THE BELL WEEKLY: A blow to Russia in the Caucasus

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Hello! This week we look at how Azerbaijan’s use of military force to seize control of Nagorno-Karabakh has dealt yet another blow to Russia’s standing in the Caucasus. We also summarize a new investigation into Dialog, a major player in the Kremlin’s online propaganda machine, and assess why a new wave of mobilization may only be a matter of time for Russia.

Fresh Karabakh conflict dents Russia’s standing in the Caucasus

Last week, Azerbaijan launched fresh military action to seize control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist republic in the Caucasus populated mainly by ethnic Armenians but which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. Not only did this one-day “anti-terrorist operation,” as Baku called it, seemingly bring an end to any independent future for the unrecognized republic, but it also dealt a serious blow to Russia’s authority in the region. Moscow, already facing international isolation since its invasion of Ukraine, now risks losing the support of Armenia, one of its dwindling number of allies.

Karabakh: a history of conflict

In the late 1980s, the emergence of a movement to return the mountainous Karabakh region to Armenia became one of the first and most significant harbingers of the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, the region was part of the Azerbaijani SSR, but had a majority Armenian population. Armenians asked the Soviet authorities to transfer Karabakh to the Armenian SSR, but Baku insisted such a demand was unacceptable. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, felt the same way and in 1988 he ruled out any prospect of changing the borders between the republics.

Clashes broke out in Karabakh between Armenian and Azerbaijani groups. Azerbaijanis had to flee the entire region and in turn, Armenians began to leave Baku and other parts of Azerbaijan. Moscow assumed direct control over the problem territory.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent states. Soviet forces left Karabakh and, in a 1991 referendum, a majority of the remaining residents voted in favor of independence. No country, including Armenia, officially recognized the result of the referendum or the independent status of Nagorno-Karabakh, or the Republic of Artsakh as it called itself.

From 1992-94, Karabakh was plunged into an all-out war. Armenian and Karabakh forces seized about 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory, including land surrounding the unrecognized republic. The Nagorno-Karabakh army not only secured control over the territory of the former autonomous region, but also extended its reach as far as the Armenian border.

Although the war ended in 1994, there was no lasting peace. Instead, it became a frozen conflict, with dozens of fatalities on both sides of a tense ceasefire line.

Russia’s role

The frozen conflict played into Russia’s hands. Moscow played a leading role in brokering the 1994 ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Kremlin was able to dictate its terms to Armenia and gain substantial authority in the Caucasus. Since the early 90s, Armenia relied on Russian protection through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO), a group comprising several former Soviet republics.

However, since the second Karabakh war in 2020, in which Azerbaijan captured part of Nagorno-Karabakh in an intense six-week conflict, the relationship between Moscow and Yerevan has become increasingly stretched, almost to the point of breakdown. In 2020, Armenia had expected stronger support from Russia, but Moscow, which strives for cordial relations with Baku, once again played the role of mediator in the negotiation process. Russian peacekeepers were sent to the region to enforce a new ceasefire for a five-year period. But the ceasefire was not well-observed and sporadic reports of shootings have routinely made headlines over the past three years.

The final precursor to the conflict and another blow to Russia’s influence in the region and its image in Armenia came in December 2022, when Azerbaijan started a blockade of the Lachin corridor, the only route by which food from Armenia could arrive in Nagorno-Karabakh. The blockade triggered a humanitarian crisis, while Baku claimed that Karabakh itself was refusing to allow aid to enter the region.

Amid the blockade, Armenian attitudes to Russia deteriorated rapidly. In December 2021, 64% of Armenians said their country had “good” relations with Russia — in March 2023, that score had fallen to 50%. The latest poll had 49% describing bilateral relations as poor (compared with 34% in late 2021). The fact that Russia provided no kind of support to Armenia in the face of Azerbaijan’s latest military campaign suggests that relations will get worse before they get better.

What next?

Russia, already isolated, is now losing Armenia — one of its key allies in the Caucasus. Moscow’s official rhetoric is critical of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who publicly recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan in the spring. At the same time, Pashinyan himself periodically has taken swipes at Moscow, and accused Russia’s peacekeepers of not fulfilling their mandate. In addition, Armenia refused to join in CSTO military exercises, withdrew its permanent representative from the organization and hosted joint exercises with US troops in the country earlier this month.

Journalists specializing in the region do not rule out the possibility that the Karabakh conflict might spill into Armenia itself. Although occupying Armenian territory would likely draw international condemnation against Azerbaijan, it is unlikely to provoke any direct intervention.

Why the world should care

The Armenian authorities now face the task of accommodating tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the region. Official figures suggest 120,000 people live in Nagorno-Karabakh. Almost all are expected to try to leave, fearing the possibility of ethnic cleansing should they stay. Meanwhile, Russia’s authority in the region suffered a serious blow — and now Moscow risks losing one of its few remaining allies.

Russian representatives were not even invited to upcoming talks between Pashinyan and Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev scheduled for Granada, Spain in early October. By contrast, when the two leaders met in May to discuss Karabakh, it was in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin personally mediating.

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How the Kremlin’s internet propaganda HQ operates

The low-profile non-profit organization Dialog started life as a way for the Russian authorities to stay in contact and gather feedback from different parts of society. Since then, it’s evolved into one of the Russian internet’s most prolific pro-Kremlin propaganda mouthpieces. Journalists from The Bell, Meduza and IStories investigated how Dialog works, and how it is now responsible for spreading fake news about the war in Ukraine.

