Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 3 Issue: 14

The Fortnight in Review

Moscow celebrated an anniversary, but the festive mood in the Russian capital seems unlikely to extend to the Duma, which reconvened after its summer break and is soon to consider a number of important bills. The Kremlin, meanwhile, launched yet another reshuffle of its military leadership, and was forced to defend itself diplomatically against charges of having failed to control the spread of Russia’s nuclear technology. Policy results were more favorable elsewhere. Moscow finally reached an agreement with Chechnya on shipments of Caspian oil, and, in a move that marked a significant advance of its efforts to project influence in the South Caucasus, finalized its military alliance with Armenia.

A Star Named Yury

Moscow celebrated its 850th jubilee with a three-day gala that included a huge street carnival, an open-air rock festival, and a laser light-show that projected the image of the Virgin Mary over the Russian capital. Mayor Yury Luzhkov opened the festivities by unveiling a huge and controversial statue of Peter the Great — who disliked Moscow so much that he moved the capital to St. Petersburg — on an island in the Moscow river. The media interpreted the festivities as the opening shot in Luzhkov’s bid for the presidency. President Boris Yeltsin obliged by publicly confirming that he will stand down in 2000, as the constitution requires. Luzhkov continued to deny that he harbors presidential aspirations, but no one believed him and his fans announced that a star had been named in his honor.

The Russian Duma, meanwhile, reconvened on September 3 after its summer recess. High on its agenda for the fall session are the draft 1998 budget, a new tax code, and a revised draft of a controversial bill on religion that Yeltsin vetoed in its original form. Opposition deputies warned that neither the budget nor the tax code would have a smooth passage. Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko faction said it would vote against both while the Communist Party said it was planning a series of strikes and protest demonstrations in the fall. Yabloko and the Communist Party found common ground in their desire to amend the constitution to curtail the president’s huge powers and to upgrade the role of parliament.

Shuffling the Deck in the Military Leadership

The game of musical chairs atop Russia’s defense establishment, so prominent a feature of the post-Soviet period, resumed in recent weeks as Yeltsin dismissed his point man on military reform and replaced him with another civilian who will also head a newly enhanced State Military Inspectorate. The man out was Yury Baturin, a long-time Yeltsin associate who had served as secretary of Russia’s powerful Defense Council since its creation in July of 1996. With the ouster of then defense minister Igor Rodionov in May of this year, Baturin appeared to have won a long and acrimonious public battle with the military establishment over the shape of Russia’s impending defense reform. But, having made that decision and having launched the reform effort, Yeltsin apparently decided to replace Baturin with a figure more palatable to Russia’s generals.

His choice was Andrei Kokoshin, a first deputy defense minister since the creation of the Russian army in 1992 and the lone civilian in the ministry’s leadership. Explanations for Kokoshin’s long survival in that post vary. Some describe him as an astute bureaucratic operator who deftly walked the fine line between Russia’s quarreling generals and political leaders. Others likened him more to a token civilian in a defense establishment still dominated by generals and suggested that his longevity was due primarily to his irrelevance. In any event, Kokoshin is without question a defense intellectual of long-standing — he was among the group of civilian "institutchiki" to emerge during the Gorbachev years — and is reputed to enjoy good relations with his uniformed counterparts.

He will need them. Reports indicate that Kokoshin and his State Military Inspectorate will oversee the military reform effort not only in the armed forces but also in Russia’s other "power structures." The first alone would seem to be task enough. Buffeted by a shrinking budget, the army faces significant personnel reductions, a wrenching consolidation of its traditional five-service branch structure, and a numbing list of morale and readiness problems. Yet, from a political standpoint, the difficulties involved in extending the reform effort to Russia’s other "power" structures may be even more daunting. These non-Defense Ministry agencies have been growing in size, cost, and independence, and they are unlikely to submit to downsizing and restructuring without a fight. Kokoshin’s success will perhaps depend less on wise and expeditious action than on the amount of real authority that the Kremlin, and Boris Yeltsin personally, vests in him and his State Military Inspectorate.

