Serbian media blame Armenian ‘betrayal’ of Russia for the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh

‘Ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh seeking refuge because of attacks by Azerbaijani armed forces.’ Photo by MIL.ru, via Wikipedia, (CC BY 4.0).

This analysis by Igor Mirosavljević was originally published by the International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC), part of the regional initiative Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub. An edited version is republished by Global Voices as part of a partnership agreement.

The re-escalation of the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in September 2023, which ended with the surrender of Nagorno-Karabakh forces and the establishment of total control over the territory by Azerbaijan, focused increased public attention on the geopolitical dynamics in the South Caucasus region in the media in the Serbian language. Serbian pro-government tabloids pushed the narrative that the sole responsibility for Armenia losing control over the region and the subsequent mass exodus of ethnic Armenians living in Karabakh was the doing of the Armenian pro-Western authorities, their rhetoric and foreign policy moves.

Despite being dubbed as one of the most famous examples of frozen conflict, the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh has been one of the longest-lasting conflicts in the entire post-Soviet space. Throughout this period, Russia maintained its dominant presence in the region, and played the mediator role in the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition, Armenia was the only post-Soviet state in which Russian influence was persistent and whose security architecture was directly, almost entirely, tied to Russia.

Nevertheless, during the recent tragic events, the Armenian authorities, led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and a large part of public opinion strongly condemned Russia, with undisguised dissatisfaction and disappointment with the inaction of Russian peacekeeping troops — the contingent on the ground. However, the pro-government and pro-Russian media in Serbia systematically promoted a different narrative.

Armenia blames itself for the outcome 

The most influential Serbian pro-government tabloid, Informer, carried a series of news headlines such as “Drama in Russia! Armenia is preparing a terrible attack on Moscow?! Pashinyan can cause a total disaster with one decision” and “Where was Pashinyan’s army?! He trains with the Americans!” focusing, in particular, on the alleged turn in Armenia’s foreign policy towards the West and the rapprochement with the USA, which also influenced Russia’s different, “reciprocal” approach in the context of the conflict in Karabakh. The tabloid quoted the former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and one of the Kremlin’s leading propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov, who pointed out that the Armenian authorities turned to the West, which did not provide aid to Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh, and are now subsequently trying to blame Russia for their defeat.

Other media, such as the Republika portal, the online edition of the daily Srpski Telegraf, also focused their “attention” in their reporting on the “betrayal” of Russia by the pro-Western Armenian authorities, accentuating that since Armenia’s moves have angered Moscow, it has no reason to react militarily in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. They noted that “the American army is conducting exercises in Armenia; Armenia’s leadership betrayed Russia a long time ago, and Armenia’s main friends are now Russia’s enemies, France, the EU and the USA (…) the third Karabakh war will not last long.”

Russian media based in Serbia also continued to interpret the events in Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the subsequent anti-government and anti-Russian protests that rocked Armenia, in a similar manner. The Balkan portal of the Russian state media Russia Today pointed out that “the attempt to get closer to the West did not pay off in the end” and that “the situation does not look good either for Armenians or for their Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.” RT repeated that the authorities of Armenia were “making their country hostages of the geopolitical games of the West (…) the alleged mistakes of the Russian Federation and the CSTO unconvincingly justify their steps.” They concluded that “due to the inconsistent attitude of the Armenian leadership, which runs after the West and turns its back on trilateral agreements with Russia and Azerbaijan, precious time has been lost during which progress could be made in the peace negotiations.”

The pro-Russian portals Webtribune and Srbin.info have also frequently “promoted” this narrative. In the text entitled “Armenia’s attack on Russia: Expert revealed the main reason for the betrayal” on Webtribune, it is pointed out that “Pashinyan will say and do whatever he wants at the behest of the West (…) the main thing is to solve the problem of pushing Russia out of the South Caucasus.” Srbin.info published the statement of Russian MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova, in which she stated that it was not Russia that betrayed Armenia but Brussels, which “neither intended to contribute to the ceasefire nor the provision of humanitarian aid.”

Another of the related narratives present in this period was that Russia, although for a long time the guarantor of security, was not able to intervene more actively when Armenia itself changed the reality on the ground and recognized Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh. The Serbian edition of Russian Sputnik emphasized that Pashinyan and the official Yerevan government themselves recognized that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan in May 2023, expressing their readiness to recognize the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan [under certain conditions], adding that the latest criticism of the Armenian authorities is in the shadow of that event.

Portal Alo quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying that “it was only a matter of time when and how Baku would establish constitutional order in Karabakh after Yerevan recognized Baku’s sovereignty.” The text adds that it was not the decision of Russia but exclusively of the Armenian authorities. RT published a statement from the Kremlin reminding that Russia was under no obligation to protect Nagorno-Karabakh and that such claims are baseless, given the changed status of this area. Portal Informer quoted the editor-in-chief of the Serbian edition of RT, who claimed that the Armenian government refused Russia’s help, “recognized the disputed part of Nagorno-Karabakh, and now complains about it.”

The portal Novi Standard, in a suggestively titled article “Armenian lesson for the Serbs,” emphasized that “Pashinyan and his closest allies accuse Russia of their treachery and incompetence.” The claim that “in a word, when solving the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, Russia had no reason to confront Azerbaijan after Pashinyan’s complete turn to the collective West,” illustratively summarizes the key narratives spread in the Serbian media.

Russian influence in the South Caucasus has been shaken 

In reality, Russia’s influence as the most important geopolitical actor in the South Caucasus area is weakened, and this potentially opens up space for other major and regional powers, primarily the USA and Turkey, as well as the  EU, which is involved in nearby countries like Georgia and had attempted to negotiate a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Even though it's the only foreign power with military forces on the ground, Moscow failed to effectively control the situation in the region, nor to resolve the conflict and stop hostilities. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes, Russia’s limited ability to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan and prevent the escalation of the conflict in Karabakh is conditioned by Moscow’s complete focus on its war in Ukraine. 

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted that since the fall of 2022, Russia's unwillingness to intervene or materialize military aid to Yerevan resulted in a decision by Pashinyan to diversify security partnerships. Only then did Armenia begin changing its security policy with cautious attempts to approach Western countries. This analysis indicated that Moscow’s justifications in the context of its own inertness and political mistakes, including its inability to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Karabakh at the end of September 2023, are unconvincing. The outcome of the conflict was also bad for Russia. “The failure of Russia’s peacekeeping efforts has jeopardized its long-term presence in the South Caucasus,” noted the article.

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