Is Yerevan “slipping” out of the Kremlin’s orbit?

Article by Volodymyr Solovian and Anton Khimiak, HWAG/UCMC

Azerbaijan launched an “anti-terrorist operation” in Nagorno-Karabakh to “restore constitutional order” on September 19. The next day, the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh forces surrendered, bringing the conflict to a close.

International observers expressed optimism that the conflict would soon be put to rest. Azerbaijan’s triumphant President Ilham Aliyev declared that “more favorable opportunities” for a peace treaty with Armenia had emerged in the region.

However, it is too early to discuss the resolution of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations because the parties’ mutual distrust remains an impassable barrier. Mediation efforts are also ineffective, as evidenced by the cancellation of a meeting between the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia scheduled for October 5 in Granada, which was to be attended by the President of the European Union, the Chancellor of Germany, and the President of France.

Instead, another long-standing impediment – Moscow’s mediation based on the principle of “putting out flames with gasoline” –  has been finally destroyed.  The events of September 2023, in which Baku reclaimed control of the entire territory of Karabakh, demonstrated Moscow’s inability to preserve the last traces of the former status quo in the South Caucasus.

The collapse of the Armenian enclave has become a stumbling block in relations between Armenia and Russia, with the two countries engaged in an information war on the eve of the “Third Karabakh War.” From the outside, the conflict between Yerevan and Moscow appears to be an attempt to shift blame to the other side. However, the information component may be a forerunner of profound changes in the South Caucasus geopolitical landscape. 

The HWAG team (UCMC) investigated whether the information escalation will be a precursor to a political “divorce” between Armenia and Russia in this article.

Why did Armenia and Russia resort to mutual accusations?

The defeat in the Second Karabakh War in 2020 ended Armenian hopes that Russia would defend their extraterritorial enclave from Azerbaijan’s “encroachments.” Disappointment in Armenian society grew following the armed conflict on the Azerbaijan-Armenia border last September. Azerbaijan, according to Yerevan, occupied a portion of Armenia’s sovereign territory (outside of Nagorno-Karabakh), but the Kremlin distanced itself from its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) “ally”. Moscow appears to have chosen to cultivate trusting relationships with Azerbaijan and Turkey while ignoring Armenia’s concerns.   

Azerbaijan quickly closed the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Despite the presence of its “peacekeeping” contingent, Moscow did not intervene in the situation. This was a clear indication that Baku wants to accelerate the reintegration of uncontrolled areas, while the Kremlin leadership is unconcerned about the fate of Karabakh Armenians.  

Naturally, Yerevan interprets the shift in mood in Moscow as a dismantling of even flimsy Russian security guarantees. “As a result of the events in Ukraine, Russia’s capabilities have changed… Armenia can no longer rely on Moscow as a guarantor of its security…” – these words of Pashinyan, said in an interview with POLITICO, were interpreted as a 180° turn in Yerevan’s foreign policy by many observers. Indeed, this statement reflects Yerevan’s ongoing diplomatic efforts to keep relations with the West on track in preparation for signing a peace treaty with Azerbaijan. 

Relations between Yerevan and Moscow have been deteriorating for some time, and with the outbreak of the war in Karabakh, the schism has reached unprecedented levels. Armenia has withdrawn its permanent and plenipotentiary envoys in recent weeks: – withdrew its permanent and plenipotentiary envoy to the CSTO (in January, Yerevan refused to host the organization’s military exercises on its territory in 2023). This gesture can be interpreted as a clear indication of intent to withdraw from the CSTO.

– conducted joint military exercises with the United States (these exercises are held on a regular basis, however the Armenian military’s participation is minimal). In the current geopolitical context, however, Yerevan’s gesture is quite eloquent).

– Armenia has ratified the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Rome Statute, which issued the arrest warrant for Putin (eliminating one more country from the map of the Russian president’s international visits). 

In early September, the wife of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan attended the summit of first ladies and gentlemen in Kyiv, where she handed over humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

In response, the Kremlin launched an information campaign to delegitimize Armenia’s current leadership.

Information confrontation peaks

We used the Attack Index service to conduct a content analysis of Russian media in order to identify the key characteristics of the information confrontation between Moscow and Yerevan. This service enables you to conduct research based on online media monitoring while formulating a relevant sample.

Our request was for the keywords “Pashinyan”, “Armenia”, “Karabakh”, and “Artsakh”. This decision was made in order to cover as many relevant publications as possible. Only websites with a Russian domain and a geographical reference to the Russian Federation were included in the sample.

