Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Foreign Policy Research Institute

tel. +38 (044) 287 52 58

The war around Nagorno-Karabakh as a pretext for spreading Russian misinformation about Ukraine

This fall, the world community witnessed an unprecedented event in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan, during a full-scale military offensive in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, regained control of a number of settlements. During the offensive, the Azerbaijani armed forces inflicted a crushing defeat on Armenian troops. Such military success became possible due to the consistent development of its own army, its modernization, which led to the advantage of Azerbaijan primarily in the technological aspect. In addition, the support of another major regional player, Turkey, played an important role.

Against this background, there has been a lot of talk recently about the possibility of using the experience of Azerbaijan, in particular in Ukraine. «Azerbaijan achieved results in the war in Karabakh primarily because it relied not only on diplomatic efforts» military commentator Oleksandr Musienko told Radio Svoboda. «Whether you like it or not, this war has proved the fallacy of some politicians' claims that there is no way in the 21st century to resolve territorial disputes by military means. After more than a quarter of a century of unsuccessful diplomacy, Azerbaijan has achieved results using force, the expert said. And he adds: no matter how fantastic the scenario of the military return of the occupied part of Donbas to Ukraine looks now, it cannot be ruled out in the future. And now we need to prepare for it, strengthening the Armed Force».[1] However, there is a fundamental difference between the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia and Azerbaijan are two small states, and the conflict between them has an ethnic basis. In Donbas, the conflict is artificial, created by the Russian Federation. According to the director of the Munich Security Conference, Ukraine's attempt to return the Russian-occupied territories of Donbas by military means - as Azerbaijan did it in Nagorno-Karabakh - will turn into a catastrophe for Ukraine.[2]

It is worth mentioning that the Ukrainian army already took control over the border in 2014, but it was fired upon from two sides - the territories of the so-called «LDPR» and the territory of the Russian Federation. Therefore, an attempt to conduct a full-scale military operation to return the eastern territories, can lead to an open Russian regular troops intervention. 

Currently, Ukrainian officials reject military scenario in search for diplomatic solution. Recently, the first president, Ukraine's representative in the Tripartite Contact Group (TCG), Leonid Kravchuk, proposed another version of the peace settlement called the «Joint Action Plan». A common feature of the projects submitted by the Ukrainian side is the emphasis on the need to ensure security during the elections. Kravchuk's plan was no exception. In this regard, it is proposed to hold elections after the withdrawal of illegal armed groups and Ukraine's takeover of the border. The Minsk agreements, in turn, state that Ukraine must first hold elections in certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (ORDLO), after that all illegal armed groups will be withdrawn.

In addition, the Russian side is pressuring Ukraine to demand the implementation of the clause concerning the consolidation of the special status of Donbas in the Constitution. It should be noted that the agreements do not clearly define the special status, and the Ukrainian side emphasizes that the decentralization reform already provides the transfer of power to the local level. In addition, the Ukrainian government is ready to establish a free economic zone to restore the region's economy and intends to implement this idea, regardless of the process of the occupied territories returning.

The Ceasefire in Donbas is often violated during important events in Ukraine, such as the elections, or just before negotiations with Russia. Pressure from the Russian Federation through the escalating conflict in Donbas became commonplace. Due to Zelenskys election promises to resolve the conflict, the President of Ukraine becomes a hostage to the situation, as the proposals of the Ukrainian delegation in the TCG on ways of the conflict resolution do not bring significant results. It is becoming clear quasi-republics lose the meaning of existing in a peacetime and keeping hostilities is the only option for them, so Russia is not interested in a peaceful settlement of the conflict. All actions of the Russian Federation are aimed at attempts to subjectivize the so-called «LDPR» by forcing Ukraine to consolidate a special status of these territories.

Representatives of Ukraine have repeatedly stated that it is impossible to fulfill the Minsk agreements in the current conditions, therefore, they direct their actions to reach an agreement on their revision. Thus, the negotiations are deadlocked, since the continuation of the peace process does not meet the Kremlin's strategic objectives. In recent months, in order to improve its position in the eyes of the international community, the Kremlin has been using its own information resources to promote a narrative about Ukraine's alleged plans to launch an offensive in the east of the country. Kremlin created information field aimed to form the opinion that Ukraine is ready to attack in Donbas. A similar method was used by Azerbaijan before the invasion of Armenia. An analysis of Azerbaijani YouTube channels showed that during 2017-2018, a network of fake accounts was created and was used to spread propaganda. Therefore, it can be assumed that the Azerbaijani-Turkish alliance began to prepare and to create an information background for the liberation of the occupied territories of Azerbaijan 2-3 years before the beginning of the active phase of the conflict. In the pre-conflict period, the informational influence of Azerbaijan was focused: on discrediting everything connected with Armenia - history, religion, culture, its army; On September 28, Azerbaijan provided information to military attachés and disseminated information about the speech of the President of Azerbaijan at the UN General Assembly, which took place two days before the conflict and was dedicated to the aggression of Armenia.[3]

The Russian Federation began using similar methods before the conflict in Donbas, and in the midst of Azerbaijan's military operation, when it became clear that Aliyev was succeeding, the Russian media directed a disinformation campaign to discredit the Armed Forces of Ukraine, including accusations of preparing an offensive on the East. On November 24, Russian politician Volodymyr Zhirinovsky at a press conference of his party suggested a scenario of a possible Ukrainian attack on Crimea and ORDLO in the near future, and the subsequent division of Ukraine afterwards between Russia and the West. A number of Russian experts and former representatives of the so-called «LDPR» also made statements about the unpreparedness of quasi-republics to oppose the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In addition, similar information was spread in the Western media, in particular, the National Interest published an article accusing Ukraine of escalating hostilities in more than ten touchline points. In this article, the author refers to information from the official resources of the so-called «LDPR» and to interviews with ministers of quasi-republics.[4] Such rhetoric, namely the creation of Ukraine's image as an «aggressor country» in the conflict, may indicate the basis for the Russian offensive in the Donbas if Ukraine does not agree to surrender in the diplomatic dimension.

There is no doubt that President Zelensky will continue to try to achieve peace in Donbas looking for optimal solutions and compromises. However, when Russia, as an aggressor state, is not interested in conflict resolution, it is important for the president not to agree to the terms that will undermine Ukraine from within and further hinder Ukraine's development, leaving the country under Kremlin influence. In order to strengthen the negotiating position, the state leadership needs to continue cooperation with Western partner countries and to develop practical cooperation with other states of the Baltic-Black Sea region that have common interests with Ukraine.

One of these countries is Turkey. At the present stage, relations between Ukraine and the Republic of Turkey are developing rapidly. We can note the progress in the military-industrial sphere, in the economic and political dimensions. On October 16, 2020, Ukraine and the Republic of Turkey announced the creation of the Quadriga format, which includes annual meetings of foreign and defense ministers on a two-plus-two basis to discuss political and security issues.[5] Given Turkey's role in modernizing and developing Azerbaijan's military capabilities, the Ukrainian leadership understands how important the army is to ensure a strong state position in the negotiations, and the development of the military-industrial complex is a priority. Wars are not won by diplomacy, and it seems Volodymyr Zelensky is beginning to understand this, however continuing to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict.

In addition, the Russian information campaign aimed at spreading fakes during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict reminded the Ukrainian leadership that the information war continues and that the geography of its use is not limited by Ukrainian territory. Therefore, it is necessary to strengthen the readiness of the society to counter hybrid threats and to strengthen the diplomatic and information capabilities of the state, soft power, to combat Russian propaganda not only within the state but also abroad.