Russia and Chechnya Sign Oil Agreements

Months of acrimonious negotiations were crowned on September 9 when Russia and Chechnya signed five agreements covering the pumping of Caspian oil from Baku across Chechen territory to Russia’s Black Sea port at Novorossiisk and thence to western markets. Both Russia proper and Chechnya have a vital financial interest in ensuring that Caspian oil takes this route, rather than other, more problematic routes through countries such as Georgia or Armenia. The agreements state that, by the end of the year, Russia will pay Chechnya $854,000 for the shipment of 200,000 metric tons of Caspian oil. Chechnya will be paid by Russia’s Transneft pipeline company the standard internal rate of $0.43 per ton, not the special rate of $2.20 per ton that Chechnya initially demanded. In addition, the reconstruction of the Chechen section of the pipeline, along with its maintenance and security, will be paid for with money from the Russian federal budget. The Chechen side originally rejected payment from the federal budget on the grounds that Chechnya is not part of the Russian Federation. Chechen leaders were also concerned that Moscow might try to withhold money from the sum President Yeltsin had promised to allocate for Chechnya’s post-war reconstruction when he met with Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov in August.

The Russian press hailed the agreement as a victory for Russian first deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov’s tough bargaining. Nemtsov had responded to Chechnya’s demand for $2.20 per ton by claiming that Russia had identified eight alternative routes for transporting Caspian oil that would bypass Chechnya, including ferrying oil by tanker to Astrakhan, higher up the Caspian coast, while sending an equivalent amount of oil to Novorossiisk from northern Russia. Though this would have been an exorbitantly expensive means of delivery, Nemtsov seems to have bluffed Chechnya into believing that it was a price Russia was prepared to pay.

Some Russian commentators predicted that the pipeline agreement would allow Moscow to retain an economic lever over Chechnya. But other events highlighted the Russian government’s lack of control over events in the republic. On September 3, a man and a woman were shot dead in front of a crowd of several thousand onlookers in the center of the Chechen capital. They had been found guilty of murder by one of Chechnya’s new Islamic courts. This was not the first death sentence passed down by one of these courts nor was it Chechnya’s first public execution, but it was the first to be shown on Russian Television. Repeated screenings of the gruesome video aroused a storm of revulsion not just in Russia proper but also, reportedly, in Chechnya. Chechen officials rejected Russia’s protests, calling them interference in Chechnya’s internal affairs. They also argued that public executions were a short-term but necessary means of deterring serious crime in a republic with thousands of armed and unemployed men. Public outrage seems, however, to have been behind the subsequent decision of the Chechen authorities to postpone two other scheduled executions.

Saying "No" to Nuclear Proliferation?

Russian authorities were sent scrambling over the past two weeks in an effort to deny reports that Russia is contributing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Kremlin was first put on the defensive when reports surfaced on September 5 of a charge by former security supremo Aleksandr Lebed that the country’s military command was unable to account for some 100 "suitcase" nuclear bombs — Atomic Demolition Munitions (ADMs) in military parlance — once in the Soviet inventory. Lebed claimed to have learned of the problem during his brief tenure as Security Council secretary, and said that he had been unable to clarify the status of the weapons prior to his dismissal in October of last year. Representatives of Russia’s Defense and Atomic Energy Ministries, Federal Security Service, and General Staff all issued quick denials, while Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin called Lebed’s claim "absolute insanity" and a Russian newspaper suggested that the presumptive presidential candidate suffers from mental illness.

The Kremlin went into damage control mode again on September 10 when a U.S. newspaper — quoting Israeli intelligence sources — accused Russia and China of helping Iran to build long-range nuclear missiles. The newspaper report identified a number of enterprises, government organizations, and research institutions said to be involved in the project, including the state arms trading company Rosvooruzhenie and the Russian Space Agency. Various sources speculated that the Russians involved might be "free-lancing" — i.e., acting without the knowledge or sanction of the Kremlin.

Russian denials of involvement in the Iranian missile projects, and its concomitant claims to be exercising effective control over export of the country’s defense technologies, were further undermined, however, by a report publicized on September 12. Based on an investigation by a U.S. non-proliferation research group, the report said that some 30 gyroscopes from disassembled Russian ballistic missiles had made their way via middlemen to Iraq, where they were ultimately found by UN weapons inspectors in 1995. More generally, the group concluded that Russia’s sprawling defense industrial complex remains vulnerable to the loss of sensitive technology and nuclear fissile materials.

