Conclusion: Of the three powerbrokers in the region: Russia, Turkey and Iran, two attempt to balance their relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan; one displays a preference. This imbalance gives the Azeris a powerful local ally and leaves the Armenians standing alone – factors likely fueling the current outbreak of violence. Until a counterbalance emerges, the Azeris retain a favorable risk calculus and any ceasefires are likely to be short-lived. With the U.S. distracted and inward-facing, and Europe weak, divided and distracted by Covid, a clear end to the fighting is likely up to Moscow or (less likely) Tehran.
In media reports on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a common narrative is Turkish support for the Azeris balanced by a Russian alliance with, including a military base in, Armenia (NYT, BBC, Politico). Iran, a regional power that borders Armenia, Azerbaijan and the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), gets less attention.
How accurate is this narrative? Over the past decade, has Russia provided Armenia with support similar to what Turkey provides Azerbaijan, or does Moscow attempt to play a more balanced role? Does Iran typically side with its co-religionists in Azerbaijan?
Below, we use data from years of Russian Foreign Ministry and state media articles to analyze Russia’s stance on Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Below that, we analyze Iran’s stance based on years of Iranian Foreign Ministry and state media reporting.
Russian Foreign Ministry and State Media
The charts below show Russian Foreign Ministry commentary on Armenia and Azerbaijan. The lines indicate increases and decreases in the number of related articles; the colors illustrate the overall sentiment of the articles: light blue is positive; orange is negative; grey is neutral. The first chart shows mentions of Armenia between May 20, 2004 and June 17, 2020; the second chart shows mentions of Azerbaijan between the same dates.
The charts show that the Russian Foreign Ministry mentioned Armenia a bit more than Azerbaijan, though the sentiment of articles related to the two countries was largely similar. The small spike in reporting with negative (orange) sentiment in both graphs is related to fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh in spring 2016.
This data represents all English-language statements available on the Russian Foreign Ministry website when the data was collected in January and June 2020, just over 21,700 articles. The chart below shows the weekly baseline for all 21,700 articles. The Russian commentary on Armenia and Azerbaijan shown in the charts above is relatively similar in sentiment to the baseline: positive sentiment is more common than negative sentiment; neutral sentiment (grey) is more common than very positive (green) and very negative (red) sentiment.
Finally, aside from Armenia and Azerbaijan, does Russia mention Nagorno-Karabakh? What, if any, sentiment is associated with articles mentioning the region?
Per the chart above, mentions of the disputed region are largely similar to that of the two countries, with the exception of April 2016, when negative sentiment outweighs positive sentiment for the first and only time. This finding is not surprising – April 2016 saw the “worst clashes in decades” between Armenians and Azeris.
The Foreign Ministry findings show clear similarities in how often Russia mentions both countries, and in the related positive/negative sentiment. But foreign ministry diplomats are supposed to be diplomatic, what about Russian state media? How do those outlets handle mentions and sentiment related to the two countries? For that we turn to our data from Sputnik and Russia Today (RT).
We only have Sputnik data from June 2, 2019 to January 16, 2020. This represents all English articles available when the data was collected in January 2020, just under 29,000 articles. From the two charts below we can see that the number of mentions is roughly the same for both countries, though several articles referencing Azerbaijan appear more negative (redder) than articles referencing Armenia.
When compared to the baseline (below), we can see that articles mentioning Armenia and Azerbaijan are frequently more negative (orange and red) than the baseline, which is mainly blue (positive).
Finally, Sputnik rarely mentions Nagorno-Karabakh, so not enough data was available to create a related chart. The next Russian state media source, Russia Today (RT), fortunately has more data available.
Russia Today (RT)
Our data for RT is much larger than for Sputnik and the Foreign Ministry – 212,000 articles stretching from June 21, 2006 to January 9, 2020, all English articles available on RT’s website when the data was collected in January 2020. As above, we will look at articles mentioning Armenia and Azerbaijan first.
