Analysis: Trouble brewing in the Caucasus

Religious Intelligence Ltd, UK
May 7 2008

Analysis: trouble brewing in the Caucasus

Wednesday, 7th May 2008. 4:06pm
By: Marcus Papadopoulos.

Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet, once wrote: `I know how to
use a dagger/I was born in the Caucasus’. The outbreak of hostilities
in this volatile region following the collapse of the Soviet Union in
1991, namely in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and
Chechnya, demonstrates that Pushkin’s observation of the violent
nature of the Caucasus remains as pertinent today as it was then.

During the 1990s the world was witness to a series of conflicts in
parts of the Caucasus that even some members of the
foreign-policy-making-elite in the West were not well acquainted with.

In the years of the USSR, Soviet power had ensured that historic
animosities between various peoples of the Caucasus inherited from
Tsarist Russia were suppressed by an iron fist and constant vigilance
by the secret police. The existence of a Soviet national identity also
helped bind together these peoples, albeit in a fragile manner.

However, following the coming to power in the Kremlin of Mikhail
Gorbachev and his subsequent policies of Glasnost (political openness)
and Perestroika (economic reform) Soviet control over this restless
area had waned so considerably by the beginning of the 1990s that old
hatreds and feuds began to resurface. And with the death of the Soviet
colossus in 1991, these historic enmities were quickly transformed
into brutal wars which resulted in the deaths and displacements of
tens of thousands of people.

The first conflict which emerged in the dying years of the USSR and
which continued past its death was the contested area of
Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mostly by ethnic Armenians but at the time
a part the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. As a consequence of
Armenian deputies to the National Council of Nagorno-Karabakh voting
in 1988 to make this area a part of the Armenian Soviet Socialist
Republic, tension between ethnic Armenians and the authorities in
Baku, the Azeri capital, developed. Full-scale fighting between the
two sides quickly followed suit and a ceasefire only came into play
after a Russian negotiated peace in 1994. Today Nagorno-Karabakh has
de facto independence, although officially it is still a part of

Next to follow down the path of war were two regions in Georgia. In
the early 1920s the Bolshevik government had made South Ossetia an
autonomous region of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, and in
1931 the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin transferred Abkhazia to the
jurisdiction of Georgia. In 1992 violence flared up between Tbilisi
and these two regions when the latter unilaterally declared
independence from Georgia and sought closer ties, including
reunification, with Russia.

Fighting between Georgian and South Ossetia troops ceased in 1992
following the introduction of Russian peacekeeping units and in
Abkhazia after Georgia forces were driven out in 1993. Russian
soldiers have subsequently maintained a frail peace in both regions.

The most bloody and most destructive war to engulf the former Soviet
Union, however, was in Chechnya from 1994 onwards. Annexed by the
Russian Empire during the Caucasian War of 1817-1864, this
predominantly Muslim populated area has remained a thorn in the side
of successive Russian regimes since. Stalin’s deportation of the
entire Chechen population (one million people in all) to Central Asia
in 1944 on the unfounded accusations of it having collaborated with
the Wehrmacht during the Second World War left deeply ingrained
resentment towards Moscow in the minds of many Chechens and a desire
for revenge against the Russians.

With the demise of the USSR, Chechnya, under the presidency of former
Soviet Air Force general Dzhokhar Dudayev, declared independence from
the Russian Federation following a controversial referendum. After
unsuccessful attempts by the Kremlin to overthrow Dudayev by employing
Chechen forces loyal to the Russian state in a string of battles, the
late president Boris Yeltsin in December 1994 deployed the Russian
army into Chechnya to bring the rebellious republic to heel. A bloody
conflict subsequently developed between Russian forces and Chechen
militants, and with large casualties incurred by both sides.

The fighting ended humiliatingly for the Russians following the
Khasavyurt Accord in August 1996 which afforded Chechnya de facto
independence. In common with Afghanistan before the American-led
invasion, Chechnya was a staging post for home-grown and foreign
Islamist terrorists in the period 1994-1999.

In September 1999 Vladimir Putin, who at the time was Yeltsin’s prime
minister, ordered the Russian army back into Chechnya to curb the
growing Islamist threat there and to help preserve the territorial
integrity of the Russian Federation. Today Chechnya is relatively
stable. With the Russian army having won the conventional war against
Chechen militants and through the use of effective counter-insurgency
measures by Russian special forces and Chechen special forces loyal to
the Kremlin, together with Moscow having installed a pro-Russian
Chechen hard man to run the republic, President Ramzan Kadyrov,
militant resistance is now largely confined to sporadic, low-level
attacks on federal forces and policeman in Chechnya.

