President Vladimir Putin has been organizing so many military exercises in so many parts of the Russian Federation (see EDM, March 19)—a process that has required Moscow to shift units from one area to another—that it is virtually impossible to say just where he intends to use military force next. But there is one possible clue: A recent article on the Kavkazskaya Politika website (Kavpolit.com) suggested that Moscow is preparing for a “new war” in the Caucasus against a country pursuing membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Yet, this piece was quickly taken down, perhaps indicating just how sensitive its conclusions may be for the Kremlin.
The article entitled “The Caucasus in Khaki: Is a New War Being Prepared?” was written by Anton Chablin, one of the most respected political analysts working in and on the North Caucasus. It originally appeared on the Kavkazskaya Politika site earlier this month at <https://kavpolit.com/articles/kavkaz_tsveta_haki-14826/>. But it was quickly taken down and is now available only as a cached story (Webcache.googleusercontent.com, accessed March 24). Given the importance of the topic, Chablin’s reputation for accuracy and insight, and the piece’s strange disappearance from the Internet, the article’s words deserve especially careful attention.
Chablin divides his article into three parts: order of battle, including newly arrived equipment; exercises and their focus; and the likely targets for a new military move by Moscow. Each of these parts contains information that suggests Moscow is not just strengthening forces in the North Caucasus in line with its general program of re-armament and militarization of the country as a whole, but that the Kremlin is putting itself in a position to be able to, at a minimum, threaten new military action and, quite probably, to attack one of more of Russia’s neighbors in the Caucasus.
Both journalists and local people in Stavropol have been struck in recent weeks by the appearance of a large quantity of heavy weapons systems arriving there in amounts that frequently disrupt civilian traffic on the roads, Chablin says. And he notes that, in contrast to earlier upgrades in the equipping of forces there, the press service of the Southern Military District “on this occasion has maintained silence.”
Of course, the Kavpolit.com analyst says, this could simply be part of the nearly continuous military exercises that have been taking place in the region since January. But, he adds, “military experts not without foundation are noting the extraordinary militarization of the region” and asking “are we preparing for a new war?”
The Southern Military District, with its headquarters in Rostov, controls military units on the territory of three federal districts (North Caucasus, South and, most recently, Crimean) as well as the military bases in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Armenia. Its main striking force is the 49th army, which is headquartered in Stavropol, and the focus of that force is the North Caucasus mountain range.
Over the last three years, Moscow has been upgrading the equipment and training of the units in the Southern Military District, but the pace of this upgrading has intensified since the end of last year, Chablin says. He provides a detailed listing of this equipment, including, in particular, tanks with excavator attachments to allow them to clear terrain. Moreover, he notes that the entire officer corps of the district’s units has been required to undergo training on the new equipment.
This new equipment is being tested and integrated into the forces there, Chablin continues, in a nearly constant series of exercises that have been taking place across the district since January 1. The first major ones were in Chechnya, in January 2015, and involved more than 1,000 soldiers and 300 tanks. Its focus was on integrating the tanks and new location technologies.
In early February, there were even larger exercises of motorized forces in Chechnya and North Ossetia, involving 1,500 soldiers, including units from North Ossetia and personally led by Lieutenant-General Andrey Gurulyev, the commander of the 49th army. Later, in February, there were additional exercises that sought to integrate air and naval (from the Caspian flotilla) units into a combined-forces operation. But these attracted much less attention in the media than combined-force exercises in the mountains of Stavropol krai where commanders were forced to carry out operations “in the most complex conditions, in the mountains and at night.”
Such a level of activity is unprecedented, Chablin suggests, and he cites the observation of Aleksey Koshkin, one of Moscow’s leading military analysts, that all these training exercises took place along the borders of two countries seeking to join NATO, Ukraine and Georgia—states that “have taken an unfriendly position relative to Russia.” Given that Moscow has recently signed new integration agreements, including ones involving combined military groups, with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, one can conclude, although Chablin carefully does not, that the most likely next target for Putin in the region is Georgia, the country he attacked in August 2008.
If that is the case, then Putin almost certainly plans to move far deeper into that country than he did before, possibly exploiting the Russian military presence in Armenia as well, and to install a government in Tbilisi that will bend to his will and turn from its drive to join the European Union and NATO.