Russia in the Caucasus

Kremlin and St. Basil's

(International Relations and Security Network (ISN) – – Aglaya Snetkov for the ISN – February 25, 2013)

Aglaya Snetkov is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS).

Despite the attempts by Western powers to penetrate the Caucasus, Russia continues to exert unmatched influence over the region. In today’s Questions and Answers presentation, the CSS’ Aglaya Snetkov outlines some of the differences between Moscow’s North and South Caucasus policies.

What are Russia’s core security challenges and objectives in the Northern Caucasus?

Russia’s contemporary security challenges in the North Caucasus date back to the first Chechen war (1994-96), and more recently to the restart of the large-scale military campaign in Chechnya in 1999. However, despite (and often directly as a result of) Russia’s policies in the region, the situation in the North Caucasus remains insecure.

While conditions in Chechnya have to a large extent stabilized under the iron-fist rule of President Ramzan Kadyrov, the situation in the rest of the region remains tense. Instability, societal insecurity and terrorist attacks since the mid-2000s have now spread to the rest of the North Caucasus, particularly Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, with the Caucasus Emirate ­ a pan-Caucasian Islamist terrorist organization – continuing its operations in the region. In addition, poor economic, political and social conditions, as well as arbitrary violence on the part of the federal and local forces, all serve to destabilize the region even further. Recent incidents in Stavropol Krai demonstrate that violence may now also be spreading beyond the confines of the Northern Caucasus.

Indeed, large scale terrorist attacks in the rest of Russia continue with regularity. The most notable incident in recent years was the 2011 bombing of the international arrivals terminal at Domodedovo airport, Moscow. Terrorism-related crime, primarily in the North Caucasus, remains high year on year, with the Russian authorities recording 365 terrorism related crimes in 2011. The region has also witnessed a number of high profile killings and attacks on politicians, Muslim clerics and journalists. The Russian authorities as well as independent analysts alike are now also concerned over possible terrorist attacks during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Accordingly, Russia continues to face major terrorist and security challenges in the region, with no particular end in sight.

What are Russia’s core foreign policy objectives in the Southern Caucasus?

Russia has had a long presence in the South Caucasus. However, while Russia is keen on retaining its influence in this region, its actual ambitions and relations towards each of the South Caucasus states are rather distinct. Since the early 1990s, its closest ally in the region has been Armenia, the poorest state in the region. Despite Yerevan’s attempts to balance a pro-Western and a pro-Russian position, Russia remains Armenia’s main trading partner and source of economic and military support.

In contrast, relations between Russia and Azerbaijan have ebbed and flowed over recent times. Particularly tense in the 1990s with frictions over Russia’s support of Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and the energy and pipeline issues, more recently, relations have thawed.

The most turbulent and problematic relationship for Russia has been with Georgia, coming to a head in the 2008 Russia-Georgia war over South Ossetia. At their core, Russia’s objectives in Georgia are motivated by realpolitik. It wants to retain its influence over Georgia, by curtailing its pro-Western ambitions, and by exerting pressure on its domestic sphere by supporting the independence movements in Georgia’s two secessionist enclaves: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It also seeks to prevent any future NATO-expansion that would include Georgia. Aside from hard geopolitical objectives, relations are often also tense for much pettier reasons. Issues such as the personal animosity between Putin and Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili, or provocative posturing and gesturing, exacerbate already tense relations. A potential window of opportunity has, however, opened up in the last few months, with the election of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a wealthy businessman with strong connections in Russia, as Georgia’s prime minister in October 2012. Immediately following his election, Ivanishvili offered Russia an olive branch. However, with Putin back in charge in the Kremlin, Russia has so far not reciprocated. However, future positive developments in the relationship should not be ruled out.

How does Moscow plan to achieve these objectives?

In the North Caucasus, Russia’s current federal policy appears to be stuck in a rut, veering from one ‘tried and failed’ initiative to the next. Unfortunately, even new initiatives such as meetings between Salafi and Sufi leaders in Dagestan have not succeeded in quashing the violence on the ground.

