RUSSIA’S DANGEROUS AMBITIONS IN THE CAUCASUS
Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 8
Russia’s Dangerous Ambitions in the Caucasus
By Stanislav Lunev
The course of recent events in Russia shows that the Caucasus will be increasingly significant for Russian policy, most of all, for Russian military policy. There could be a new development at any moment in the war in Chechnya, now continuing into its second year. But the possibility of putting an end to this armed conflict is closely tied to the general military and political situation in the Caucasus, which, in spite of the efforts of the Kremlin leaders, does not always move in Russia’s favor.
Let us examine Russian military policy towards Georgia. The strategic, military, and political significance of this region took on new importance for the Kremlin in the spring of 1992, when Moscow was forced to recognize that the Crimea would not become part of Russia again. And the loss of the Crimea meant that Russia only had a few hundred kilometers of the Black Sea coast, with no substantial deep-water ports or harbors where the Russian part of the Black Sea Fleet, still a significant regional military force, could be based.
But there were deep-water ports on the Black Sea coast belonging to Georgia, which, since 1991, had been torn apart by various criminally-tinged groups fighting among themselves, and all of them together–against the first legally-elected Georgian president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. How could Moscow not exploit the political, military, and economic chaos in Georgia, which had a population of only 5.5 million people, and which, as it seemed, could be drawn into Russia’s political orbit without much effort? From that moment, the "Georgian epic" of Russian military policy began.
In the beginning of the summer of 1992, high-ranking representatives of the General Staff and the SVR [Russian Foreign Intelligence Service] unofficially visited Abkhazia, one of Georgia’s autonomous republics. They held unofficial meetings with representatives of the Abkhaz population, which numbered only 90,000 at a time when the other 500,000 residents of Abkhazia were ethnic Georgians, Russians, Armenians, and other nationalities. As a result of the negotiations, a "mutual understanding" was reached to the effect that in exchange for Russian support for the independence of Abkhazia, the latter would allow the Russian army and fleet to be based on its territory.
And in the middle of the summer of 1992, an Abkhazian independence movement emerged, which quickly acquired all the necessary organizational forms, created its own armed forces, elected its own parliament, and even a president, Vladislav Ardzinba. In August of that year, Abkhazia declared its independence from Georgia. Former Politburo member and USSR foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who had become Georgia’s leader, at that time sent Georgian troops to Abkhazia to crush its independence movement. But the troops of Georgia, with its population of several million, were routed in the course of several weeks by the hitherto-unknown Abkhazian army, which carried the offensive into Georgian territory.
In fact, it was not Abkhazians who fought in that army, but detachments and battalions of mercenaries, created by the Russian intelligence services from the ranks of the Chechens, Ossetians, Ingush, and even the Transdniester Cossacks. But the military success of these mercenaries sharply increased separatist moods among all the Muslim peoples of the Caucasus, including those on Russian territory who joined the so-called Confederation of Mountain Peoples.
This Confederation declarated in October 1992 that after the defeat of Georgian troops, it would strive for the destabilization of Russia and the independence of the Russian mountain peoples from Moscow. This declaration elicited a harshly-negative reaction from the Kremlin, and an immediate cutback of Russian military aid to the Abkhazian independence movement, which led to its suffering one defeat after another at the hands of the Georgian army. But after Moscow received assurances that the Confederation of Mountain Peoples would not interfere in its affairs, military aid to the Abkhazian fighters was quickly resumed and the mercenaries fighting on its side, in the course of a few weeks, controlled almost the entire western part of Georgia, and began to approach Georgia’s second most important city, Kutaisi.
The Georgian government, on the brink of utter military defeat, finally understood the danger facing it, and found a way out of the situation. In brief unofficial negotiations, representatives of the Georgian government and the Russian intelligence services quickly agreed to maintain and increase Russia’s military presence in Georgia. After that, the Abkhazian troops beat a hasty retreat, and, by the end of the summer of 1993, controlled only the territory of Abkhazia itself, under the protection of Russian so-called "peacekeeping" forces.
