ANALYSIS: The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: A Case Study On Multi-Country Influence Operations

November 1st, 2020 11:43

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has heated up once again, and various influence actors have crafted propaganda strategies and information operations to support their own interests and narratives. While the international media focuses on the fighting, the conflict is largely seen and read through posts on social media channels or the official messaging from authorities. Controlling the narrative has become essential for influence actors such as Russia, Turkey, or Iran, who have used the conflict to spread anti-Western conspiracies, portray themselves as primary actors in the region, or implicate old enemies such as Ukraine or Israel.

While Russia is often viewed as a supporter of Armenia, it has officially positioned itself as a neutral mediator seeking diplomatic means to de-escalate the conflict. Controlling the negotiation process in this way would allow Putin to frame Russia as the key actor and broker in the former Soviet Union. However, the pro-Kremlin media network is also using the conflict to vent historical and contemporary grudges: According to EUvsDisinfo, a European Union-funded project to monitor Russia’s disinformation campaigns, Russia is using the conflict to spread anti-Western conspiracies, portray itself as the primary actor in the region and implicate Ukrainian involvement:

The escalation of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh provided yet another opportunity for pro-Kremlin outlets to vent historical and contemporary grudges. This week, they claimed that the re-ignited fighting in the region was a Western cover-up operation, just like in Hungary in 1956 (when in fact soviet forces had invaded the country). According to Sputnik, even the independence of both Armenia and Azerbaijan is “accidental”, as they still belong to historic Russia. Ukraine, ever the target of pro-Kremlin disinformation, was implicated as well: Kyiv will deliver weapons to Azerbaijan under the guise of humanitarian aid and send far-right fighters trained in Donbas to Nagorno-Karabakh, disinformation outlets claimed, presenting zero evidence. They also suggested that the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh significantly increased the chance of new hostilities in Donbas, as Kyiv was pushed to attack by its “American masters”. Resentment against Ukraine runs deep in pro-Kremlin media, causing “Ukrainian radicals” to continuously emerge across the globe: in the US, in Hong Kong, in Belarus, and now in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Read the rest here.

Turkey, a major backer of Azerbaijan, is seeking to shape the conflict to expand Turkish influence in the region. While international media coverage has largely portrayed the ongoing conflict as a spontaneous escalation, there are indications that Azerbaijan prepared to escalate the conflict with Turkish support before September 27. Nevertheless, Turkey has launched a media war blaming Armenia, portraying the country as “the biggest threat to regional peace” while denying verified facts. According to an article by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University:

While committing atrocities against civilians, Turkey and Azerbaijan are simultaneously engaged in a war of words to whitewash their responsibility. These countries have repeatedly denied facts verified by credible sources. As early as September 30, the Guardian and CNN published reports about Syrian mercenaries fighting for Turkey in Nagorno-Karabakh. In a press release on October 2, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister denied the presence of Syrian mercenaries and shifted blame, accusing Armenia of using terror proxies: “There are numerous facts of the use of terrorist groups and mercenaries in military operations by Armenia,” he said. The next day, October 3, Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, denied to Al Jazeera that Syrian mercenaries were being deployed in the region. He disparaged Emmanuel Macron’s claim that France had evidence of Syrian mercenaries deployed by Turkey.

Read the rest here.

While Turkey has increased its combat operations, it has also stepped up its information operations in the West to portray Armenia as the real aggressor and Turkey as a legitimate party in the conflict: The Union of International Democrats (UID), the AKP Party lobby organization in Europe, has organized demonstrations in European capitals to protest against the “crimes against humanity committed by Armenia.” The UID is also spreading messages such as #ArmeniaKillsChildren on its social media channels. The Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), another pro-AKP lobby organization in the U.S., has organized several demonstrations in Washington, DC, to protest “Armenian aggression” and spread the message that “Karabakh is Azerbaijan.”

Similarly, Azerbaijan has ramped up its public relations campaign in the U.S., employing six of K Street’s heavy-hitting lobby firms to convince Americans that Armenia is the real aggressor and Turkey is not really involved in the conflict.  According to documents obtained by The American Conservative:

Azerbaijan’s hired K Street guns are distributing what are euphemistically referred to in FARA documents as “informational materials.” These materials could be more accurately described as propaganda. The documents distributed on Capitol Hill highlight Armenia’s “provocative actions,” its “illegal” role in the conflict, that Armenia allegedly “kills Azerbaijani civilians, including children,” and how “Armenia’s leaders have been actively undermining the ongoing peace process.” The documents lobbyists distribute on Capitol Hill make some incredulous claims: that “Armenia has long been involved with Middle Eastern terrorism,” that “Azerbaijan has been consistent in urging substantive and result-oriented negotiations in order to achieve a breakthrough in the conflict,” and that “Turkey is not directly involved and is not a party to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.”

Read the rest here.

Bordering both Armenia and Azerbaijan, Iran has adopted an officially neutral stance, although its shared Shia religion would make it a natural ally of Azerbaijan. However, the Iranian government has articulated its concerns about the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and stressed its adherence to international law, comparing the situation to “the occupation of Palestine by the Zionist regime.” According to a government official quoted in Press TV, an Iranian-backed media operation:

We are concerned about the fate of Azerbaijan and believe its territorial integrity must be protected. In this case, the territory of one country is occupied by another. The areas south of the Republic of Azerbaijan — about 7 cities — are occupied by Armenia. In this regard, four resolutions have been adopted by the UN, all of which require the Armenians, who have occupied these parts of Azerbaijani soil, to pull out and return to international borders. We, therefore, want Armenia to return these occupied parts to the Republic of Azerbaijan. More than one million Azeris, who have been displaced by the occupation of these areas, must return to their homeland soon. Just as we oppose the occupation of Palestine by the Zionist regime, we have the same position here.

Furthermore, in official announcements, the Iranian government has used the conflict to highlight its own historic role as a peacemaker in the region and blame Western colonialism for population engineering and ethnic cleansing. Iran Press News Agency has quoted a government spokesman claiming that:

For centuries, the Caucasus region has been under the unifying umbrella of Islamic-Iranian civilization, the geography of coexistence and reconciliation of different religions, languages and cultural and religious identities, but since the colonial emphasis on identity differences narrowed the field to the commonalities of centuries of civilization, we have witnessed operations such as population engineering, ethnic cleansing, and mass deportations.

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