14 October 2020

A black and white war. The propaganda in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

A look at the map can be very confusing. The war in Nagorno Karabakh is being carried in an isolated area, in the Caucasus Mountains, depopulated by the last decades of conflicts, but the images – those worth 1000 words – and the video materials are circulating through world’s newspapers and social media networks. And this does not necessarily happen because there is an unlimited access of media to all battlefields, but on the contrary. Both countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have learned something from the new lessons of the conflicts, some of these lessons claiming that it is great to win the informational war before starting the actual operations, as these are only writing down what the international public opinion already found out. Where? On the TV, Internet, influencers, international lobby, and the bellicose messages of political and military leaders.

Image source: Profimedia

Propaganda means, first of all, anticipation and prevention

Not of the war, because this is seen as a necessary bad thing. But of the moments wherein one must prove the operations are going well, even though they did not even start yet. Just like the armed forces are developing drills and training their troops for the following confrontations, equally the informational war structures are training hard to create, on the virtual battlefield, work methods which can be used in the first hours of the conflict. Such a model was identified in the exact morning of September 27th, when the fights in Nagorno Karabakh have started. The soldiers were not yet out on the front and the TV screens were already showing images with column of vehicles destroyed by drones, air defence positions under the precise shot of the missiles. The coordinates of such an informative package were generally the following:

- video materials previously recorded during the training drills were distributed to show the initial moment of the attack;

-the informative elements has supported, with supposedly concrete and detailed data, the damages produced in enemy’s side;

-the allegations, equally concrete, regarding the attacks made by the enemy side on some civilian objectives to provoke the humanitarian indignation of the international public opinion;

-after some time, when there are issues regarding the truthfulness of the transmitted data, they make it clear, if they do so, which can be seen as recantations – without this assumption, and it is lost in the huge amount of information and emotion.

The propagandistic campaign, previously trained, must cover this first phase of the conflict which, they hope, especially by the side which starts the conflict, can be decisive for operation’s success.

The media – an environment where truces are not available

But the propagandistic campaign developed by the sides are way more complex and its success, if there are no significant developments on the battlefield, depend on how they adapt to concrete situations, the speed they present their own story with and how they counter the enemy’s one. Here are some coordinates:

1. Everything is a black and white problem. Everything that’s connected to enemy’s actions is demonized, their own operations and reasons are always justified. It is the first conflict that starts in the “COVID-19 era”, the public opinion is already emotionally fragile, the military operations and development on the battlefield are a true challenge for the media, for the informational war. The journalists rarely have access to the battlefield, almost no access at all on the Azerbaijani side, so they must make do with what they get. The internal media is on the official roadblock.

The journalistic materials must promote the assumed version, which includes:

a. the undisputable superiority of their own forces;

b. the obvious loses produced to the enemy’s side;

c. the correctness of their own operations;

d. the perfidy, lack of arguments for the enemy side, its weaknesses.

The popular support for their own forces must be proved. It is opposed to the anti-war and anti-leaders public demonstrations (if they take place, great, if not, they will use images from other similar manifestations) of the enemy’s public opinion. Thousands of their own volunteers go to the recruitment centers. As for the opposite end, the enemy’s forces are withdrawing. When there are no images with the destruction of their march column. Everything happens with megaphones that work on maximum volume.

2. Presenting images and figures creates the idea that everything happens according to the plan. Thus, just a few hours after the conflict started, the Azerbaijani side presented a report of the damages provoked to the enemy side: two air defence missiles systems “OSA-AKM”, one Katyusha “Hurricane” missile system, an infantry vehicle, four “Grad” missile systems, four D-20 howitzers, 16 tanks and two transport vehicles. Also, the Armenian side, whose approach was not presenting any data on the damages provoked on the equipment and was extremely transparent in terms of the human loses, accused the Azerbaijani side for taking down a Su-25 with a Turkish aircraft that entered the Armenian air space, taking off from an Azerbaijani military base in Ganja village.

The military observers stated that, for such cases, the information and allegations can hardly be verified. As for the images related to the damages provoked to the Armenian side, presented to make the figures even more important, it was launched the idea that it was all about recordings with previous fights and explosions of some maquettes.

3. Winning the international public opinion. In this campaign, Azerbaijan started with an obvious disadvantage. The Armenian Diaspora is more numerous and vocal. But because we are talking about a conflict that’s taking place in an isolated region of the Caucasus Mountains, the priority for both parts was winning the media support in the nearby states or of those states that can interfere to support one or another of the combatants.

