Intermittent attacks, shootings, and explosions in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria have punctured the relative stability that has existed in the North Caucasus since the Beslan school massacre in September 2004. Now it may end with massive destabilization, triggered by resumed fighting in South Ossetia. Tension in the region has been increasing steadily; Russia and Georgia seem close to war over the disputed region and the possible conflict will inevitably involve not only regular forces, but also different irregular fighters, including Chechens.
The Georgian-Ossetian armed conflict in 1991-92 did not involve other ethnic groups from the North Caucasus, unlike the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-93, in which a Chechen battalion led by warlord Shamil Basaev was active in operations against the Georgians. North Ossetia, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, provided the separatists in South Ossetia with a steady supply of volunteers, arms, and munitions from Russian military arsenals. The fighting ended when Russia brokered a peace agreement that was signed in Sochi on June 24, 1992.
Russian peacekeepers were then deployed in South Ossetia as part of a three-party force (North Ossetian, Georgian, and Russian, each authorized for a battalion-sized unit of up to 500 men) to supervise the ceasefire. There was no fighting whatsoever in South Ossetia from June 1992 onward, until Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was toppled by the so-called Rose Revolution in late 2003 and replaced by Mikheil Saakashvili. The role of the peacekeeping contingent in Ossetia was mostly symbolic — manning checkpoints and patrolling in a peaceful environment — until bloody fighting erupted again in summer 2004.
Virtually all South Ossetian residents have been issued Russian passports since the year 2000, and they freely cross the Russian-Georgian border through the strategic Roki Tunnel under the main Caucasian ridge. The mass distribution of Russian passports has given Moscow a legal pretext to intervene militarily in Georgia at any time. Russia has in the past officially announced that it may use “appropriate means” to defend the well being of its citizens in Georgia (RIA-Novosti, May 12, 2005).
During a joint meeting of the North Ossetian and South Ossetian governments in the capital of North Ossetia, Vladikavkaz, in March, Gennady Bukaev, an aide to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, announced that the Russian leadership had decided “in principle” to annex South Ossetia and to form a new joint constituent unit of the Russian Federation comprised of both Ossetias and named “Alania.” On March 22, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti announced the intention to petition the Constitutional Court of Russia to rule that South Ossetia is an integral part of the Russian Federation (Vedomosti, March 23).
By May Russia had virtually closed the border with Georgia to imports of wine, mineral water, and foodstuff. The ban is officially for hygienic reasons, but no one in Moscow or Tbilisi believes this explanation. Further sanctions — like the imposition of severe restrictions on cash remittances sent by Georgian workers in Russia to relatives back home — are possible. Moscow and Tbilisi have regularly exchanged diplomatic notes, accusing each other of gross violations of ceasefire agreements. Tbilisi has called for the replacement of Russian peacekeepers by a neutral international force. On June 2 RIA-Novosti quoted Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov as announcing that there is a “real threat” that military hostilities will resume and that the Russian troops will not be withdrawn.
A conflict in South Ossetia would directly involve the entire North Caucasus. The official Russian peacekeeping contingent is too small to effectively repel the regular Georgian military, and Moscow would be reluctant to send more divisions and openly initiate a full-scale invasion to annex South Ossetia. A war by proxy would be far more preferable, as occurred in Abkhazia in 1992-93, when Basaev and other volunteers were armed and supplied by the Russian military and received Russian air and artillery support on the battlefield while fighting for Russian interests.
Georgian and Russian military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicate that today there are already 2,000-4,000 armed fighters from the North Caucasus deployed in South Ossetia. These volunteers are apparently not only Ossetians, but also Cossacks, Abkhaz, and representatives of other groups. At present, it is impossible to verify independently the number or origin of volunteer formations deployed in South Ossetia.
In the early 1990s, poorly trained irregular volunteers from the North Caucasus, including Basaev’s Chechens, could effectively engage the motley Georgian National Guard and the “Mhedrioni” militia. Today, a better force would be needed to face the much better trained and equipped Georgian forces. There are persistent rumors in Moscow that several thousand professional Chechen fighters, the so-called kadyrovtsy loyal to Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, might be sent to rout the Georgians in South Ossetia. Kadyrov reportedly offered to send his men during the summer 2004 fighting in South Ossetia.
The kadyrovtsy are clearly the best-trained, best armed, and most battle-ready irregular forces at Russia’s disposal in the North Caucasus. A mass deployment of these men against the Georgians may seem a win-win solution for Moscow: It would remove from Chechnya forces that the federal Russian troops do not trust, while at the same time using them to rout the pro-Western regime of Saakashvili that the Kremlin hates. However, if the fighting turns out to be bitter and casualties high, it is impossible to predict the reaction of armed Chechens sent to fight for Ossetian interests on Ossetian-inhabited territory, taking into account the centuries of strife between the two tribes.
Serious renewed fighting in South Ossetia may hurt not Saakashvili, despite Kremlin preferences, but it could spill over into the North Caucasus, undermining pro-Moscow rulers in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Ossetia. The Islamist insurgents in the North Caucasus could use this opportunity to cause even more trouble.
Moscow’s confrontation with Georgia over South Ossetia is a lethal folly. Saakashvili met Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on June 13 in an apparent last-ditch attempt to forestall the evolving confrontation. After the meeting there were reports of partial successes, although nothing concrete was apparently agreed. Will this be enough to prevent a seemingly imminent disaster?