Book Chapter

Russian Military Engagement in the Caspian Region

Russian Military Engagement in the
Caspian Region

by Dov Lynch

Dov Lynch is a lecturer at the Department of War Studies in King''s College, London.

In the wake of the first Chechen war (1994-96) Russia scaled back its military commitments in the Caucasus, and relied more on diplomacy to project its influence in the region. However, since the outbreak of fighting in Dagestan in August and the accession to power of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia has returned to the view that a solution can be found to the Chechen question through the use of brute military force. Moscow seems to be under-estimating the fighting capacity of the Chechens and over-estimating the sustainability of the political support for such a war inside Russia. Russia''s actions are likely to lead to further instability in the Caucasus region as a whole. The second Chechen war has also exacerbated the debate within the Russian military over the priorities for spending the scarce resources available in the military budget.* * *

Regional normalization and Russian retrenchment: 1995-1999

The new states of the Caspian region have made considerable advances towards the consolidation of their internal and external security. The conflicts in Chechnya, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Tajik civil war have been regulated by cease-fire regimes. Since 1996, these states have diversified external sources of support. Russia has remained the hub of a network of security relations with Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, however, have developed significant ties with states outside the region, such as Turkey and the US. Even those states with close ties to Russia have developed relations with states outside the region, and most of them have joined NATO''s Partnership for Peace (PfP). These states have pursued increasing security relations amongst themselves that have excluded Russia.

Regional normalization has been founded on a retrenching Russian policy. Between 1992 and 1995, Russia had actively and coercively pursued Russian interests in the region. During this period, Russia sought to secure forward-basing rights throughout the Caspian region and to ensure the protection of the external borders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. The Russian ministry of defense (MOD) played a predominant role in policy-making, resulting in policies that viewed the region through a zero-sum lens and that favored the use of force.

The first Chechen war highlighted for many in Moscow the costs of an over-reliance on the military as a tool of policy. See Yurii Baturin, Interfax, Moscow, July 10, 1997, SU/2971, S1/1. Russian governments continued to pursue Russian interests in the Caspian region, which remained its declared "zone of vital interests." However, the tools of policy were adjusted - Russian leverage was exercised more through political and economic instruments than military. Since 1996 the Russian government seemed wary of heavy-handed intervention along the lines adopted in 1992-1994. In a period of economic dislocation, Moscow also increasingly felt the burden of peacekeeping operations and forward deployments. Following the first Chechen war, Russian forward-basing in the Caspian region was reduced. Russian border troops were withdrawn from Georgia, and cut throughout the region. This shift reflected changes in the structure of security policy-making. The strengthening of the ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) under Yevgenii Primakov, who took over the ministry in January 1996, brought the ministry back from the sidelines of important security issues. The Chechen war had highlighted the need for military reform after a decade of ineffectual discussion.

While its overall military engagement in the Caspian region was reduced, Russia remained deeply involved in regional conflicts. This involvement reflected enduring zero-sum perceptions of Russian influence, as well as a continuing belief in the utility of force, albeit in passive peacekeeping operations, as a means of leverage. None of the Caspian regional conflicts has been resolved. These conflicts reflect a combination of long-term grievances, identity-driven struggles, and weak political institutionalization in "inadequate states." Still, Russian peacekeeping contributed to entrenching the structural obstacles inhibiting conflict resolution. Cease-fire regimes have only frozen the conflicts without resolving the fundamental security dilemmas that fed the course of these armed struggles. The fact that these peacekeeping forces had played a role in the conflict remains at the forefront of the security calculations of the conflicting parties, reinforcing a prevailing sense of distrust. The widespread disenchantment with peacekeeping, as well as general misperceptions about its nature, was made clear to author in interviews with senior and junior officials in the government of the break-away region of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 1998. This was also present, although more attenuated, in interviews conducted by the author in Moldova, in June 1997. Moreover, during this period, Russia did not abandon its perceived strategic interests in the Caspian region. The Russian government remained intent on a military presence in Georgia and Tajikistan, and Russia established a formal alliance with Armenia.

Thus, despite a shift away from coercion after 1995, the role of Russian peacekeeping as an exacerbating factor in Caspian conflicts must be recognized. The result has been fragile cease-fire regimes in divided states with little prospects of enduring conflict resolution. The start of the second war in Chechnya has underlined the fundamental challenge that "frozen" conflicts pose to long term regional stabilization.

