Analysis of the Narrative: Armenian “betrayal” of Russia and responsibility for the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh

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As part of the program Regional Initiative to Combat Disinformation “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism”, we present you a new monthly analysеs of fake news and disinformation narratives.

Armenian “betrayal” of Russia and responsibility for the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh

The re-escalation of the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on September 19  and 20, 2023, which ended with the surrender of Armenian forces and the establishment of total control over the territory by Azerbaijan, focused increased public attention on the (geo)political dynamics in the Transcaucasian region in the media in Serbian language. The tragic events in Nagorno-Karabakh, and to a certain extent, the rhetoric and foreign policy moves of Armenia, were the occasion for the narrative of the sole responsibility of the Armenian pro-Western authorities for the decline of this region.

On September 19, 2023, the Azerbaijani army launched an operation, which the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan labelled as anti-terrorist, with the aim of re-establishing constitutional order and removing illegal armed formations from its territory against the forces of the self-proclaimed Armenian Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Less than 24 hours later, with some mediation by the Russian peacekeeping contingent, a truce was concluded between representatives of Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh. According to the provisions of the armistice agreement, the dissolution of all armed forces of ethnic Armenians in that area and the handing over of weapons to the Azerbaijani authorities, as well as the abolition of their political institutions by January 1, 2024, are foreseen, and future talks regarding the integration of the Armenian population from that area into Azerbaijani political system. Nagorno-Karabakh, as a nominally independent but internationally unrecognized Armenian entity, de facto ceased to exist.

The armistice was signed, but a couple of days after the signing and the first talks regarding the potential (re)integration of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, there were tragic videos and photos of tens of thousands Armenian refugees who left Nagorno-Karabakh and were sent to Armenia. By early October, almost all of the estimated 120,000 residents had left Nagorno-Karabakh, a region where Armenians have lived since the 1st century BC and which contains a significant cultural and historical heritage. The events also raised concerns about a possible humanitarian disaster and the spread of instability in the broader South Caucasus region.

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh was one of the most famous examples of the so-called frozen conflicts in the world and, at the same time, the longest-lasting dispute conflict in the entire post-Soviet space. Russia maintained its dominant presence in this “near abroad” as well, as the most important such was the mediator in the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, but also the guarantor of resolving the dispute and maintaining peace in Nagorno-Karabakh itself. In addition, Armenia is the only post-Soviet state in which Russian influence is persistent and whose security architecture was directly, almost entirely, tied to Russia.

Nevertheless, after the latest escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, which resulted in the dissolution of Armenian institutions and mass emigration of the population, the Armenian authorities, led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and a large part of public opinion strongly condemned Russia, with undisguised dissatisfaction and disappointment with the inaction of Russian troops – the peace contingent on the ground – as a guarantor of peace and the implementation of previous agreements.

However, in the Serbian pro-government and pro-Russian media, a different point of view was systematically taken, and a narrative was built about the sole responsibility of the Western-oriented authorities of Nikol Pashinyan, who gave up Nagorno-Karabakh “in just one day”, purposefully turning to foreign and security policy against Russia.

Armenia blames itself for the outcome due to the “betrayal” of Russia

The most influential pro-government tabloid, Informer, carried a series of news headlines such as “Drama in Russia! Armenia is preparing a terrible attack on Moscow?! Pashinyan can cause a total disaster with one decision” and “Where was Pashinyan’s army?! He trains with the Americans!”, focusing in particular on the alleged turn in Armenia’s foreign policy towards the West and the rapprochement with the USA, which also influenced Russia’s different, “reciprocal” approach in the context of the conflict in Karabakh. In his text, the informant illustrates the statements of the former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and one of the Kremlin’s leading propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov, who point out that the Armenian authorities turned to the West, which did not provide aid to Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh, and are now subsequently trying to blame Russia for their defeat.

The media, such as the Republika portal, the online edition of the daily Srpski Telegraf, also focused their “attention” in their reporting on the “betrayal” of Russia by the pro-Western Armenian authorities, apostrophizing that Armenia’s moves have angered Moscow and that Russia has no reason to react militarily in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. In the text of the Republic, the statement reports that “the American army is conducting exercises in Armenia; Armenia’s leadership betrayed Russia a long time ago, and Armenia’s main friends are now Russia’s enemies, France, the EU and the USA (…) the third Karabakh war will not last long.”

Other media also continued to interpret the events in Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the subsequent anti-government and anti-Russian protests that rocked Armenia. The Balkan portal of the Russian state media Russia Today pointed out that “the attempt to get closer to the West did not pay off in the end” and that “the situation does not look good either for Armenians or for their Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.” It was repeated on RT that the authorities of Armenia are “making their country hostages of the geopolitical games of the West (…) the alleged mistakes of the Russian Federation and the CSTO unconvincingly justify their steps.” It was concluded that “due to the inconsistent attitude of the Armenian leadership, which runs after the West and turns its back on trilateral agreements with Russia and Azerbaijan, precious time has been lost during which progress could be made in the peace negotiations.”

