportedly Baku did inform Moscow. Either way, the situation presented Russia with a dilemma.
Blame! Blame! Praise!
After Azerbaijan’s military operation, Kremlin started a ‘face saving operation’, putting its disinformation machine into full speed: blame the West, blame the Armenian government, and praise Russian peacekeepers. According to the independent Russian investigative journalism outlet Meduza, the Kremlin distributed guidelines to state-controlled media outlets to get the message straight.
On the day Azerbaijan’s military operation started, the editor-in-chief of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, again blamed Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Former President of Russia and Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev ‘told a story’ on Telegram about ‘a colleague from a fraternal country, who decided to flirt with NATO, and his wife brought biscuits to our enemies.’ Medvedev asked rhetorically, ‘Guess what fate awaits him…’.
In October 2023, Russian state TV outlet Channel One dug into the ‘good old narratives’ archive and ‘exposed’ alleged ‘master-servant’ connections between Armenian authorities, including Pashinyan, and vilified US philanthropist George Soros. It was not the first time and presumably not the last. And of course, another all-time classic: Pashinyan was called a puppet of the West.
The West itself is getting the lion’s share of Russian disinformation attacks for allegedly trying to squeeze Russia out of the South Caucasus and using Armenia as a tool to that end. For establishing the unarmed civilian EU Mission in Armenia. At first, outlets claimed that the Mission’s goal was to diminish Russia’s role in the region. Now, they say that the Mission is there to spy.
More broadly, commentators have asserted that the West provoked a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and is enslaving Armenia; that the EU is interfering in Armenia’s internal affairs. In addition, according to Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova,’the West’ torpedoed Russian initiatives to bring peace to the South Caucasus. You name it! They blame it!
Armenia’s decision to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) irritated the Kremlin. Its spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, described the decision as ‘extremely hostile’, and articles in pro-Kremlin outlets claimed that Armenia is in ‘the process of legal enslavement … by the ICC’. Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin described the ICC as a ‘politicised pro-Western structure’ and Armenia’s decision to ratify it as ‘to put it mildly, unfriendly’. Despite the pressure, the Armenian parliament ratified the treaty on 3 October 2023, and President Vahagn Khachaturyan signed it into law on 13 October 2023.
Another pebble in the Kremlin’s shoe is Pashinyan’s decision not to participate in a summit of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) on 23 November 2023 in Minsk. Earlier, Zakharova repeated the message about Western meddling leading Armenia to ‘enslavement’ after the Armenian prime minister announced that Armenia would not be participating.
In his interview with The Wall Street Journal in October 2023, Pashinyan said that neither the CSTO, nor the bilateral security agreements between Russia and Armenia fulfilled their obligations in times of need in 2021 and 2022. Therefore, Armenia needs to diversify its relations in the security area. More recently, on 24 November 2023, Prime Minister Pashinyan said that Armenia’s membership in the CSTO will depend on ‘its own state interests’.
Shifting the blame
In various contexts and occasions, the Kremlin’s disinformation machine has cultivated the tactic of shifting blame while feeding the information space with aggressive rhetoric. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine, putting the responsibility on Ukraine – the invaded country or “the West”, is a perfect example of Kremlin’s manipulations shaping the domestic and international information space for its benefit. Russian state and pro-Kremlin outlets use this strategy when a situation is uncomfortable for Moscow. Kremlin narratives targeting Armenia are yet another example.