And there, things are clearer: Azerbaijan was supported by the Turkish media, unanimously supporting the Azerbaijani cause, all media platforms presenting Yerevan as the aggressor. Armenia wanted to get the same support from Russia. But that did not happen. The Russian media kept Moscow’s official position lines, keeping a neutral approach, as much as possible, given the pressure provoked by the bilateral solidarity between Baku, Yerevan and Moscow.

The leaders of the two countries presented their perspectives on the Russian TV channels, most likely one of the les occasions when they indirectly talked.

France also got involved in this dispute, through president Macron, obviously on who’s side, and introduced, with details, “the problem of the Syrian fighters”. There are some issues here as well regarding the correctness of the information, although Paris was not the only one who signaled this presence, Moscow also expressing its own concerns, through the one who must know more about the developments at Russia’s borders, the SVR chief, Sergey Narasykin.

4. Creating emotion by invoking "crimes" caused by the other side. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have used the emotional factor to show that the actions of the other side cause suffering to the population through direct attacks on localities or on essential elements of civilian infrastructure. Baku accused the Armenian side of the attack, using a Tochka ballistic missile on the Mingechevir hydropower plant. This "allowed" Azerbaijan its own ballistic missile attack on Stepanakert, the capital of the Karabakh Mountains.

And in these cases, a number of military experts have questioned both the veracity of the alleged Armenian attack (the range of these missiles is less than the distance to the invoked target) and the size of the Azerbaijani response. But this information must be taken, however, with caution, the accusations of "fake news" between the parties being something usual. But in this case, they also worked with the client's material, because both parties did not hesitate to send signals (but also missiles or artillery shocks) to cause an exodus of the civilian population. Azerbaijan has better "succeeded" in this, with half of the civilian population of Nagorno Karabakh (about 150,000 people) taking refuge from the fighting.

5. Preparing the ground for possible sanctions against the opposing party. Success is not guaranteed, but it doesn't cost a thing to try. This includes quite a few: allegations of using banned weapons, transferring weapons from a third country to one of the fighters without the consent of the original exporter, illegal groups of volunteers (Syrian jihadists with Azerbaijani forces, Kurdish fighters with Armenians), and ethnic cleansing actions.

In terms of to arms transfer/resale or donation operations, the reaction of Canada is extremely important, with Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne claiming the suspension of export licenses to Turkey following reports on the use of Canadian military equipment sold to Ankara in the Karabakh conflict. The press release concludes with a call for measures to stop violence and protect civilians. The Canadian Armenian community has done its lobbying lessons well.

6. Armistice in the field, the war continues in the media. Yes, the fighting has stopped, at least officially, although, as in all such conflicts (look at our neighborhood in the Donbass), violations probably exist on both sides, because both sides they transmit their due and heated accusations to each other.

If the offensives and counteroffensives have frozen in the improvised entrenchment, we cannot say the same thing about the informational war that continues targeting the preservation of victories/if and where they took place, the trivialization of defeats/ there were such cases, the continuation of the fight to win the international public opinion on one’s side. The domestic public opinion is, anyhow, entrenched.

There are some stories that continue to develop intensively during this supposed negotiations period.

a. the presence of foreign mercenaries. These can be similar to terrorist groups and can lead to sanctions.

b. the country responsible for starting the hostilities. Although most of the information is pointing out Azerbaijan/Armenia, theoretically, it is happy with the status quo achieved after 1994, the issue is still provoking some issues. And Baku is firmly denying the idea of starting the conflict.

c. the use of epithets and even apocalyptic expressions in the mutual characterizations: the sides at conflict are “fascists”, “terrorists”, provoking “genocides” and during the history have provoked “massacres”. The shadows of the history are called on when necessary and all the attention go on their own forces.

The soldiers are resting. But the media does not even take a cigarette break

Given these circumstances, the identification of a consensus is an almost impossible process, and the transfer to a compromise solution is something doomed to failure. On long term. On short tern, however, there is a different story going on. The negotiations that could follow the truce imposed by Moscow are happening because both sides realized after three weeks of fights that:

- they cannot do anything more than that (Azerbaijan)

- country’s resources are limited, the extension of the conflict is risking their depletion (Armenia).

There is not element to stop the continuation of the informational war. On the contrary. The more difficult the real situation is, the more the imaginary and imagined perspective must convince, firmly and out loud, the contrary. Victory is close!

Translated by Andreea Soare