In Chechnya, despite a general stabilization and mass rebuilding program, particularly in the capital Grozny, concerns remain over the Kadyrov regime. The personalization of the regime around Kadyrov, its arbitrary use of violence and a program aimed at the revival of Chechen cultural and religious ‘traditions’ are all cause for concern. In fact, under Kadyrov Chechnya seems to be moving even further away from the Russian legal and cultural space, particularly with regard to the role and place of women, whose freedom has been severely curtailed in recent years.

Russia will only be able to address the currently instability in the North Caucasus if it first overcomes much broader structural, but also leadership, challenges, which have up till now ensured that Moscow remains a weakened power with a growing terrorist threat inside its territory. Until this occurs, the question remains ­ for how long will Russia retain its effective power and governance over the region?

In the South Caucasus, by contrast, Russia appears to have adopted a ‘carrot and stick’ approach ­ with the stick usually reserved for Georgia, and the carrots for Armenia. Indeed, regardless of the legality or otherwise of its actions during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Russia clearly set out to teach Georgia a lesson. As revealed by the then-President Medvedev in 2011, Russia’s actions in 2008 were primarily designed to curtail NATO’s ambitions to expand into the South Caucasus. In this respect, this approach seems to have worked (at least for now). However, the 2008 campaign also demonstrated Russia’s military inefficiencies and weaknesses, and it seems rather unlikely that there will be another major confrontation between Russia and Georgia in the near future. And indeed, if Ivanishvili does manage to craft a rapprochement with Russia, perhaps relations between the two countries may even become less securitized and hostile in the future.

In relation to Armenia, Russia tends to use its security and economic weight in order to ensure that it toes the line. Indeed, not only does Russia allot subsidies to Armenia, it also provides it with cheap oil and gas imports, at the same time as Russian companies are heavily investing in the Armenian energy sector. In the security sector, Russia has also retained its direct military presence through its 102nd military base, and by patrolling the Armenian border with Iran and Turkey alongside Armenian counterparts. Armenia is currently involved in a number of Russian-led regional projects. By contrast, Azerbaijan has been able to use its energy resources to craft a much more independent foreign policy. And while relations with Russia have broadened in recent years, Moscow does not have much leverage over Azerbaijan.

In December of last year, Hilary Clinton warned of Russian intentions to “re-Sovietize” Eastern Europe and Central Asia through instruments like the Eurasian Union. What do you make of this statement in view of Russia’s policy in the Northern and Southern Caucasus?

Putin’s project proposal to create a Eurasian Union by 2015 sent shock-waves through political and policy circles in the region. Currently, this idea remains rather vague, but it shouldn’t be seen as attempt by Putin to create an USSR 2.0 or even to establish a pan-regional structure like the Commonwealth of Independent States. It does, however, highlight a series of potential future trends, some of which might have a direct impact on the South Caucasus. First, the region now plays a greater role in Russia’s foreign policy ambitions than even in the mid-2000s. Second, looking at recent regional developments ­ Russia’s goals are now geographically much narrower and more defined than in the 1990s. The focus is primarily on building stronger and mutually-beneficial, regional institutional arrangements with key regional economic players such as Ukraine or Kazakhstan (until now Russia has failed to successfully integrate Ukraine into its regional institutional arrangements) and its closest allies, such as Belarus and Armenia. The goal, therefore, is a ‘coalition of the willing’ not ‘an alliance of the coerced’. Third, in the South Caucasus, these projects really only involve Armenia, since neither Georgia nor Azerbaijan currently fit within Russia’s long-term regional integration agenda. Armenia is already an observer state in the Eurasian Economic Community and its leadership has already expressed its interest in the idea of a future Eurasian Union, particularly in economic terms.

A pertinent question that does arise in relation to regional institutional arrangements and the South Caucasus is what happens in the event of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. This is a much more likely scenario than a repeat of the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. Indeed, over the last few years, Russia has been progressively beefing up the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a regional structure that provides security guarantees for its members, which include Armenia. So, in the event of future conflict in the South Caucasus, Russia and the CSTO might find itself with no choice but to provide military assistance to Armenia. Whether, this will happen in practice remains unknown.

Therefore, while Russia’s aspiration to build stronger regional institutional arrangements at this stage do not automatically or directly impact upon Azerbaijan or Georgia ­ they might very well suffer from indirect spill-over effects.

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