The Second Chechen War: Enduring Perceptions of the Utility of Force

The shift away from intervention resulted from recognition of constraining resource pressures and the declining utility of the use of force in internal conflicts. The strengthening of the MFA under Primakov was another important factor behind this shift. While resource pressures have remained (and increased), Russian policy under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has shown a renewed commitment to the use of force. In parallel, the crisis has bolstered the military in security decision-making.

One lesson assimilated from the first war concerns the control of information and the management of public opinion. On 10 October, Putin created an Information Center (Rosinfromtsentr) to replace the multiple official sources of information on the conflict and to ensure that all ministries speak, in the words of Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, "in one objective key." See analysis by Reuters, 10 October 1999, reported on David Johnson''s Russian List,, no. 3554. An important part of this information campaign has been the government''s insistence that it would not repeat the disastrous attack on Grozny in 1994 with poorly trained conscripts, but was calling upon only special forces of the MOD and MVD (interior ministry) and particularly air power. This information campaign has also been designed to influence international public opinion. At the key meeting of the Russian Security Council on 7 September, President Boris Yeltsin stated that there existed an international "environment of favorable media coverage," in the wake of terrorist attacks in Russia. Reported on Russian Public TV, 7 September 1999, SWB SU/3635, B/4. Yeltsin also said that this environment would fade as casualties resulting from Russian actions rose. As a result, timing has been a critical factor in Russian strategy - Russia had to react with force while a favorable media climate existed.

The time factor also highlights another lesson learnt from the first war. In 1994, the MOD did not expect fierce resistance to a Russian invasion. Following the incursion by Chechen groups into Dagestan in August 1999, Moscow has applied the lesson that armed groups can not be scared by empty threats into acquiescing to Russian demands. Russia has adopted a narrow military strategy, which has rejected negotiations, abandoned the 1996 Khasavyurt accords and 1997 peace treaty signed with the Chechen government, and indeed rejected the legitimacy of the government headed by Aslan Maskhadov.

Russian military actions in August showed deep problems, with Chechen forces able to retain the initiative. Reactions from Yeltsin and other members of government in early September were very critical. Yeltsin stated on 7 September, "why is it that we have lost a whole district in Dagestan? ...The only possible reason is negligence by the military." Yeltsin reported on Interfax, 7 September 1999, SU/3634, B/1. Independent accounts of Russian operations underlined the high casualties sustained by Russian forces. Russian military officers admitted that Russian troops were poorly equipped, with estimates that less than 30 percent of equipment was up to date. See Sergei Maev, MOD Armor Department, Interfax, 8 September 1999, SU/3635, B/6. Fighting in Dagestan also highlighted enduring problems of coordination between different types of forces. These problems reflected a failure of Russian intelligence to plan for further Chechen incursions. The General Staff reacted quickly to Yeltsin''s criticism. One week later, Yeltsin approved a "plan of specific measures" prepared by the MOD for resolving the conflict. See Itar-Tass, 14 September 1999, SU/3640, B/10. Since 14 September, Russian policy has become more coordinated, decisive and military-dominated. This policy has five dimensions.

First, the MOD has implemented a plan to partition Chechnya in order to create an advanced cordon sanitaire to prevent further attacks on Russia proper and reduce the territory that would need to be fortified. Russian forces in the North Caucasus have been reinforced with airborne troops (5 battalions), marine infantry troops (4 battalions), regular motor rifle and infantry units, and reinforced MVD units. See reports on Interfax, 14 September 1999, SU/3640, B/10; Interfax, 17 September 1999, SU/ 3644, B/10. While reports have estimated the size of this group at 50,000-90,000 strong, in reality the numbers stand at around 30,000, not including local MVD units, irregular militias, and Cossack groups, nor the Special Caucasian Border District. This grouping advanced into Chechnya after the start of an intensive air bombing campaign on 23 September. Interview in Vremya MN, reported on Federal News Service, 27 September 1999, SU/3651, B/1-3. In the forward zone and Russian borders with Chechnya, the government seeks to build several lines of defense, with MVD troops and local militia forces on the first line supported in depth by MOD sub-units. See the statement by Deputy Chief of the General Staff Valerii Manilov, Interfax, 20 September 1999, SU/3646, B/6. From this fortified zone, Russian forces have conducted offensive operations beyond the Terek river to retain the initiative in "eliminating" Chechen groups and contain them in ever-smaller areas.