The raising of these most recent questions about Russia’s nuclear non-proliferation record, moreover, followed on the heels of a diplomatic exchange in late August between Moscow and Washington over the possibility that Russia had conducted a covert nuclear test at its site on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya. Monitoring stations around the world had detected a suspicious "seismic event" on August 16 near the island, and the U.S., Norway, and Finland had asked Russia for an explanation. Moscow blandly attributed the seismic activity to an earthquake under the Kara Sea.

Armenia Signs Military Alliance with Russia

The presidents of Russia and Armenia, Boris Yeltsin and Levon Ter-Petrosian, signed on August 29 in Moscow a Russian-Armenian Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance. The first of its type in the post-Soviet era, the treaty envisages consultations and mutual military support if either side is attacked or considers itself threatened by a third party. The signatories will make available their military facilities and equipment for each other’s use. They will standardize military hardware, coordinate their defense industries, and jointly finance military projects — all this in peacetime. They will also "jointly protect" Armenia’s borders with non-CIS countries, proceeding from Russia’s and Armenia’s security interests and "CIS collective security interests." The two countries further pledge not to join any alliance or defense treaty, action, or initiative deemed to be directed against Russia or Armenia. The two countries will coordinate their foreign policies in the Caucasus region and the world. The treaty will be valid for a 25-year term and can be extended automatically for successive 10-year terms. Officials on both sides predicted easy ratification by the two parliaments.

An accompanying political declaration records Russian-Armenian consensus on political, military, and economic issues at the regional and the international levels. Moscow promises to support Armenia’s candidacy for full membership in the Council of Europe and other international institutions. The joint declaration also states Russia’s and Armenia’s intention to comply with the OSCE’s Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. Symbolically, Yeltsin and Ter-Petrosian and their defense ministers jointly inaugurated a Moscow exhibition dedicated to the late USSR Marshal Ivan Bagramian, whom they described as epitomizing Russian-Armenian military partnership.

As Ter-Petrosian accurately observed while in Moscow, the treaty raises overall Russian-Armenian relations above the level of the Russia-Belarus Union. In fact, the treaty formalizes an already mature Russian-Armenian military relationship. Even before the signing of this treaty, Russian ground forces and border troops were already based in Armenia under bilateral agreements; and Moscow had massively armed Armenia and Karabakh, enabling them to defeat Azerbaijan and keep their territorial gains (see below). The treaty makes little practical difference to a Russian-Armenian relationship that had already developed into a de facto alliance. The treaty does add a binding commitment to mutual defense against attack or the threat of an attack. However, the neighboring countries — Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Georgia — have neither the desire nor the capability to attack or threaten Russia or Armenia in the foreseeable future. What, then, is the rationale for signing this treaty at this time?

What Armenia Gains

While an Azerbaijani attempt to regain some of the lost territories by force cannot be discounted as a long-term possibility, Armenia’s and Karabakh’s overwhelming military superiority should preclude such an attempt for years to come. Those territories, besides Karabakh itself, include large Azeri areas technically held by Karabakh forces. However, Armenians are concerned that Azerbaijan may use future oil revenues to create a strong army. From Yerevan’s standpoint, the pact just signed in Moscow seems designed to secure Russian support for Armenian military action in defense of Karabakh, or to hold out the prospect of such Russian support in deterring a hypothetical Azerbaijani military action. The apparent calculation is that Armenia would back Karabakh while Russia would back Armenia; thus Russia’s presumed obligation of military support to Armenia would in effect extend to Karabakh.

While such reinsurance is important to Yerevan, war scenarios remain highly improbable in the near- and medium term. More immediate and tangible are the diplomatic benefits to Armenia and to Karabakh. They now can count on a measure of support from Russia in its capacity as co-chair of the OSCE’s negotiating forum on the Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, is now sharply questioning Moscow’s qualifications for that role in view of its ties to one of the parties. Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov has stated that the treaty should not be viewed as an instrument for resolving the Karabakh conflict, and he expressed the hope that close Russian-Armenian relations would not affect Moscow’s relations with Azerbaijan. Those relations, however, are marked by serious differences arising primarily from Azerbaijan’s choice of full independence from Moscow and close relations with the West.

