Strategic partners of Ukraine: The southern flank in the mirrors of the national media. Azerbaijan – Ukraine (1)

expert of the Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy,
specially for BlackSeaNews

1. The information dimension of strategic partnership

When it comes to interstate strategic partnership, there is no list of mutual rights and obligations of states – strategic partners – and even the definition itself is somewhat vague.

According to the position paper of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, “Strategic partnership is a type of interstate relations, built as a consistent system of interaction between states towards fulfilling common strategic tasks and pursuing common strategic interests and goals. Unlike alliance relations, strategic partnership does not involve a rigid system of political, economic, humanitarian, or security obligations.”

The difference between the relations of strategic partnership and "alliance" is important in the context of the world events of March 2023, i. e. the meeting of the Chinese and Russian leaders in Moscow and, in parallel, the meeting of the President of Ukraine with the Prime Minister of Japan in Kyiv.

Regarding the Chinese-Russian summit, the parties focused mainly on deepening trade and economic ties. Despite assurances of sincere friendship and mutual support, this meeting hasn’t led to any significant breakthroughs in bilateral relations. With regard to cooperation in the military sphere, as the opposition Russian politician and businessman Alfred Koch rightly noted, the most important thing in the joint statement is the observation that "Russian-Chinese relations... do not represent a military-political alliance and are not directed against third countries.”

At the same time, Volodymyr Zelenskyi and Fumio Kishida also signed a joint statement emphasising the establishment of a "special global partnership.” What status this "innovation" will have compared to strategic partnerships with other countries is still unclear, but the timing and circumstances of this visit indicate that interstate relations between Ukraine and Japan have reached a new, higher level.

It is interesting that the Azerbaijani Internet-resource (overtly pro-government) chose to cover Xi's visit those authors who evaluated it not only critically but also rather sarcastically: “In a nutshell, the outcome of the talks between Putin and Xi Jinping is extremely simple… China allowed Russia to consider itself Beijing’s junior partner without any serious commitments to support Moscow in the international arena. Which, according to official media reports, is now a matter of extraordinary pride for the Kremlin and evidence of the enormous success of the Russian leadership’s foreign policy” 

Although, as already mentioned, strategic partners do not have clearly defined "rules of the game" and mutual responsibilities, it is logical to assume that close cooperation in the media sphere should be one of the important components of a strategic partnership. Especially since the modern information space has gone far beyond the boundaries of traditional or "classic" journalism, which makes it especially significant in the conditions of both "hybrid" and conventional war.

As one of the authors of the Detector.Media agency rightly noted,

"...The biggest media war in the history of mankind is going on in Ukraine. ...Ukraine has turned out to be the first country where almost 80% of the population use the Internet every day, and more than half of the citizens have smartphones. This means that they have been able to document and disseminate more information than any journalistic media can imagine."

The attitude of the Ukrainian public to freedom of speech as the first of the three fundamental characteristics of a fully functioning democracy is also important. According to a sociological survey conducted in January 2023 by the National Democratic Institute, 61% of the respondents hold this opinion.

So, let's look at the information component of Ukraine's strategic partnership with Azerbaijan and its transformation in the conditions of a full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war.

The Republic of Azerbaijan (Azerbaijan) was officially declared a strategic partner of Ukraine in accordance with the decree of the President of Ukraine of 14 September 2020. Azerbaijan entered the second group of five partner countries along with Georgia, Lithuania, Poland, and Turkey (Note that unlike the first five, these countries are listed in alphabetical order, which does not correspond to their priority as strategic partners).

It should be noted that Ukraine's strategic partnership with the Republic of Azerbaijan was established as early as 2008 (joint Declaration on friendship and strategic partnership between Ukraine and the Republic of Azerbaijan of 22 May 2008), which Ambassador of Azerbaijan Azer Khudiyev has repeatedly emphasised in his public speeches and interviews.

The strategic partnership between Ukraine and Azerbaijan and the desire to further deepen it were also reflected in the joint declaration of the presidents of the two states signed on 14 January 2022 (that is, already against the background of the worsening situation around Ukraine and the expectation of a "big war") as part of Ilham Aliyev's working visit to Kyiv at the invitation of Volodymyr Zelenskyi.

However, as early as 18 January 2022, that is four days later, Aliyev called Putin. According to the Kremlin’s press service, taking into account the recent visit of the Azerbaijani president to Ukraine, "issues of intra-Ukrainian settlement, which had stalled due to the destructive position of Kyiv," were discussed, as well as "the intention to strengthen the strategic partnership between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Azerbaijan.” 

Moreover, on 22 February 2022, that is, two days before Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, the Declaration on "allied cooperation" between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation was signed in Moscow.

Note that the day before, the Russian Federation officially recognized the independence of the so-called "LPR" and "DPR," about which Aliyev said that it was a surprise for him, but it did not change and would not change anything in the relations between the two "friendly countries."

Azerbaijan's relations with the Belarusian regime also cause concern in Ukraine, as Belarus is a state that obviously plays a negative role in the Russian-Ukrainian war, and which in December 2022, under pressure from Russia, announced that the Russian Federation and Belarus had a "joint army.” The Belarusian dictator Lukashenko also considers the Republic of Azerbaijan to be a strategic partner, emphasising and praising the smallest signs of Azerbaijan’s resistance to the "aggressive actions of the hostile West" and insisting on the need for closer cooperation with Russia.

Baku's efforts to "balance" between Kyiv and Moscow became even more obvious after 24 February 2022, as a result of which significant changes took place both in bilateral relations at the state level and in the media coverage of the events related to Russian aggression.

In the Azerbaijani mass media and expert community, attention to Ukraine has increased sharply due to the full-scale war with Russia, which is often considered in the context of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and a possible influence on its outcome.