According to the official agreement between the Russian and Georgian governments signed last September, the Russians may station 115 tanks, 160 armored personnel carriers, and 170 artillery pieces over 100 mm in caliber in Tbilisi, Batumi, and Poti.(1) The presence of these Russian units in independent Georgia is rather problematic from the point of view of international arms control treaties. The situation is further complicated by the fact that these troops are used by Russia’s military leadership for purely internal Russian affairs, such as the barbaric bombardment of Chechen cities and villages.
For example, as the Russian press reported, the bombing of the Chechen village Roshni-Chu last October was carried out by two ostensibly "unidentified" planes.(2) As the investigation established, these planes took off on their bombing run from the Russian air force base in Vaziani, which is located near the Georgian capital, part of the Russian military contingent on Georgian territory under the command of Col. Gen. Fyodor Reut.
Moreover, these Russian military bases are also used for interference in Georgian internal affairs as happened last fall when the former head of Georgia’s security service, Igor Georgadze, wanted in connection with the attempt on Georgian leader Shevardnadze’s life in August 1995, found refuge in the headquarters of Russian troops in this former union republic.(3) Later, Georgadze was secretly moved to the Vaziani air base, and flown to Moscow in Gen. Reut’s personal plane.
The fact that tens of thousands of people died, and hundreds of thousands were made refugees, so that Russian troops could be stationed in Georgia, then as now, is, perhaps, only of interest to historians of a future Caucasian war. The "Abkhazian epic" did not bring peace to the Transcaucasus, and the future of Russian military bases in Georgia was again put into question after last year’s parliamentary elections in that country, when the new Georgian legislators made ratification of the Russo-Georgian agreements on the Russian military presence in Georgia subject to a final solution of the Abkhazian question.
In this regard, Georgian president Shevardnadze recently said that "the Abkhazian question is the cornerstone of future relations between Russia and Georgia.(4) If someone in Russia thinks that it is possible to tear Abkhazia away from Georgia or that Abkhazia will remain in Georgia only formally, he must know that such an approach will ruin and destroy friendship between the two countries. Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin understands this and is doing all he can so that Abkhazia will remain an organic part of Georgia. But unfortunately, there are people in Russia who have other ideas. If it were not for them, there would be no obstacle on the path to eternal friendship between our two Orthodox peoples–Georgians and Russians."
Russian relations with another state in the Caucasus region, Armenia, up to the present time, are relatively uncomplicated. Located between still-restless Georgia and Muslim Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan, Armenia, by virtue of its position, is virtually forced at this stage to seek an understanding with Moscow. And the latter, not without success, is exploiting Yerevan’s present political, economic, and military difficulties to strengthen its position in this former union republic.
In particular, Russia’s military presence on Armenian territory is not disputed by anyone; it persists, and is increasing. According to the March 16, 1994 intergovernmental agreement, the Russian army continues to use a significant part of the former Soviet military installations in Armenia. The deployment of these forces is rather problematic from the point of view of international agreements. The Russian side understands this quite well, and simply tries to conceal its troops in Armenia from international arms control, as happened, for example, at the end of last year, when international inspectors trying to verify the CFE Treaty were simply not allowed into Russian military installations in Armenia.(6)
The stationing of Russian units and formations is taking place in close connection with Armenia’s integration into the former unified Soviet defense system, as it is being reconstructed by the Russian military within the framework of military cooperation among the CIS countries. In particular, at the end of last year, the Armenian parliament ratified the agreement of the CIS countries to create a unified anti-aircraft defense system signed on February 20 of that year in Alma Ata.(7) But even before the ratification of that agreement, joint Russian-Armenian military exercises were held, which demonstrated the complete battle-readiness of the part of that system located on Armenian territory.
This system received high marks from Maj. Gen. Alik Sarkisyan, the commander of Armenia’s anti-aircraft defense forces, who characterized it as an anti-aircraft defense system armed with "the most modern surface-to-air missiles and radio-technical equipment."(8) Moreover, the Armenian general highly praised the S-300 anti-aircraft system, whose American analog will, perhaps, be produced no earlier than the year 2005, in spite of the fact that the USA succeeded in acquiring an S-300 system from Belarus for 60 million dollars–a fact which caused quite a stir.
