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Kremlin propaganda turns up the heat on Armenia

14 November 2023
‘Agents of Soros in Armenia’: a still from the programme ‘Nikol Pashinyan: a harbinger of trouble’ on Russia’s Channel 1.

Russia and Armenia’s rapidly deteriorating relations have taken a new turn in recent weeks, with the Kremlin’s propaganda channels openly turning on Armenia, and in particular, its leader, Nikol Pashinyan. 

According to Russia’s state-run Channel One, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is, per the title of a 23 October broadcast, ‘a harbinger of trouble’. The hour-long programme was dedicated in its entirety to criticism of Pashinyan, focusing on the idea that he had sold, or was in the process of selling, his country to the West. 

It followed a trend that has been mounting in the past year, with long-simmering tensions between Russia and Armenia increasingly stated explicitly by media and officials in both countries. 

It also repeated a claim that has become central to Russia’s criticism of Armenia’s leader, blaming Azerbaijan’s attacks on Pashinyan’s recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity as including Nagorno-Karabakh. The position directly opposes Armenian statements, frequently put forward by Pashinyan, regarding the inactivity of Russian peacekeepers and Russia in the region since Azerbaijan’s attacks on Armenian territory in 2022. 

‘Not our fault, not our problem’, said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, as Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians fled the region. 

But while mutual accusations of responsibility for Azerbaijan’s attacks on Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh had become commonplace, since Nagorno-Karabakh’s surrender, Russia’s messages have escalated. 

On 20 September, pro-Russian blogger Mika Badalyan called on Armenians to join anti-government protests in the streets of Yerevan, warning that were they not to do so, they would become ‘participants’ in the ‘genocide’ of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. Amongst those who shared this text were Margarita Simonyan, a famous Kremlin propagandist and the editor-in-chief of Russia Today, and journalist Vladimir Solovyov. 

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Russia’s unofficial state propagandists have, as is customary, voiced the most extreme and provocative positions, with Simonyan suggesting in September that Pashinyan commit suicide for having ‘gifted’ Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, and ‘selling his own people for a meagre pension’. 

However, similar ideas have been echoed by Kremlin officials. 

In a post on 19 September, Russia’s Security Council chief and former president Dmitry Medvedev stated that Armenia’s fate was ‘predictable’, laying the blame for Azerbaijan’s defeat of Nagorno-Karabakh with Pashinyan. 

‘He decided to blame Russia for his mediocre defeat. Then, he gave up part of the territory of his country. Then he decided to flirt with NATO, and his wife defiantly went to our enemies with cookies’, Medvedev wrote, referring to an official visit by Pashinyan’s wife to Ukraine. 

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov similarly stated during Azerbaijan’s attack that Armenia had allied with the West against Russia, claiming that the West was to blame for ‘destabilising’ the South Caucasus. 

The new message appeared to be deliberately coordinated. 

Shortly after Azerbaijan’s attack, Meduza, an independent Russian media outlet in exile, revealed a guideline prepared in the Kremlin for the Russian state media which provided instructions on how to cover Azerbaijan’s attack. 

The main directive was to put the blame on Armenia and its relations with the West, emphasising that Armenia had recognised Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. 

‘Armenia’s Prime Minister was probably pressured to make this statement by his Western “partners”, who should fully share responsibility for the consequences’, the document read. 

The instructions repeated the Kremlin’s talking points, stating that Armenia’s decision had ‘radically changed the status of Karabakh’ and given the green light to Baku to act, as the issue had become an ‘internal territorial’ conflict. 

Talking to Russian media during Azerbaijan’s  September, attack Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov repeated those ideas, saying that ‘de jure’ the military operations were being conducted ‘in Azerbaijan’s territory’; and Russia could consequently not intervene. 

Another independent media outlet, Vyorstka, went on to claim that MPs in the Russian Parliament had also been instructed to slam Pashinyan for the hostilities and downplay the impact on civilians. An anonymous MP told Vyorstka that they were told to make Pashinyan a ‘scapegoat’ in their comments in response to Yerevan’s anti-Russian stance.

Ilya Yablokov, a Lecturer in Digital Journalism and Disinformation at the University of Sheffield, tells OC Media that Moscow is clearly aiming to ‘destroy’ Pashinyan’s reputation, presenting him as an anti-Russian asset in the hands of Washington, instead of a pro-Russian asset under Moscow’s control. 

‘Angry, vindictive, and vengeful’

Yablokov states that Kremlin propaganda has been targeting Nikol Pashinyan since 2018, and that the current tone and trajectory of the propaganda, given the state of events, is ‘not surprising’. 

Pashinyan came to power in 2018 in Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, and Moscow has consistently denounced what it terms ‘colour’ revolutions — peaceful changes of power — in former Soviet states. While Moscow and Yerevan initially maintained somewhat friendly relations, Kremlin propaganda swiftly began to associate Pashinyan with George Soros, and claim that the West had backed the revolution. 

Richard Giragossian, the head of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center think tank, adds that Russia’s attitude is not necessarily specific to Armenia, as the country has become ‘ever more angry, vindictive, and vengeful’ towards all of its neighbours. He adds, however, that Armenia has ‘remained an irritant’ to Moscow since 2018. 