At the same time, Ukrainian media pay tribute to the courage of Azerbaijani soldiers who are defending our country and dying in the fight for it and also emphasise the patriotism of the Azerbaijani diaspora and help provided by its organisations.

While Azerbaijani humanitarian aid to Ukraine is widely covered in the Ukrainian media, there are also growing concerns.

Amid the events that threatened the very existence of Ukraine,

the most significant obstacle to the positive perception of Azerbaijan is the difficulty of combining ideas about its status of a strategic partner of Ukraine with the "special" relations between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Russia,

more detail on which can be found in materials on popular Azerbaijani websites. Cooperation between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation is not limited to close economic ties.

The already mentioned point about the strategic and even "alliance" nature of their partnership is often made in the statements of Presidents Aliyev and Putin. However, this official rhetoric is in clear contradiction with numerous materials (1; 2; 3; 4; 5) not only on Azerbaijani opposition websites but also on pro-government ones regarding the pro-Armenian policy of Moscow, which considers Azerbaijan an "unfriendly country."

It is also worth paying attention to regular information attacks against Azerbaijan carried out by well-known Russian politicians and officials (1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9), as well as media resources (1; 2; 3).

For the Ukrainian audience, especially after the recent scandal with the "opposition" TV Rain (Dozhd) channel regarding "our boys," it is interesting to learn that this "independent information channel" also joined the anti-Azerbaijani campaign, actually supporting the Karabakh separatists.

These circumstances cast serious doubt on "strategic,” let alone "allied" relations between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation.

As far as can be judged from media sources, it was the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war, perceived in Azerbaijan as blatant and unjustified Russian aggression, that led to the obvious cooling of Azerbaijani- Russian relations. 

Therefore, despite the declarative statements about the strategic partnership between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation, not to mention Belarus, Ukrainian-Azerbaijani media cooperation (with its still not fully realised potential) should remain on the agenda of Ukrainian policy in this important area. In particular, taking into account information wars that both Ukraine and Azerbaijan have had to fight for years. 

While Ukraine suffers from the powerful influence of Russia, which invests huge resources in anti-Ukrainian propaganda all over the world, Azerbaijan often encounters unfair prejudice reflected in foreign media materials. To a large extent, this is due to the lobbying of Armenia’s interests by its active and rich diaspora in a number of developed democratic countries, primarily France and to some extent the USA, which is also reflected in the information space (1; 2; 3; 4; 5).

In addition, many politicians in Russia and Armenia believe that the alliance of Azerbaijan and Turkey, the Muslim countries, is aimed at expelling the Christian Armenian population from Karabakh or even destroying it as a continuation of the 1915 genocidal policy. It is noteworthy that the spread of such Islamophobic views was sometimes encouraged by the leaders of the so-called Russian "oppositional" public opinion, such as the well-known journalist Yulia Latynina. 

In 2017, she wrote: “Regardless of whether the government of a given country pursues a smart or naive policy towards Islamists, Islamists always start first. ... An Islamist carries out terrorist attacks because he is an Islamist. ... In 1999, ... Basayev and Khattab ... blew up blocks of flats in Moscow.'' Note that this was said after the publication of the famous book Blowing Up Russia (FSB Vzryvayet Rossiyu) by A. Litvinenko and Yu. Felshtinsky, which she had certainly read. 

It is worth recalling that in 2019 this "liberal" journalist – currently a favourite guest of Ukrainian programmes – stated: “If a nation is unsuccessful, as, for example, the Arab world is unsuccessful now, Russia is unsuccessful, Ukraine is unsuccessful, then it begins to fidget, look around, think about who had ever offended it, cheated it out of its fair share, and short-changed it. ...Britain won't take back Normandy. Russia – Ukraine. Ukraine – Crimea. Georgia – Abkhazia.”

In their disinformation campaigns, Russian media sometimes combine libel against Ukraine and Azerbaijan, in particular, accusing our state of supplying Azerbaijan with banned phosphorus ammunition for further use against Nagorno-Karabakh (which, of course, has never happened). Thus, both Ukraine and Azerbaijan have to repel constant powerful attacks, combat fake news, and refute accusations (of Nazism, fascism, Satanism, militarism, xenophobia, failure to fulfil previous political agreements etc…).

While a lot of Ukrainian and foreign analysts consider Ukraine's achievements in the field of information warfare and information-psychological special operations (IPSO) to be significant, others state that neither Ukraine nor the West has effective means of combating Russian propaganda. 

Therefore, joint effort could help successfully repel media attacks and contribute to further victories not only on the military but also on the information front. Especially since "winning in the information space is a prerequisite for winning on the battlefield” (O. Danilov).

For Ukraine, closer media cooperation would also be important in view of the lack of awareness and the lack of recognition of the Russian-Ukrainian war realities by a number of states of the Muslim world, in which Azerbaijan plays an increasingly significant role. Insufficient support for Ukraine from many Muslim countries was recently emphasised by the charismatic leader of the Crimean Tatar people, Mustafa Djemilev, during the first Iftar established in Ukraine at the official level in honour of the beginning of Ramadan. The event was attended by President Volodymyr Zelenskyi, Muslim warriors, members of the Mejlis of Crimean Tatar People, and representatives of foreign diplomatic corps.

At the same time, at least some of the Russian information and propaganda attacks are targeted specifically at Muslim countries. See, for example, a study conducted in January 2023 by the Centre for Strategic Communications and Information Security and the report about a fake video showing alleged abuse of the Koran by the Ukrainian military.

Therefore, we state that it is desirable to pay attention not only to the information space of the most powerful "world players" – key partners and sponsors of Ukraine – but also to what is happening in this area on the southern flank of strategic partnership, in particular – in Azerbaijan, and how various events are covered by the national media.

To be continued.