The air campaign has targeted military bases and facilities, as well as industrial works, bridges, the Grozny airport, and Chechen oil refineries. The result has been large-scale destruction and a massive movement of the Chechen population towards neighboring regions. This campaign has sought to produce several effects: first, to further undermine the viability of the self-declared state; second, to destroy the material resources of Chechen forces and maintain them on the defensive; and third, to weaken the support of the Chechen population for extremist Chechen leaders. Russia also seeks to isolate Chechnya in the Caucasus. Moscow has cut off gas supplies and reduced electricity provisions to Chechnya. Attacks on the Chechen energy sector highlight the seriousness of Moscow''s desire to construct a new section of the oil pipeline from Baku to Novorossiisk. Transneft has invited Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to join a project to build the new section (283 km) over a period of six months for a total cost of $100 million. See discussion of Michael Lelyveld, RFE/RL, 8 October 1999, reported on Johnson''s List, no. 3552.

The second dimension of Russian policy resides in the creation of a pro-Russian regime in the Russian-occupied territories of Chechnya. In late September, Putin unveiled the parliament that had been elected in Russian-occupied territories in mid-1996 as the new State Council for Chechnya, led by Malik Saidullaev. The objective is to rebuild these "liberated" areas as a zone of peace and stability relative to the southern zone. In the words of the Chief of the General Staff Anatolii Kvashnin, "the Chechen people will decide themselves whom to support." Interfax, 8 October 1999.

The third dimension seeks to exploit North Caucasian reactions to developments in a manner supportive of Russian objectives. Chechen and so-called "Wahabi" activities in Dagestan since the first Chechen war have produced significant anti-Chechen feelings from Islamic traditionalists and other ethnic groups. See discussion by Anna Matveevna, "Caucasus in flames," The World Today (October 1999). As a result, local armed militias have been created in Dagestan with the assistance of the local authorities. These militias have also been supported by Moscow, which has integrated them into mopping-up actions. See report by Itar-Tass, 14 September 1999, SU/3641, B/9. Cossack self-defense units also have become active on the Stavropol-Chechen border, with support from the regional Department of Internal Affairs.

The fourth dimension has been regional and state-wide anti-terrorist operations. The Russian leadership has portrayed those who set off bombs in Russia, as well as the Chechen leadership, as "terrorists" with no genuine religion. Putin has coordinated a state-wide campaign entitled "Storm" to root out those responsible for the attacks. Putin statement to Duma, Russian Public TV and Interfax, 14 September 1999, SU/3641, B/1. In mid-September, Vladimir Rushailo and Anatolii Kvashnin launched Operation Whirlwind in North Ossetia and Ingushetia. In major cities, the government has forced the re-registration of all non-residents, focusing on Caucasian peoples.

Finally, the government has never rejected the possibility of negotiations. NTV, 29 September 1999, SU/3653, B/6. However, the conditions for talks have changed continually. These shifting conditions have undermined Maskhadov''s internal position, as he has consistently sought to meet with Yeltsin. At various points, Maskhadov has called upon Aleksandr Lebed, Eduard Shevardnadze, and NATO to mediate in this conflict. In contrast, Moscow has insisted that the conflict resides squarely within Russia''s domestic jurisdiction, rejecting any international involvement. Russia''s rejection of Maskhadov''s peace proposal of 11 October underlined Moscow''s desire to secure military objectives before entering into negotiations. Reported in RFE/RL Newsline, 11 October 1999.
This multi-dimensional policy contains deep problems. The fundamental problem resides in the premise upon which this policy is based. It is clear that Russia has assimilated the tactical lessons of the first Chechen war. However, it has failed to grasp its strategic lesson that the use of force, no matter how well tailored, has little utility in such an asymmetrical conflict. The dominant hard-line around Putin in the government seems to believe the contrary. Putin stated that the only solution to international terrorism was to destroy it at its base: "If we retreat today, they will come back tomorrow… By localizing the conflict, we will drive them into caves. That is exactly where they belong. And we will destroy them in those caves." Interview in Vremya MN, reported by Federal News Service, 27 September 1999, SU/3651, B/1-3.

It is precisely from the "caves" that Chechen forces will be able to conduct an effective guerrilla war. An interview with Shamil Basaev in September is noteworthy:

"We have declared the start of a guerrilla war. It will be the hemorrhaging of the Russian enemy forces.... We have greater knowledge of the region that we inhabit. The mountains and caves are our possession. The Russian aircraft and bombs will not succeed in destroying the mountains around us. Interview in French newspaper Al Watan Al Arabi, 3 September 1999, SU/3634, B/6-7."

