The Caucasus Mine Field

The Caucasus enters this year in the same situation of “stable instability” that has characterized the entire post-Soviet era – the endless war of everyone against everyone. For now the war is cold, but this year the Sochi Olympics will exert a powerful influence on the situation in the region, at least in the first few months.

The Caucasus enters this year in the same situation of “stable instability” that has characterized the entire post-Soviet era – the endless war of everyone against everyone. For now the war is cold, but this year the Sochi Olympics will exert a powerful influence on the situation in the region, at least in the first few months. The upcoming Winter Games – held, for some odd reason, in a subtropical city in a country famous for its Siberian winters – have already been a source of huge material and psychological losses from which Russia will never recover.

The North Caucasus is bound to stir up tensions on the eve of the Games, as demonstrated by the attacks in Volgograd at the very end of 2013. For both internal and external reasons, eradicating terrorism in Russia is not possible.

Fault line

Alas, corruption remains the main internal reason. It is strange to speak about the need to counter corruption since it was deliberately put at the foundation of our entire political and economic system. After all, a system cannot fight against itself. Terrorism is primarily facilitated by corruption in security agencies and in the North Caucasus where Moscow buys the loyalty of local elites, enraging the local population and driving them into the arms of Islamic radicals in the region.

Yet another reason is the aggressive promotion of the Russian Orthodox religion and the anti-constitutional alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state. The church is trying to establish a presence in Russia’s education system and security services where it does not belong.
Russian history confirms the well-known fact that any religion based on rigid dogmas, without room for doubt or dissent, cannot unite a society, but only divides it into believers and atheists. Non-believers have already been turned into a minority without rights, though they may not even be in the minority in Russia. The expansion of the Russian Orthodox Church was bound to exacerbate Islamic radicalization.

There are also powerful external factors. Islamic terrorists in Russia have several external sponsors. The main sponsor, Saudi Arabia, whose influence was so pronounced during both Chechen wars, suffered many wounds in 2013. But a wounded animal can be even more dangerous. Despite going all-out in Syria, the al-Assad regime has held its grounds and even gained ground. The United States did not strike regime targets, even with Riyadh openly promising to foot the bill. Furthermore, Washington is seeking to improve relations with Tehran, Riyadh’s main enemy. All these events drove Saudi Arabia to make the completely irrational move of renouncing the rotating seat on the Security Council it had long coveted. Riyadh places the blame for all its misfortunes on Moscow, and not without reason. Russia has frustrated Saudi efforts in Syria at every turn. And now the Wahhabi “evil empire” will stop at nothing to take revenge. Attacks may occur, though not in Sochi. That would be too difficult to pull off. But the explosions in Volgograd on New Year eve show that the danger to other parts of Russia is very real.

Moscow’s policy has been surprising in this regard. There is no explanation for its failure to outlaw the Wahhabi branch of Islam and ban the activities of Islamic clergy that received their religious education in Saudi Arabia or other Mid-Eastern countries. This inaction is due either to blatant incompetence or outright betrayal. As for Russian-Saudi relations, Moscow is inexplicably trying to court Riyadh and pretend that it is a normal country rather than an enemy. Then there are the completely amoral debates on selling the latest military hardware (such as T-90C tanks and even C-400 air defense systems) to Saudi Arabia.

It is hard to find a rational explanation for such deeds. The most likely explanation is also the simplest – the Saudis must have paid someone a lot of money. As I’ve said, corruption sustains domestic terrorism in Russia. And most likely it’s not confined to low-level corruption.

Tbilisi trading tanks for air defense systems

Another long-standing conflict – between Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the one hand and Georgia on the other – seems to have cooled down for the foreseeable future. Needless to say, it is pointless to expect Georgia to officially cede its former autonomies. Examples of the voluntary renunciation of territory are so far limited to Eastern Africa, in Ethiopia and Sudan. Countries in other parts of the world are not inclined to recognize the independence of lost territories, and Georgia is no different. However, the current leadership in Georgia is more realistic than the previous government, and realizes that Georgia has no chance of regaining its former autonomies militarily barring some enormous cataclysm inside Russia. Georgia cannot match the combined military capabilities of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Russia’s Southern Military District, not to mention the entire Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Likewise, Georgia cannot count on foreign assistance. Of course, Tbilisi, Brussels and Washington continue to chant their favorite mantra about Georgia’s future NATO membership, but no one believes this is realistic.

In an interesting move, Tbilisi has responded by seeking to sell offensive military hardware (primarily tanks) and spending the proceeds on defensive arms (primarily air defense systems). However, this idea is unrealistic, as Georgian expert Vakhtang Maisaia explained in his article, “Georgia Switching to Perimeter Defense,” in the Independent Military Review (NVO № 48, 12.26.13). The second-hand arms market is glutted, mostly with tanks. Georgian T-72s are outdated and poorly maintained. They bring in little if any money. And modern air defense systems are very expensive. In fact, Georgia may have to settle for an even trade for second-hand defense systems. But all this fuss has little to do with reality. Russia is not going to attack Georgia, and Georgia is unable to mount a successful attack on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This will not prevent all the players involved from fanning the propaganda flames, endlessly accusing each other of plotting aggression. Such hysteria can be very useful to those in power.