The pro-Russian portals Webtribune and have also frequently “promoted” this narrative. In the text entitled “Armenia’s attack on Russia: Expert revealed the main reason for the betrayal” on Webtribune, it is pointed out that “Pashinyan will say and do whatever he wants at the behest of the West (…) the main thing is to solve the problem of pushing Russia out of the South Caucasus”. published the statement of Maria Zakharova, in which it is stated that it was not Russia that betrayed Armenia but Brussels, which “neither intended to contribute to the ceasefire nor the provision of humanitarian aid.”

Another of the related narratives present in this period, at the end of September, after the tragic events in Nagorno-Karabakh and the departure of the Armenian population, was that Russia, although for a long time the guarantor of security, was not able to intervene more actively when Armenia itself changed the reality on the ground and recognized Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh. The Serbian edition of Russian Sputnik emphasizes that Nikol Pashinyan and official Yerevan themselves recognized that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan in May 2023, expressing their readiness to recognize the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, adding that the latest criticism of the Armenian authorities is in the shadow of that event.

Portal Alo quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying that “it was only a matter of time when and how Baku would establish constitutional order in Karabakh after Yerevan recognized Baku’s sovereignty.” The text adds that it was not the decision of Russia but exclusively of the Armenian authorities. RT published a statement from the Kremlin reminding that Russia was under no obligation to protect Nagorno-Karabakh and that such claims are baseless, given the changed status of this area. In the text of Informer with Serbian interlocutors, the comment of the editor-in-chief of RT stands out, indicating that the Armenian government refused Russia’s help, “recognized the disputed part of Nagorno-Karabakh, and now complains about it.”

The author’s text for the portal Novi Standard, which is suggestively titled “Armenian lesson for the Serbs”, emphasizes how “Pashinyan and his closest allies accuse Russia of their treachery and incompetence.” The author’s statement that “in a word, when solving the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, Russia had no reason to confront Azerbaijan after Pashinyan’s complete turn to the collective West,” illustratively summarizes the key narratives spread in the domestic media.

Russian influence in the South Caucasus has been shaken in reality

In reality, Russia’s influence as the most important geopolitical actor in the Transcaucasian area is weakened and potentially opens up space for other major and regional powers, primarily the USA and Turkey. Moscow failed to effectively control the situation in the region, where it is the only one with the presence of its forces on the ground, nor to resolve the conflict and stop hostilities. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes, Russia’s limited ability to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan and prevent the escalation of the conflict in Karabakh is conditioned by Moscow’s complete focus on the war in Ukraine.

In an article for Foreign Affairs, Carnegie Foundation expert and researcher Thomas de Waal reminds that Russia’s priorities in the Caucasus have changed after the aggression against Ukraine and that Azerbaijan has become a more important partner than Armenia, a traditional ally and the most pro-Russian stronghold of influence. Russian consent was also crucial for a series of aggressive acts by the authorities in Baku, which during the last year preceded the escalation of the conflict. The fact is that the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave was theoretically under the protection of Russian peacekeeping forces, the only external armed forces in the region, but that security guarantees proved to be worthless.

It is also a fact that after the second war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, in which Armenia and the leadership of the self-proclaimed republic practically lost control over the territory, which remained connected only by a narrow corridor with Armenia, a belief developed that Russia did not do enough to support Armenia even then, the authorities and Prime Minister Pashinyan began to speak publicly about renouncing territorial claims to the region. True, Armenia never formally recognized the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. Still, in previous years, it changed its political course, initiating peace negotiations with Azerbaijan and certain concessions due to Russia’s gradual withdrawal and the weakening of its former strategic support.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in its analysis, notes that since the fall of 2022, it has become clear that Russia is unwilling to intervene or materialize military aid to Yerevan, as a result of which the authorities of Nikol Pashinyan were forced to diversify security partnerships. In the search for instruments and guarantors of the external security of Armenia, which for a long time depended on Russia, insufficiently prepared to implement the assumed obligations, there were, as a forced reaction, changes in the security policy of Armenia and cautious attempts to approach Western countries. Additionally, it is indicated that Moscow’s justifications in the context of its own inertness and political mistakes – inability – to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Karabakh at the end of September 2023 are unconvincing. It is unclear how Pashinyan’s political declaration of readiness to accept Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity would nullify Russia’s security guarantees to the Armenian population of Karabakh, which were given in the 2020 trilateral agreement.

As it was concluded, the outcome of the conflict was also bad for Russia. “The failure of Russia’s peacekeeping efforts has jeopardized its long-term presence in the South Caucasus”, as Russia has failed to stop the Azerbaijani onslaught or the Armenian exodus, while there is a consequent expectation that Armenia will try to find guarantees elsewhere and that Russia’s presence in Armenia itself can be questioned.