On April 29, Movladi Udugov, an envoy of the Chechen rebels outside the Caucasus, declared that the North Caucasian insurgency could help Georgia in its standoff with Russia. Relations between Georgia and Russia have significantly deteriorated since the Russian government decided to establish direct official relations with the secessionist authorities of Abkhazia, the region that is de-facto independent but officially is part of Georgia. At the end of April, additional Russian troops were deployed to Abkhazia under the pretext of increasing the number of peacekeeping troops in the breakaway republic in order to guarantee security. The Georgian authorities regarded these steps by the Kremlin as aggression against Georgia. On May 6, Georgia’s State Minister for Issues of Reintegration, Temur Iakobashvili, declared that Georgia and Russia were “very close to war” (Interfax, May 6).
Apparently the rebels in the North Caucasus who are fighting for the region’s independence from Russia could not ignore the situation and not try to use it in their interests. Movladi Udugov who calls himself “the Head of the Informational-Analytical Service of the Caucasus Emirate,” told the Kavkaz-Center rebel website that two months earlier the Amir of the Caucasus Emirate, Dokka Umarov, had ordered the creation of a special monitoring group with the task of monitoring the situation surrounding Russian-Georgian relations because “these events are taking place directly at the borders of the Caucasus Emirate and directly affect our interests.” According to Udugov, the group has informational and operational departments and monitors the activities of Russian troops near the border with Georgia, including “movements of troops and equipment, visits to the region by high-ranking military officials, and the activities of intelligence services, including the Russian Defense Ministry’s military intelligence.” Movladi Udugov also declared that the rebels had “agents in South Ossetia [another breakaway region of Georgia] and Abkhazia.”
Just three days before Udugov’s statement, Kavkaz-Center reported that the situation around Georgia was discussed at the most recent meeting of top rebel field commanders, which took place in early April in southwestern Chechnya. “The military leadership of the Caucasus Emirate has made certain decisions regarding this issue, which were not disclosed,” the website reported (Kavkaz-Center, April 26).
Movladi Udugov’s declaration could be described as a direct offer from the rebels to the Georgian government to establish a kind of an anti-Russian military alliance—an objective the Chechen rebels have been trying to achieve since the beginning of the second Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1999. Udugov particularly stressed in his statement that the Georgian authorities had not yet asked the rebel leadership to share intelligence that they have or to render military assistance “in case of a real Russian aggression.” This phrase could be interpreted as advice from the rebels to the Georgian authorities not to hesitate to get in touch with them.
This is not the first public proposal made by the Chechen rebels to Georgia to fight together against Russia. In August 2004, then Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov said in an interview with Georgia’s Mze TV channel: “I know what Russia is and how to resist it.” In that interview, Maskhadov expressed his full support for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in his struggle to defend Georgia’s interests and independence (Grani.ru, August 28, 2004). Three years before this statement by Makhadov, Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev, in an interview to Kavkaz-Center, called on Georgia to provide the rebels in Chechnya with antiaircraft missiles (Grani.ru, May 17, 2001).
Such declarations by Chechen rebel commanders helped the Georgians blackmail Russia by threatening to help the Chechen separatists the same way the Russian authorities help separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the peak of the crisis in South Ossetia in summer 2004, Koba Davitashvili, a Georgian parliamentary deputy, called on the Georgian government to recognize Chechnya’s independence (Grani.ru, August 28, 2004).
Nevertheless, there is no real proof that the Georgian government has ever actually helped the rebels in the North Caucasus with weapons or ammunition. The shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles that were brought to Chechnya by militants loyal to Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelaev in 2002 were reportedly purchased from Russian officers in Russian military garrisons then stationed in Georgia, Batumi and Gudauta.
In fact, Georgia is in a much more advantageous position than Russia when one considers the relative strength of separatist forces in the breakaway regions of Georgia and Russia. No matter how significant the Kremlin’s help to Abkhazia or South Ossetia might be, the two separatist regimes are unable to confront Georgia without the Russian armed forces’ direct involvement. As for the rebels in the North Caucasus, even small financial assistance from Georgia can double their capability to fight Russian forces in the region. The ability of Caucasian insurgents to move across the North Caucasian range from Sochi (Krasnodar Krai) in the west to Makhachkala (Dagestan) in the east make them potentially very helpful to the Georgian authorities in case of an open armed conflict with Russia.
“I want to say that the mountain area of the Caucasus Emirate from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea is under Mujahideen control, and it is the zone in which the Armed Forces of the Caucasus Emirate are active,” Udugov said in his appeal to Georgia.
It is also interesting to note that while the Kremlin is threatening to send volunteers from the North Caucasus (Chechnya, Kabradino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and Adygeya) to help Abkhazia, it is not clear that such volunteers actually exist. Many Kabardinians who are ethnically very close to the Abkhaz are now in the anti-Russian camp fighting for the independence of the North Caucasus from Russia. If a Russian-Georgian war breaks out, nobody knows who will have more North Caucasians on its side, Georgia or Russia.
At the first glance, Russia looks dominant in the Russian-Georgian standoff. Neither Georgia nor its allies like the United States or the European Council can really do anything to change the political course of the Kremlin towards further recognition of the separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Nevertheless, if we include in the equation a war that may break out in the Russian rear, the North Caucasus, Russian superiority does not appear so obvious. It is hard to say what the rebels in the North Caucasus can really do to disrupt Russian control over Abkhazia, but any violent actions in the northwest Caucasus could damage Russian influence in the southern flank of the Caucasian Range.