Russian Policy In The Caucasus Where Next?

By Alexander Jackson

Islam Online
Thu. Aug. 14, 2008

Caucasian Review of International Affairs (CRIA)

[It seems certain that living with Russia – for the Caucasus and
for the West- will not get any easier in the months and years ahead,
April 6, 2008.] (Reuters photos)

All eyes have quite rightly been on Georgia. The world’s media has
been forced to use valuable column inches on reminding its readership
about this fragile and often forgotten corner of the world. Analysis
has been largely concerned with events on the ground or, looking
beyond the military aspect, with Russian-Western relations after the
crisis. But the impact of the conflict on the Caucasus as a whole,
and Russian policy towards the region, should also be considered.

It has been a cornerstone of Russian policy ever since the fall of
the USSR that the Caucasus is an area of key importance for Russia
and one in which Russian influence must be maintained. In part this
is due to what is routinely called Russia’s ‘neo-imperial ambitions’,
the dream of reasserting control over the post-Soviet space. It is
also – and this is sometimes not fully appreciated – because of the
very real security concerns that the Caucasus poses to Russia.

This sometimes goes unrecognized because there is a tendency to
neatly divide the Caucasus between the South Caucasus, which is
composed of independent states, and the North Caucasus, which is a
mosaic of Russian republics. In practice, security threats do not
respect boundaries.

Although the Caucasus mountain range functions as a barrier in most
cases, there have been numerous instances when Russian security has
been affected by events in the South Caucasus, most notably when
Moscow accused Tbilisi of allowing Chechen militants to shelter in
the Pankisi Gorge in northern Georgia.

Northern Caucasus: Incorporation with Russia?

Russia now appears to be in something of a quandary regarding Abkhazia
and South Ossetia Indeed, the current crisis has its roots partly in
the fact that the Ossetes, in Russian North Ossetia and South Ossetia,
have often called for unification as one people, arguing that the
current border between the two is an arbitrary Soviet invention.

Reunification with their brothers to the north has been a consistent
policy of the South Ossetian de facto government, and one which looks
increasingly likely after last week’s events.

Nonetheless, Russia’s legitimate security concerns are often
overshadowed by its willingness to manipulate the separatist republics
of Georgia. Russia has backed the breakaway governments since the
1990s, providing it with some degree of leverage over Georgian
policy. Moscow’s support increased earlier this year after Kosovo’s
independence was supported by the West, a move Russia strongly opposed.

As a response, Vladimir Putin ordered the strengthening of political
and economic ties with both regions, and increased Russian peacekeeping
forces in Abkhazia: the build-up of tension was strikingly similar
to the pattern which preceded the recent South Ossetian war.

Russia now appears to be in something of a quandary regarding Abkhazia
and South Ossetia. Recognising them as independent states, backed by
Russian tanks, is out of the question and it always was. Encouraging
secessionism is not something that Russia, with its multi-ethnic
makeup and bloody history in Chechnya, is eager to encourage.

But integrating them into the Russian Federation, the more likely
option, could prove difficult. Abkhazia in particular has called
for independence more than incorporation with Russia, and would
be decidedly ambivalent about the prospect. Having bitterly fought
Georgia for their independence, it would only be a matter of time
before the Abkhaz became disillusioned with submission to Moscow.

Southern Caucasus: Maneuvers to Tame Russia

GUUAM(Georgia-Ukraine-Uzbekistan-Azerbaija n-Moldova) a vaguely
anti-Russian bloc could tighten its relationship in light of the
current situation Russia’s opposition to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan
pipeline, a US-backed project intended to avoid traversing Iranian
or Russian territory, has been seen as a vital aspect in the recent

However, the role of the pipeline is sometimes overplayed. Russia
has learnt to accept the BTC, which started pumping oil in 2005,
and it would be incorrect to assume that Russia’s attacks in Georgia
have been ‘all about oil’. Indeed, the pipeline – and the associated
Western concern – was probably one factor stopping the Russians from
entering Tbilisi.

To humiliate and wound a Western ally is one thing, but if Russia
attempted to control the pipeline Washington would be compelled to
take action. Georgia itself has suffered considerably from the Russian
attack, and will continue to do so.

Although Russia is not planning a coup, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei
Lavrov’s comments that "Mr. Saakashvili can no longer be our partner
and it would be best for him to go" are hardly encouraging. At worst
Russia will fund and encourage anti-Saakashvili elements within the
Georgian opposition, at best there will simply be several more years
of incredibly bad relations between the two sides until Saakashvili
leaves office.

Until he does so, Azerbaijan will find itself in an awkward
position. Relations with Moscow in the 1990s were very poor,
not least because of Russia’s covert support for destabilizing the
domestic situation in Azerbaijan and the secret supply of $1 billion
worth of military hardware to Armenia not long after the end of the
Nagorno-Karabakh war, in which Baku and Yerevan fought over a disputed,
largely Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan.

Since then Azeri-Russian relations have substantially improved, with
President Medvedev declaring in July that Azerbaijan was a "strategic
partner". Russia has also tried to demonstrate much more neutrality
in its role as a mediator over Nagorno-Karabakh, still unresolved
(like Abkhazia and South Ossetia) after 14 years. Nevertheless,
Russia is still perceived as a pro-Armenian mediator in Azerbaijan.