In the words of Maj. Gen. Levon Stepanyan, the commander of Armenia’s border troops, according to the 1992 Russo-Armenian agreement, cooperation has been established between the two countries’ border troops in the area of patrolling the countries’ borders.(9) In particular, Russian border troops guard the Armenian borders with Turkey and Iran, "which suits Armenia’s military and political interests completely," and young Armenian border guards regularly serve with Russia’s border troops.
The Russian military has offered many forms of aid to Armenia and to the Armenian separatists in the armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. This help is greatly appreciated by the Armenian side, which has said on numerous occasions that it "sees no reason" to refuse such aid.(11) But in real numbers this aid is rather limited, since Yerevan’s complete victory in this conflict would not be in the interests of Russia’s present leadership.
Mutual understanding between the Russian and Armenian sides also exists in the area of nuclear energy. The atomic power station at Medzhimor was set up, with Russian help, last November, where two more or less modern former Soviet VVER-40 reactors were brought on line.(12) This power station, after its reactors are brought up to full power, could guarantee 30 percent of Armenia’s total energy needs and become the so-called "transfer point" in Russia’s nuclear deal with Iran, which has raised substantial questions and doubts.
The most complicated relations in this region exist between Russia and Azerbaijan—the only country in the Caucasus which is trying to conduct a policy completely independent of Moscow and which categorically refuses to allow the deployment of Russian troops on its territory. The Russian leadership–which continues to give Yerevan massive aid in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh–
is putting as much pressure on Baku as it can, trying to force the Azerbaijani leadership to accept a Russian military presence.
In the planning of its military policy towards Baku, the Russian authorities proceed from Azerbaijan’s significant strategic, military, and political importance and the presence on its territory of significant natural resources, most of all, oil. This explains the many forms of pressure from the Russian side on Baku, which are explained, as usual, by the "threat" to Russian national security from Azerbaijan.
In particular, according to specialists of the Russian Defense Research Institute [IOI], Azerbaijan, is currently the target of "political penetration from Turkey, and an object of economic and intelligence penetration from the USA, Great Britain, and Germany."(13) Azerbaijan is "the most convenient bridge for the expansion of Turkey and the West into Central Asia, the Volga region, and the North Caucasus, by exploiting the ‘Turkish’ and ‘Islamic’ factors."
According to the IOI’s specialists, "Turkey is acting as an instrument of American policy in the region, whose main goal is the establishment of Western control over the Caspian’s energy, and mostly, oil, resources…" IOI specialists also note that another aspect of Western policy in the region is the attempt to cut Russia off from the Caucasus by encouraging separatism in the North Caucasus, and most of all, in Chechnya. In particular, there are plans to increase the significance of the anti-Russian Confederation of Mountain Peoples. It is proposed that this formation would have direct access to the Black Sea and Turkey through Abkhazian territory.
According to the IOI experts, any decision with respect to the natural resources of the Caspian can only be taken on the basis of a consensus of all the Caspian countries. The Soviet-Iranian treaty of 1940 was ratified by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and can be repealed only by a supreme legislative organ, and not by a decision of Russia’s present government. But at the present time, the problem is that as a consequence of the effective joint action of a number of highly-placed Russian officials and businessmen, the question of the right to possess the resources of the Caspian shelf has been replaced by debates over the routes for pipelines to transmit "early" oil.
By means of this, the experts imply that the earlier "de facto" recognition of the "contract of the century" was made by Russian officials and businessmen against Russia’s national interests, which raises the question of the legality of all that is taking place over the Caspian’s oil resources.
Stanislav Lunev was formerly a Colonel in Soviet Military Intelligence [GRU].
Translated by Mark Eckert
1. Krasnaya zvezda, November 24, 1995.
2. Novaya ezhednevnaya gazeta, No. 41, 1995.
3. Monitor, No. 132, 1995.
4. Ogonek, No. 2, 1996.
5. "Vesti" television program, February 1, 1996.
6. Interfax, December 13, 1995.
7. Radio Rossii, November 20, 1995.
8. Respublika Armenia, (in Russian) November 21, 1995.
10. Izvestiya, June 3, 1995.
11. Interfax, December 13, 1995.
12. Interfax, November 6, 1995.
13. Sovetskaya Rossiya, October 26, 1995.