Dialog is headed by journalist Vladimir Tabak, who as a student got to know Vladislav Surkov, the former deputy head of the presidential administration. In 2010, Tabak “sold” the idea of producing an erotic calendar featuring students from the prestigious Moscow State University journalism faculty to celebrate Vladimir Putin’s 58th birthday. Titled “Happy Birthday, Mr. Putin,” the risqué calendar provoked a storm both at home and abroad, and was widely discussed by national media outlets. A few years later, Tabak was “inherited” by Sergei Kiriyenko, when he replaced Surkov in the presidential administration.

Regional propaganda arms

It was under Kiriyenko that Tabak’s career flourished. In 2019, he was appointed deputy to Dialog head Alexei Goreslavsky, who previously held a senior position in the presidential administration overseeing the Russian internet space, or “Runet.” When two years later Goreslavsky moved to the Internet Development Institute, which also finances Russian military propaganda, Tabak took up the top job.

Dialog was initially designed by Moscow city officials to establish a “two-way connection with citizens” online. Under Putin’s instructions, it wasn’t long before Dialog rolled out similar initiatives to the regions, called CRMs – Centers of Regional Management. Its initial modus operandi was simple — the organization’s staff would monitor social media for signs of anger and flag relevant posts or pockets of frustration, for instance, about unpainted fences or poor quality roads. Specific cases were taken to local authorities who would get to work on fixing the identified problems. A deputy governor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, praised Dialog's work and said that overall it was effective. Although not every case had a happy ending. On the eve of Russia’s all-important Victory Day celebrations, the service said it would renovate a veteran’s house, but could only promise to complete the work by 2037.

Dialog also managed the official social media pages of Russian governors, regional ministers, state schools, kindergartens and a host of other public channels. In a manual issued on how to run social media accounts for schools, Dialog’s staff were reminded not to forget about the “federal agenda”, to publish news of presidential decisions and details of Russian sporting or scientific successes. In practice, control over a plethora of state resources gave Dialog a ready base to spread propaganda. “We need, for example, to promote the image of a hero fighting in the special military operation (the official Russian terminology for the war in Ukraine – The Bell),” explained one former Dialog employee. “The order comes down: find your heroes and tell their stories.”

Fake military news

Within a few months of the invasion of Ukraine, Dialog staff began creating fake news about Ukraine and Ukrainians. According to its own reports, Dialog was responsible for false claims that Ukraine was starting to mobilize women, and that Ukrainian soldiers were given pills to make them more aggressive.

At least 60 Dialog staff worked on developing and spreading these fakes, said one employee. Dialog’s propaganda was pumped out via popular pro-Kremlin channels on Telegram, but staff additionally posed as eye-witnesses, offering “news” to leading independent channels.

Dialog also provides support to Russia’s defense ministry. For instance, it runs the popular pro-Russian Telegram channel “War on Fakes”, which has more than 600,000 followers (although that could be inflated with bots). As the name suggests, the channel uses the appearance of a fact-checking service to push its own false narratives and advance the Kremlin’s agenda.

The defense ministry is “the leading beneficiary of this channel”, one source who worked at Dialog said. For example, one recent post described a missile strike on a pizza restaurant in Kramatorsk that killed 12 civilians, including children, as a strike on a base for “foreign mercenaries.” And a missile attack on a residential building in Dnipro last winter that killed 46 civilians, was identified by “War on Fakes” as a gas explosion caused by misfiring Ukrainian air defenses.

Why the world should care

Dialog’s work is another example of how wartime Russia is actively pumping its propaganda across the internet. In several cases, it is happy presenting blatant lies as legitimate news. Since the start of its invasion, the Russian state has even more firmly established its presence on the internet, using the same tactics and narratives that have long been seen on the screens of domestic TV channels.

A year on from Russia’s ‘partial mobilization’, a second wave seems inevitable

Last week was the first anniversary of Russia’s mobilization drive, announced on Sep. 21, 2022. At the time, Putin told Russians in an early-morning address to the nation that the country was facing “the entire military machine of the collective west” in Ukraine. At least 300,000 mobilized Russians were sent to the front. One year on, the authorities insist that there will be no second wave – but there are many reasons to doubt their promises.

The frontline is deadlocked – each side has enough capacity to thwart the other’s advances, but not enough to gain significant ground themselves. Since the start of 2023, the Russian authorities have taken stock of the blow that mobilization dealt to their image and focussed instead on recruiting professional contract soldiers. According to Bloomberg and Russian regional publications, the authorities are seeking 400,000 new recruits this year. But by early September, they had signed up only 230,000, according to Russian officials.

Open data sources suggest this has not enabled Russia to create the kind of shock force it might need to lead another major offensive. The reserve army promised by defense minister Sergei Shoigu in June has not materialized, with new soldiers heading to existing fighting units. Moreover, Russia’s limited reserves had to be sent to the front over the summer to repel the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

Earlier this year, Dara Massicot, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation and a former leading Pentagon analyst on Russia, told The Bell that any meaningful attempt at a Russian military breakthrough was impossible without a second wave of mobilization. Nothing has happened since to fundamentally challenge that conclusion.

It’s not easy to say when a second wave of mobilization should be expected. However, the longer the war drags on, the more Russia’s army needs another injection of manpower. The Kremlin’s hand will be forced by several factors: ongoing losses in Ukraine, fatigue among permanent troops, the retirement of tens of thousands of Wagner Group mercenaries and Ukraine’s own permanent mobilization.

Why the world should care

We cannot guess when a new wave of mobilization will happen. It’s possible that the Kremlin’s fears of undermining the presidential election in early 2024 will outweigh the military’s lobbying power – but they might not. Maybe the current recruitment system will be unable to cope with the traditional rounds of conscription in the spring and fall, combined with a new wave of mobilization – or maybe the authorities will find a way to press ahead regardless. Only one thing seems certain: the worse things get for the Russian army at the front, the more likely a new mobilization becomes.


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