Having finally agreed last week to withdraw the two Soviet-era bases from Georgia by 2008, Moscow was quick to send a signal to those who believe Russia’s retreat from the Caucasus is irreversible (see EDM, June 3).
Talking to Profil magazine (June 6), Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov revealed the Kremlin’s intention to set up, within the next three to five years, two new military facilities in strategic locations in the North Caucasus. One of the two planned installations will be located in the Botlikh region of Dagestan — very close to the sensitive point where the borders of Russia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan converge. The other base will be built in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. These bases, Ivanov said, “qualitatively” will differ from those that will be withdrawn from Batumi and Akhalkalaki in Georgia. The new facilities will be manned by the mountain rifle brigades and helicopter crews, whose main task would be to provide cover for Russian border guards and “prevent the infiltration of terrorists from Georgian territory.”
Ivanov has also confirmed that some military hardware, including “trucks and some of the APCs,” will be transferred from Akhalkalaki to Russia’s base in Gyumri, Armenia, a move that Azerbaijan has strongly protested.
Most Russian analysts and security experts contend that Russia’s presence in the South Caucasus, including its military dimension, is not a symptom of the Kremlin’s perceived “imperial ambitions.” Russia, they argue, is a major Caucasus power in its own right. Ten subjects of the Russian Federation are situated directly in the Northern Caucasus and three others — Volgograd and Astrakhan regions as well as the Republic of Kalmykia — are included in Russia’s Southern Federal District and have historically enjoyed strong socio-economic ties with the entire Caucasus region. For many Russian pundits, the task of maintaining stability in the former Soviet republics in the South Caucasus is condition sine qua non for the peaceful development of Russia proper.
Moscow simply cannot “leave” the region for good, they say, as practically all ethno-political conflicts in the “South of Russia” are closely tied up with the ethnic and territorial disputes in the South Caucasus. In addition, on either side of the Great Caucasus Range there dwell the so-called “divided peoples,” including the Lezgins, Ossetians, and Avars. Yet another legacy of the imperial past — the formerly “repressed peoples” like the Chechens, Ingush, or Meskhetian Turks — complicate the already tangled security equation even further. Thus, the Kremlin strategic planners assert, stability in Russia’s part of the Greater Caucasus directly depends on the stability of what they like to call the “Trans-Caucasus republics.”
So far, Russia has been the only regional power heavily involved in peacekeeping operations in the South Caucasus. It is important to understand that, despite the sometimes very harsh international criticism, Russians themselves see their peacekeeping record as quite successful. In the words of one noted regional expert, “The effectiveness of Russian peacekeeping operations has proved to be much higher than the analogous efforts undertaken by the United States and their allies in Somalia, Rwanda, or Kosovo.”
The bulk of Russia’s policymakers and pundits reject the accusation that the Kremlin seeks to preserve the status quo in the “frozen conflicts” in the South Caucasus and is reluctant to help the regional “metropols” reunite the secessionist territories. The Russian answer is simple: No one knows how to resolve these conflicts, thus the status quo is a lesser evil. “The very term ‘frozen conflicts,’ which is constantly being used to criticize us, causes surprise if not indignation,” Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, wrote recently. “What, does anyone want to defrost them?” he asked defiantly in a policy paper discussing the problem of “unrecognized states” in the post-Soviet lands.
Other influential Russian foreign-policy thinkers appear to share Karaganov’s arguments, insisting, for example, that the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict cannot be resolved “in the nearest historical perspective.” The best approach would be, they suggest, to “freeze it” for a period of at least 50 years — a proposal recently made by Akhmed Bilalov, first deputy chairman of the State Duma Committee on CIS Affairs.
Having reluctantly agreed to pull its troops out of Georgia, Moscow now intends to make clear that its policies in the Caucasus, including the level and forms of its military presence in the region, will directly depend on Tbilisi’s readiness to accommodate Russian interests. Symptomatically, Bilalov warned that Georgia’s unfriendly behavior could well “provoke Abkhazia’s turning into a Russian militarized zone.”
Within this context, on June 3 Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava sent a letter to the Russian Foreign Ministry and the co-chairmen of the quadripartite Joint Control Commission (JCC), which oversees the ceasefire in the South Ossetian conflict zone, expressing protest against a new shipment of Russian humanitarian aid worth approximately $2 million, which allegedly also includes military equipment.
(APN.ru, May 3; Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 3; Civil Georgia, June 5; Profil, June 6; Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 8)