The service found over 26,000 publications between June 1 and September 19, 2023, with a potential total reach of up to 3 million people. The source objectivity graph shows that 64.5% of the sources were from the Russian propaganda pool. At the same time, only 7.44% of the sources that covered our request had an objective editorial policy. 

Graph of objectivity of sources in the study sample

According to the graph of information activity, Russian media began actively covering the issue of Karabakh and Armenia in late August and early September 2023. We can see that a significant increase in coverage began after September 1. Nikol Pashinyan’s interview with La Repubblica, in which the Armenian prime minister criticized Russia’s security guarantees and the activities of Russian peacekeepers in the region, was published on this day. This sparked a backlash in the Kremlin’s propaganda media.

Criticism of Armenian leadership appeared in pro-Kremlin media outlets in separate waves.

On August 7, for example, the service highlighted the following news stories: “Pashinyan’s NATO look angered the Kremlin,” a statement by Russian Presidential Spokesman Peskov that “Russia is not going to leave the South Caucasus region,” and a call to Armenia to join the North Atlantic Alliance by the President of the European Commission for NATO Development, Günther Fellinger.

Regional media, such as “Kavkazskiy Uzel” or “Vestnik Kavkaza,” as well as large state-owned Russian resources (TASS, NTV, and others), were among the primary disseminators of these stories. In just one day, the article about the “Kremlin’s outrage” was shared 445 times, accounting for more than half of all stories on that day.

On August 7, 2023, the most popular stories

The graphs of activity and emotional coloring show that the topic of Armenia and Karabakh is important to the Russian Federation audience. Furthermore, the selectivity of reactions to events in the region during the study period suggests that the Kremlin used the escalation of the conflict to launch an information war against the Pashinyan government, which was inconvenient for Moscow.

Armenia’s “Ukrainization” in the Eyes of Russian Propaganda

At the official level, the Kremlin primarily responded to topics that are personally vulnerable to Putin.

According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Armenia’s ratification of the Rome Statute will harm Russian-Armenian relations. Dmitry Peskov, Russian Presidential Press Secretary, described the decision as “extremely hostile.” 

Yerevan’s declaration of desire to withdraw from the CSTO is no less vexing in Moscow, as the Russian leadership prefers to maintain the appearance that the satellite states of the post-Soviet space adhered to vassalage loyalty during the war. The Kremlin is irritated, as evidenced by the remarks of Russia’s top diplomat: Lavrov’s tone shifted to dismissive of Pashinyan’s government, describing the Armenian authorities as a “temporary administration” attempting to sever centuries-old ties between the two peoples. 

Russian propaganda trampled on Armenian leadership with brazen malice throughout September. The following were the most frequently used theses during this time period: 

  • Pashinyan is pursuing a policy of “Ukrainianization” of Armenia. Russian propaganda wields comparisons to Ukraine as a club over the heads of neighboring countries. The message is clear: if you do not follow Moscow’s policy, “denazification” may come to your doorstep. 
  • The ruling elite of Armenia are traitors to national interests. Russian propagandists are attempting to persuade Armenian society that Pashinyan chose to lose in Karabakh in order to turn toward the West.  
  • Armenia’s “flirting” with the EU and the United States will result in a loss of sovereignty. Russian speakers are exploiting Armenian society’s fears of a hypothetical backroom conspiracy involving Moscow, Ankara, and Baku.  The fate of the Zangezur corridor (a land link between the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan and the mainland) is at stake, with Yerevan viewing its implementation as Azerbaijan’s territorial claim to the Republic of Armenia. 

The most radical members of the z-community have resorted to xenophobic language, accusing Armenians of cowardice and a desire to shift their own problems onto Russia’s shoulders. 

Simultaneously, Russian propagandists delivered a verdict on Armenia’s leader: Moscow should replace Pashinyan with a loyal creative. 

Is there, however, such a candidate on the pro-Kremlin bench in Armenian politics?  

New roles for long standing proteges 

The Russian propaganda machine actively engages “opinion leaders” to create a favorable image at the regional level. The Kremlin has tested the tactic of using “dark horses” in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and other countries where Moscow is attempting to impose a geopolitical influence harness.  

Mikael Badalyan, a Telegram blogger, friend of the Russian war correspondents, and Sputnik Armenia columnist, has been the most odious pro-Russian figure in Armenian politics in recent years. Badalian, known for his harsh criticism of Pashinyan, regularly organized street protests that were extensively covered by Russian media. Anti-Ukrainian slogans and support for the so-called Special Military Operation “SMO” were sometimes heard at these small-scale protests. It is significant that Badalyan’s detention has become one of the primary causes of the current conflict between Armenia and Russia.  

