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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.