Nonetheless, the danger of the conflict reigniting remains ever
present for the Russian government. The conflict in Chechnya spilled
into the neighbouring Muslim republics of Dagestan and
Ingushetiya. Moscow is having to devote considerable amounts of its
forces and funds from the federal budget to the Caucasus to counter
the Islamist threat still present and to ensure it does not spread to
Russia’s other Muslin regions: Adygeya, Karachaevo-Cherkessiya,
Kabarbino-Balkariya, Baskortostan and Tatarstan.

However, a new conflict is potentially brewing elsewhere in the
Caucasus as a result of unsettled disputes and great power rivalry.

The spotlight is now on Russia and Georgia. Since the ascension to
power of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, relations between
Moscow and Tbilisi have deteriorated rapidly. The US-trained lawyer
has set himself three objectives: firstly, bringing South Ossetia and
Abkhazia back under Tbilisi’s jurisdiction; secondly, joining the
European Union; and thirdly, joining NATO.

With Washington courting Georgia as an ally (demonstrated by
significant levels of economic and military assistance) Saakashvili is
brimming with confidence in his dispute with Russia. However, both he
and his backers in the US could help ignite a major war in the
Caucasus which could see not only a resumption of fighting in
Tbilisi’s two secessionist regions but also Georgia becoming embroiled
in a major war with its giant neighbour to the north-Russia.

During the 1990s Moscow issued Russian passports to practically any
citizen of South Ossetia and Abkhazia who wanted one. Today nearly
ninety per cent of these populations are Russian citizens. The Kremlin
can argue, in accordance with its constitution, that any threat posed
to South Ossetia and Abkhazia compels the Russian government to take
immediate counter measures to defend its citizens in these regions.

President Putin recently reaffirmed this commitment by ordering his
government to construct and implement plans which would help the
populations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Fearing that NATO (which
recently affirmed its desire to see Georgia admitted as a member) is
attempting to place a cordon sanitaire around a resurgent Russia, the
Kremlin is prepared to use its military muscle to defend the
strategically important regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from
Georgian clutches. By doing Moscow is sending a clear message to
Tbilisi that Russia is the dominant force in the Caucasus. The Russian
government is also letting Washington that it will not hesitate to use
force to safeguard what it regards as vital interests.

There are increasing signs to suggest that Russia and Georgia could be
on the brink of war. The Georgian authorities have provided dramatic
footage of the shooting down of one of its unmanned spy planes over
Abkhazia by what appeared to be a MiG-29 from the Russian Air
Force. Russia has accused Georgia of amassing approximately 1,500 of
its troops, supported by tanks and armoured personnel carriers, in the
Kodori Gorge, the area which separates Abkhazia from Georgia proper.

An unnamed source in the Russian Defence Ministry has commented that a
Georgian invasion of Abkhazia is imminent. In response to Tbilisi’s
moves, the Russians have deployed more soldiers (including an airborne
unit), together with extra hardware, to Abkhazia, strengthening its
overall military presence there to 2,500 troops. It is clear that any
act of aggression by the Georgians will be met with force by the

The Russian-Georgian standoff took a turn for the worse over the past
weekend by the alleged shooting down of two more Georgian spy drones
over Abkhazia, and by Tbilisi withdrawing from a bilateral air defence
treaty with Moscow.

Moscow is incensed by NATO’s eastward expansion to the western borders
of the Russian Federation and by Washington’s plans to install a
missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic which the
Russians claim would upset the balance of nuclear deterrence in Europe
in NATO’s favour. Further to this, the Russian official psyche is
still scarred by the loss of Russia’s superpower status following the
collapse of the Soviet Union and the humiliations which followed on
the international stage when Moscow was sidelined by America and its
opinion discarded by policy-makers in Washington, for instance during
the Kosovo war.

Now that Russia is starting to regain much of its lost superpower
status (a senior American official recently stated that `Russia is
once again indisputably the number two military power in the world,
second only to the United States.’), the Kremlin is determined to
demonstrate this by imposing its will in areas it considers as its
sphere of influence (or what the Russians officially call `the near

Both Washington and Tbilisi need to exercise caution when pursuing
policies which will inevitably lead to a clash with Moscow. And
President Saakashvili should remember that in the event of a war
between Russia and Georgia, which the latter could never hope to win,
his American sponsors will not come to his aid, apart from supporting
him at the United Nations.

The Caucasus could therefore provide the scene for yet another brutal
conflict. But on this occasion the dimensions are different because of
the presence of great power rivalries. And so the blood-soaked lands
of one of the world’s most volatile of regions remains an ever potent
threat to peace.


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