Tensions will mount only if South Ossetia pushes forward with a referendum on reunification with North Ossetia, which means accession to Russia. This would be just for reasons of history and shared ethnicity. The Ossetians should not suffer forever from the consequences of “the wise ethnic policy of Lenin and Stalin.” Regrettably, politics is standing in the way of historical justice. It’s one thing to recognize South Ossetia’s independence from Georgia, and quite another to incorporate or – from the standpoint of international law – annex it. Turkey did not hesitate to recognize the independence of Northern Cyprus but does not risk officially incorporating the territory. Moscow has no appetite for such risks either, especially on the eve of the Games. So the idea of a referendum was immediately hushed up.

Discord over Karabakh

One part of the Caucasus is not going to cool down. A new war over Nagorny Karabakh is all but inevitable. Neither Yerevan nor Baku will renounce their claims to the region. And compromise is impossible, as the sides’ positions are mutually exclusive. The war has not resumed only because Azerbaijan lacks the necessary military capabilities to score a decisive victory over the well-trained and highly motivated Armenian army. However, thanks to Azerbaijan’s considerable oil revenues, Baku is rapidly building up its military capabilities both with imported and domestically produced military equipment. Today Azerbaijan is second only to Russia in the speed of military upgrades.

In the last few years, Russia has made a decisive contribution to Azerbaijan’s military capabilities, as explained in the article, “Nothing Personal, Only Business” (NVO No34, 09.20.2013). Baku is making large purchases of the latest offensive hardware from Russia. These include T-72 tanks, BMP-3, MSTA SPH, Smerch and TOS-1A multiple rocket launchers, and Mi-35M assault helicopters supplemented with highly effective defensive systems, such as the C-300PM air defense systems. These supplies have given Azerbaijan a significant military advantage over Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh for the first time.

If Moscow were guided by strictly financial considerations in arms supplies, there would be nothing surprising in its contracts with Azerbaijan. But Moscow has always factored in geopolitics. Russia is supplying weapons even to remote Venezuela, which is oil rich like Azerbaijan. But unlike Russia’s post-Soviet neighbor, Venezuela has been granted loans to purchase the weapons. Integration of the post-Soviet space has always been a priority for which Moscow is willing to pay dearly. As such, it’s surprising that Russia would agree to sell offensive arms to Azerbaijan, which are more likely to be used to recapture Karabakh than in military parades. Meanwhile, Armenia – against which these arms could be used –is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), whereas Azerbaijan is part of anti-Russian GUAM (which is more dead than alive but still not disbanded).

These arms supplies are obviously accelerating the march to war, creating tangible problems for Russia itself. If Azerbaijan dares attempt to restore its territorial integrity, Moscow will face a very difficult choice. It can maintain neutrality under the pretext that Nagorny Karabakh is legally part of Azerbaijan, so Armenian territory as such is not affected by hostilities. However, it is abundantly clear that this would deal a crushing blow to Russia’s prestige as a reliable ally not only in Armenia but throughout the post-Soviet space. Or Russia will have to sustain heavy losses fighting an enemy that it has itself armed to the teeth, which the Russian population will not understand or support.

Moscow has probably realized that it has committed a geopolitical blunder. Last year the commander of the 102nd Russian military base in Armenia Col. Andrei Ruzinsky gave a famous interview to Krasnaya Zvezda in which he said, “If the leaders of Azerbaijan decide to restore jurisdiction over Nagorny Karabakh, the military base may enter into armed conflict in accordance with the Russian Federation’s treaty obligations under the CSTO to maintain collective security.” His words caused a stir in Yerevan and especially in Baku, which immediately reasserted its argument that CSTO jurisdiction should not cover Nagorny Karabakh.

In reality, the colonel used vague language – “the base may enter into armed conflict” – suggesting that it may not enter the conflict. Everything depends on what orders arrive from Moscow. The officer in charge will be obliged to fulfill these orders, leaving the Kremlin to worry about questions of CSTO jurisdiction. Incidentally, this was the first official statement regarding Russia’s potential support for Armenia in a war for Karabakh. Obviously, the personal opinion of an active colonel would not appear in a semi-official army newspaper by accident, all the more so considering the gravity of the issue. Moscow was sending a clear message to Baku not to go to war over Nagorny Karabakh.

Yet again Russia itself has created a problem that it will have to resolve later. At some point, it will probably begin selling weapons to Armenia at domestic rather than export prices. Let’s hope that Baku will interpret the colonel’s words correctly, at least until the end of the Olympic Games in Sochi.

This article was originally published in Russian on

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