Again, as with the Sputnik and Foreign Ministry data, the treatment of both countries is similar. There is much discussion early on in the data, a period of relative quiet from roughly 2011 to 2014, then spikes afterward, especially during the increase in fighting in the spring of 2016. The sentiment is also similar, though slightly more negative for articles referencing Armenia than those referencing Azerbaijan. As we can see from the baseline below, articles containing the two countries are often more negative than the baseline (the redder, the more negative; the bluer, the more positive).
Finally, the size of the dataset allows us to take a look at articles containing Nagorno-Karabakh, below. The image shows clear spikes during periods of active conflict, including early April 2016, with negative and neutral sentiment outweighing positive sentiment.
Russia – Conclusion
This look at the Russian Foreign Ministry and Russian state media shows reporting on the two countries is similar in terms of both the number and sentiment of reports. Fighting between the two countries clearly draws Russian attention, but it does not appear to favor one side of the conflict over the other. This stands in clear contrast to strong Turkish support for Azerbaijan. We examine the official views of Iran, the remaining regional power, in the next section.
Iranian Foreign Ministry and State Media
First, we look at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, based on English-language statements available on the Ministry’s website. Unfortunately, the Ministry recently updated its website, so we could only collect data going back to January 1, 2018. In total, we have just under 1,700 articles from January 1, 2018 to February 15, 2020. This represents all articles available when we did our data collection in February, 2020. First, we look at all articles containing Armenia, then Azerbaijan.
From the data we can see that Iran’s Foreign Ministry does not often reference Armenia – there are only a handful of stories over the two-plus years of data. Second, there is more reporting, including negative reporting, on Azerbaijan, but still relatively few stories overall. Finally, the baseline (below) shows much more variability (very positive in green, very negative in red, negative reporting occasionally out-weighing positive reporting) than the reporting on Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Ministry data is relatively limited and does not contain enough references to Nagorno-Karabakh to include here. Fortunately, the next data source is more robust.
Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency
Our final database contains all English-language articles available at the time of collection in February 2020 for Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), just over 102,000 articles from December 22, 2011 to February 15, 2020. Below is a chart of articles referencing Armenia, followed by one of Azerbaijan.
Again, we see relatively similar sentiment in articles referencing the countries, with positive (blue) clearly out-weighing negative (orange to red). Both show spikes in reporting during the increase in fighting in spring 2016, though Azerbaijan appears to be referenced more often than Armenia. The baseline of all reporting, below, is clearly more positive, with no evidence of orange (negative) or red (very negative) sentiment predominant for any week in the data.
Given the greater size of the IRNA database, it has several articles on Nagorno-Karabakh, as shown below. The reporting here is clearly more negative than the baseline – to be expected given the nature of the topic.
Much like the Russia data, the data from the Iranian Foreign Ministry and state media show relatively equal treatment of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both sources have more articles on Azerbaijan than Armenia, but sentiment toward both countries is similar and more negative than the baselines. From the analysis here, it is hard to argue that Iran publicly favors one side in the conflict over the other.
Based on years of data and analysis of hundreds of thousands of articles, the Russian and Iranian governments do not display a public preference for Armenia or Azerbaijan. These findings are unexpected and counterintuitive: based on a treaty and a military base, Russia was expected to favor Armenia; based on their status as co-religionists and the presence of a sizeable Azeri minority population, Iran was expected to favor Azerbaijan. While there may be private messages that differ, in their official messages to the international community (which are typically conducted in English), Moscow and Tehran clearly attempt to display balance in their relations with both countries. This balance contrasts starkly with Turkey, which clearly and publicly sides with Azerbaijan.
Of the three powerbrokers in the region: Russia, Turkey and Iran, two attempt to balance their relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan; one displays a preference. This imbalance gives the Azeris a powerful local ally and leaves the Armenians standing alone – factors likely fueling the current outbreak of violence. Until a counterbalance emerges, the Azeris retain a favorable risk calculus and any ceasefires are likely to be short-lived. With the U.S. distracted and inward-facing, and Europe weak, divided and distracted by Covid, a clear end to the fighting is likely up to Moscow or (less likely) Tehran.