Of course, puppets like Badalyan cannot claim to be the pro-Russian opposition’s political leader. However, it is possible that Moscow will try to use such characters as the catalysts for the phony revolution in order to depose Pashinyan. In his publications, Badalyan has repeatedly attempted to play this role. In a post titled “The last round in the opposition’s clip,” for example, a Kremlin “revolutionary” writes: “Over the past 3 years, the Armenian opposition, which had unprecedented triggers for a popular uprising, has been unable to achieve anything at all, and they have only themselves to blame.”

Badalyan speaking at a pro-Russian rally on April 22, 2022.

According to a number of experts, billionaire and philanthropist Ruben Vardanyan was the Kremlin’s main creative in Armenian politics until recently. In 2022, he renounced his Russian citizenship and moved to Armenia, where he briefly served as a state minister and de facto head of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). Vardanyan advocates for the “Country for Life” party in domestic Armenian politics, whose popularity is currently on the verge of statistical error. Vardanyan’s pro-Russian stance is evident in his public statements, in which he frequently emphasizes Moscow’s constructive role in the region and accuses Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders of anti-Russian actions.

“We highly appreciate the efforts of the Russian peacekeeping contingent to ensure Artsakh’s security and emphasize Russia’s mediation role and responsibility in ensuring a stable peace in the region,” Vardanyan said before Armenian Karabakh collapsed on September 19-20. 

As of current, Vardanyan has been detained by the Azerbaijani special services on suspicion of sponsoring terrorism and illegal armed groups. Meanwhile, loyal Russian “media” are actively molding the image of a political prisoner.

“Azerbaijan is throwing Russia out of the South Caucasus by its actions” – Vardanyan

Therefore, the Kremlin is likely considering a scenario in which Vardanyan is released from Azerbaijani prisons as a result of personal agreements between Putin and Aliyev. As a result, Vardanyan will receive additional benefits for resuming his political career in Armenia as a fighter for the rights of Karabakh Armenians (residents of the so-called NKR will become a significant part of Armenia’s electoral field). At the same time, the Kremlin, which has been aware of a decline in Russian sympathy in Armenian society since 2020, may use the release of former Armenian Karabakh leaders who have been in the hands of Azerbaijani law enforcement to restore the image of a “defender” of Armenian interests.

However, it remains to be seen whether Baku will want to pursue this plot, as the radicalization of the domestic political scene through the reintroduction of figures like Vardanyan into public life contradicts plans to sign a peace treaty with Armenia.

Working on errors or imitation?

In a message to Armenians on September 24, Nikol Pashinyan emphasized the importance of rebuilding the country’s internal and external security structures. On the same day, Araik Harutyunyan, the Armenian Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, issued a resounding statement accusing the Russian media of waging a “hybrid war” against Armenia. This was his reaction to NTV’s (Russian television channel) coverage of protests in Yerevan calling for Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation.

In light of this, Armenian authorities have begun discussions about potentially shutting down Russian TV channels (the country broadcasts Russian Pervyi Kanal, RTR Planet, Russia, Kultura, and Mir). Lusini Badalyan, a member of the ruling Civic Contract party, announced the initiative. According to her, this is a matter of national security because Russian TV channels’ content has become “anti-Armenian.”

Thus, the tone of official Yerevan’s rhetoric suggests a desire to re-establish relations with Moscow. Simultaneously, the information component is an important indicator of a new stage in Armenian-Russian relations.

However, it is premature to label Armenia as one of “Moscow’s adversaries.” Despite the fact that Yerevan does not officially support the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine, Armenia continues to supply Russia with smuggled microelectronics. Armenia, for example, supplied $460 million in electronic equipment to Russian customers in 2022, with equipment sales increasing from $14 million to $158 million. As a result, the dynamics of trade in sanctioned categories of goods are a true indicator of non-declarative changes in Yerevan’s foreign policy.   

As the monitoring demonstrates, the nature of the information conflict between Armenia and Russia is ambiguous. Because Yerevan is preoccupied with Karabakh, all attacks on Moscow are purely regional in nature. As a result, we can hardly expect a shift in the government-aligned media’s coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian war. 

On the contrary, the Kremlin is introducing the concept of a geopolitical confrontation with the US and attempting to blackmail the Pashinyan government by participating in street protests. However, due to Armenian society’s general apathy, the potential for these actions remains rather low. As a result, if the coup attempts fail, Moscow will be forced to resume constructive dialogue. Clearly, despite the overstretching of forces on the Ukrainian front, Russia does not intend to leave the South Caucasus geopolitical perimeter, an important component of which is a military base in Armenia. Obviously, Moscow will “forgive” Pashinyan for his adultery with the West in exchange for guarantees of its military’s stay in Armenia and possible supplies of sanctioned goods.