Arms Deliveries

The treaty also seems designed to legitimize — though it cannot legalize — Russia’s clandestine arms deliveries to Armenia, effected in 1994-96 and valued at more than $1 billion. The size and secrecy of the deliveries almost certainly violated the CFE treaty’s ceilings and its reporting requirements. It remains far from clear whether the treaty-limited hardware is being counted as part of Russia’s quota or of Armenia’s quota, if they are counted at all. In any case, at least some of that hardware appears to be governed by dual storage and dual use arrangements, and has been observed in some joint Russian-Armenian exercises in Armenia. A large part of the arms were handed over to Karabakh — where they are immune to OSCE-administered CFE inspections.

What Russia Gains

Though motivated largely by personal and group interests in the context of political infighting in Moscow, disclosures of the covert arms deliveries forced the Kremlin, the prosecutor general, and the chief military prosecutor to announce investigations. Azerbaijan for its part has repeatedly called for such an investigation by the Russian government and the return of those weapons to Russia. But the investigations in Moscow have ground to a deliberate halt, and Yeltsin has rebuffed Baku by offering to create a Russia-Armenia-Azerbaijan commission to investigate both Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s arsenals. Meanwhile, the Russian arms deliveries have tipped the balance so steeply in Armenia’s favor as to virtually preclude Azerbaijani military action for a long time to come. This disequilibrium minimizes the odds of Russia being called upon to intervene in defense of Armenia, rendering the treaty commitments practically risk-free for Moscow in the foreseeable future.

The alliance does also carry some significant benefits for Moscow. First, it enables Russia to maintain troops and forward-positioned equipment in the South Caucasus in a friendly environment. Azerbaijan is free of Russian forces, and Georgia is an unsafe and unwilling host which openly desires to be rid of its Russian military presence. Armenia is the last reliable base from which Russian troops can project power throughout the entire region, effect the security and policies of neighboring countries, and help Russia to remain a factor in decisions related to Caspian oil. Second, its alliance with Armenia marks a first real step toward Russia’s goal to regain the status of a bloc leader. The references to CIS collective security in the treaty with Armenia suggest that Moscow may regard it as a precedent for similar bilateral treaties with selected CIS countries. Moscow’s other CIS allies at present — Belarus and Tajikistan — pose obvious political and military liabilities. Armenia, by contrast, is far more acceptable politically and capable militarily — a net asset as an ally.

Finally, Moscow hopes through this relationship to demonstrate that recreating a Russian sphere of influence and military bloc does not imply bringing discredited Communists to power. In other places where it has sought to restore its influence, Moscow has relied on local Communists and other Soviet-era hard-liners for lack of more respectable allies. Lukashenka in Belarus, Ardzinba in Abkhazia, and the leaders of Transdniester are cases in point. Armenia’s current leadership groups, however, are anti-Communists who enable Moscow to demonstrate an exception from that pattern. It is also worth noting that the political potential of the Armenian world diaspora probably entered into Moscow’s calculations.

Rift in the Region

Armenia’s current orientation toward Russia can in some ways be regarded as conditioned by its tragic history of conflict with the Turkic world and hopes for support from imperial Russia. However, ancient fears seldom guide nations’ policies today, and Armenia need not have become an anachronistic exception. But influential Western countries and international institutions have recently adopted a rigidly legalistic policy on the Karabakh conflict, appearing to insist on returning Karabakh to Azerbaijani sovereignty. That has accelerated, instead of averting, Armenia’s rush into Moscow’s embrace. Armenia’s Russian orientation sharply contrasts to Azerbaijan’s choice of partnership with West — economically, diplomatically, and increasingly in the security area. The two countries’ divergent choice of allies not only deepens the rift in the South Caucasus, but tends to internationalize it by dividing the region into a Russian and a Western mini-sphere. Georgia clearly prefers the latter. Azerbaijan would be safer in the choice it has made, and Georgia would in a better position to exercise that choice, if Armenia were offered a viable alternative to dependence on Russia.