Yablokov believes that RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, however, also has a personal apathy towards Pashinyan, occasionally targeting him based on her personal views, which mostly align with the Kremlin’s policies. 

Armenia relies on Russia not only for its security but also economically: most of Armenia’s strategic infrastructure, from railways to gas distribution, belongs to Russian companies, while most large Armenian mining companies are owned by Russian businesspeople. 

When the countries’ relations are souring, Russia has used this as leverage, banning imports of certain products, as the main customer for a number of Armenian goods. Following recent developments, some in Armenia called for the government to nationalise Gazprom Armenia, the management of the country’s railways, and Armenia’s nuclear power plant.

Adding to the factors fueling the war of words between Armenia and Russia has been the ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICRC) by Armenia at the beginning of October, which potentially obligates the country to arrest Russia’s President Putin if he ever arrives in the country. 

While Moscow denounced the ratification as a ‘hostile move’ that would have the ‘most negative consequences’ on the two countries’ relations, Armenian lawyers have stated that international mechanisms would allow them to bypass the International Criminal Court order. 

Armenia’s deputy speaker of parliament added on 2 November that Armenia had proposed that the two countries sign an agreement, which would exclude Armenia from applying ICRC decisions concerning both countries.

‘We have proposed it, we have not received a response, but there is still time before it enters into force, and I hope that there will be progress’, said Hakob Arshakyan.

[Read more: Armenia ratifies Rome Statute despite Russian warnings]

But Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan explicitly tied Armenia’s interest in ratifying the convention to Russia, noting the failure of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation to intervene when Armenia was under attack by Azerbaijan, and the overall ‘non-effectiveness’ of the treaties Armenia relies on for its security.

In the days following Azerbaijan’s attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, thousands of people protested in front of the Russian embassy in Yerevan, blocking the embassy’s entrances and prompting Russia’s Foreign Ministry to send a note of protest to Yerevan regarding the protests and the disruption of the embassy’s ‘normal work’.

Some Armenian opposition members have, however, criticised Pashinyan’s anti-Russian stance, accusing him of ‘declaring war against Russia’ while being ‘afraid’ of fighting Azerbaijan.

‘Not yet taking action’

Richard Giragossian notes that Russia does not yet look set to directly intervene in Armenia. 

He highlights that Russia’s response to Armenia remains verbal and confined to lower-level officials, with spokespeople for the foreign ministry and presidential administration most often stating their dissatisfaction. 

‘If Russian anger at Armenia were truly a serious crisis, Moscow would have taken action and not just issued angry statements’, says Giragossian. ‘Moreover, it is not a crisis if Russian President Putin does not comment or criticise.’

Giragossian adds that active Russian intervention in Armenian politics is both unlikely and unnecessary. 

‘The Armenian opposition has repeatedly sought and solicited Russian backing and support, and each request was rejected by Moscow’, says Giragossian. ‘If there were a more likely time for Russia to support the opposition and seek to overthrow the Armenian government, it would have been in the immediate wake of the shock of the 2020 defeat.’

But Yablokov believes that the Kremlin does not have ‘any consistency’ in its positions and propaganda, meaning that it can and will support a revolution in a country if doing so is in its interests. 

Russia’s current approach to Armenia has also been heavily influenced by its invasion of Ukraine, says Giragossian. Russia failed to respond in a number of cases when military escalations erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan and in Nagorno-Karabakh, and ‘even the humiliation of the Russian peacekeepers by Azerbaijan’ did not trigger a significant response.

An arms deals between Yerevan and Moscow planned for this year has also fallen through, with Russia owing Armenia $400 million worth of weapons and ammunition but failing to provide either. 

And following Moscow’s inaction during Azerbaijan’s incursions and the 2022 September War, Armenia has begun to more directly punch back. 

[Read more: Armenia slams Russia for ‘absolute indifference’

While Armenia’s Foreign Ministry in August accused Russia of ‘absolute indifference’, Pashinyan indirectly but pointedly stated that ‘some partners’ had breached the norms of ‘diplomatic, interstate relations’, ethics, and their obligations as set out in bilateral contracts. Given Russia’s position as Armenia’s primary security partner, it was evident whom the comments were aimed at. 

The official antipathy significantly escalated on 24 October, when Armenia summoned Russia’s ambassador to discuss the anti-Pashinyan broadcast, with Russia summoning Armenia’s charge d’affaires the following day. 

[Read more: Moscow and Yerevan summon ambassadors as relations continue to plummet]

Armenia has also increasingly chosen Western facilitators for its negotiations with Baku, refusing to take part in Russia-initiated talks and CIS gatherings, further contributing to growing tensions between the two countries. 

With both Russia and Armenia suffering recent military losses, it remains to be seen what action the growing antagonism might prompt. 

While sudden shifts in Armenia and Russia’s relations seem unlikely, observers note that Armenia has clearly chosen the path of moving away from Russia in favour of deepening its relations with the West, with the apparent aim of ridding itself of dependence on a country that previously served as its main ally. 

OC Media’s requests for comments from Armenian and Russian authorities remained unanswered. 

Read in Russian on SOVA.News.