In this regard, one can clearly understand Azeri discomfort at Russia’s
recent violation of a sovereign state’s territorial integrity, and
its apparent willingness to seize those territories. For Azerbaijan,
which has some 20% of its territory occupied by Armenian forces,
the parallel is obvious and alarming.

Azerbaijan’s relationship with Georgia has grown increasingly warm,
in part due to the frozen conflicts – in which both states believe
territorial integrity must be respected – partly because of the
pipeline which links their two nations, and partly because both have no
wish to see Moscow dominating the Caucasus again, since for Azerbaijan
this could mean a Russian policy more biased towards Armenia.

Both are founder members of GUUAM
(Georgia-Ukraine-Uzbekistan-Azerbaijan-Moldo va), a vaguely anti-Russian
bloc which could tighten its relationship in light of the current
situation. If it does so, however, Azerbaijan may be in the unpleasant
situation of having to ‘choose’ between a Georgian – and by implication
a pro-Western – foreign policy, or siding with Moscow.

It is worth noting that the tone of, a popular Azerbaijani
news website, was stridently anti-Russian and stressed the need to
respect territorial integrity.

Armenia’s reaction was muted, calling only for peace and stability. The
Armenian foreign ministry and Armenian news agencies paid a great deal
of attention to Armenian citizens within Georgia, but skirted the
issue of right and wrong in the conflict. Like Azerbaijan (although
for different reasons), Armenia will also find the current situation
difficult to deal with.

Supporting Russian actions too vocally would ruin the amicable
relationship with Georgia, on whom Armenia depends as a transport
lifeline to the outside world, but siding with Tbilisi would raise
a cool reaction in the Kremlin, where President Medvedev and Prime
Minister Putin may start to think twice about continuing to defend

Russia, the West, and the Caucasus: Where To?

So for the West, the question now is how to keep Russia on side for
the big issues, whilst still managing to reach out to the Caucasian
states This leads us to the bigger question of how the recent war
will affect Russian policy towards the Caucasus. Commentators have
been divided, with some viewing the conflict as the beginning of a
new Russian imperialism in the South Caucasus – a view given weight
by Putin’s declaration that Russia has a "historical role" to act as a
"guarantor of security" in the region.

Others believe that Moscow may now view the region as so contentious,
and so hostile, that they will largely withdraw from any pretence
at a constructive role in the region. Certainly, co-operating with
France and the US at the next meeting of the ‘Minsk Group – which
oversees peace negotiations in Nagorno-Karabakh and in which Paris,
Moscow and Washington are co-chairs – will not be a particularly
pleasant experience.

Although Russian policy in the Caucasus may well follow either of
these paths, depending to an extent on the personal feelings of
Medvedev and Putin, Moscow’s ability to act will be conditioned in
part by the choices that America and Europe now make. They seem to
have decided that Russian assistance in other matters, such as the
Iranian nuclear program (America) or Russian gas supplies (Europe)
outweighs the defence of the Caucasus.

Washington has generally taken a harder line than Brussels, reflecting
its own "historic role" as the state most willing to stand up to
Russia. If that hard line fades under the new President, and if the
West quietly tones down its plans for integrating the Caucasus through
the EU and NATO, then Russia will be more free to act.

Ironically, this freedom may actually mean that Russia turns its back
on the Caucasus, since with Georgia now humiliated and the questions
of Abkhazia and South Ossetia probably stabilised, Russia has no
particular grounds for involvement. If, on the other hand, the West
decides that the conflict shows the necessity of integrating the
South Caucasus and redoubles its efforts, then Russia will be much
more inclined to intervene.

If Georgia’s NATO membership progress manages to survive the crisis
unscathed, Russian fury may be unleashed again.

So for the West, the question now is how to keep Russia on side for
the big issues, whilst still managing to reach out to the Caucasian
states. Armenia will probably keep its head down and hope that regional
stability does not deteriorate further, as this may lead to renewed
fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan will increasingly distrust
Moscow’s role as an honest mediator over Nagorno-Karabakh, and may
find itself orienting itself away from Russia.

Georgia itself, battered and shaken, will increasingly have to accept
that a) Abkhazia and South Ossetia are lost, and b) the West, although
by far the most logical foreign-policy partner, will only go so far
in its support. The South Ossetians and the Abkhaz, for their part,
will have to have a frank discussion about how much they truly want
to be part of the Russian Federation.

And finally, within the Kremlin, the West’s limp response to the
demonstration of Russian power will undoubtedly embolden the hawks. If
the West will not act in Georgia, they will ask, why not repeat
the pattern in Ukraine? Although it would be overly pessimistic to
declare we are, as many would have it, in a "New Cold War", it seems
certain that living with Russia – for the Caucasus, for the West,
and indeed for the wide world – will not get any easier in the months
and years ahead.

Alexander Jacksonis an Editorial Assistant at the Caucasian Review
of International Affairs (CRIA). He is currently pursuing Master’s
degree of war studies at Kings College London.