The abilities of Chechen forces to strike deep into Russian-controlled territory were demonstrated in the first war. Despite Russian superiority in forces and local support, Chechen groups in Dagestan in August-September inflicted high casualties before retreating quite successfully. The success of the Russian advance to the Terek river was due largely to the organized retreat of Chechen forces. Russian forces have not yet met with sustained counter-offensive operations. It is simply a question of time before these occur. The battle-hardened and highly motivated Chechen forces are far better prepared in 1999 than they were in 1994. Even official Russian estimates have recognized their significance, estimated at 6,000-10,000 with armored fighting vehicles, limited air defense systems, and heavy arms. Interfax, 20 September 1999, SU/3646, B/6.

Even if these figures are over-stated, Chechen forces represent a formidable adversary for ill-equipped and poorly trained Russian troops. Russia does not have the required amount of forces to create an effective border defense system (estimated at around 300,000 troops by Pavel Felgengauer). As the conflict escalates, Russian casualties will increase. This highlights the second fundamental weakness of Russian policy. Following the series of bombs within Russia, most politicians have supported Putin''s decisive actions. However, this consensus is based on fragile foundations. Aleksei Arbatov succinctly described this consensus: "The political consensus which now exists in society between the parliament and the executive, between the center and the constituent parts of the Federation, and between political parties inside the parliament, does not envisage the carrying out of a large-scale military operation deep inside Chechen territory." Russia TV, 30 September 1999, SU/3655, B/5. As Russian forces lose the initiative on the ground, this consensus will unravel. The leaders of the North Caucasian Republics were the first to criticize Putin''s policy. The North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov and Ingush President Ruslan Aushev have called consistently for negotiations with the Chechen government. Primakov has argued against a large-scale ground operation because it would result in massive waves of refugees and casualties, and turn "world opinion" against Moscow. Since mid-October, Primakov has sought to distance himself clearly from Yeltsin and Moscow''s policy in Chechnya. Similarly, former premier Sergei Stepashin, who was fired in August, argued that a large-scale operation would be "extremely dangerous and may lead to a political catastrophe" as elections loomed. Interfax, 30 September, 1999. Prominent military commentators have underlined the bleak prospects facing Russia as the Chechen forces retaliate. See for example Moscow Times, 7 October 1999.

While this nascent wave of criticism is important, it is most revealing for what it has ignored. For the moment, Russian politicians have shown much disregard for the humanitarian tragedy occurring in Chechnya and the violations of the rights of Caucasian peoples in the anti-terrorist campaign. Moreover, criticism has not yet focused on the naive belief that Moscow will be able to create a legitimate pro-Russian regime. Also, it will be difficult for Moscow to convince refugees to return while the conflict continues. Only slowly has public criticism focused on the central lesson of the first war, that a narrow policy focusing on force will not resolve the "Chechen problem." Early on, Aleksandr Lebed drew this conclusion, evoking the Soviet Afghan experience as a parallel. Interfax, 12 October 1999, reported on Johnson''s List, no. 3559. Increasingly, the Russian press has drawn comparisons with Israeli policy in Southern Lebanon, in which a far better-prepared military has failed to quell terrorist groups.

Finally, the continuation of the air campaign has been at the cost of international support. In late September, the US State Department stated that it was inappropriate to bomb the Chechen population as they could not be held accountable for the actions of terrorists groups. The German government also has expressed concern for the loss of civilian lives, calling for political conflict resolution. The new EU Commissioner for External Affairs, Chris Patten, also called upon Russia to conduct negotiations, expressing concern over the "humanitarian consequences" of Russian policy. As predicted by Yeltsin, the favorable climate for Russian military actions is quickly dissipating. Implications

The implications of these developments can be seen at three levels: internal Russian politics; stability in the North Caucasus; and Russian engagement in the Caspian region.

Effects on Russian Politics:

The immediate effects on Russian politics are three-fold. First, Russian military actions reflect the resurgence of the MOD as a key player in security decision-making. The first war left the High Command reeling. However, the reshuffling of governments throughout 1999, combined with the emergence of serious internal threats, have created bureaucratic and substantive space in Russian politics for the military. Putin has played a critical role in crystallizing this resurgence. In seeking to avoid the political alienation of the military that occurred in the first war, Putin has allowed the military significant leeway in deciding critical questions of military policy. Rather than reining in the military and obliging them to adopt civilian views under political control, Putin aligned the government with military perspectives. The result has been a civilian-supported but military-dominated strategy towards Chechnya, emphasizing the massive use of force with little regard to political consequences. This gives rise to questions about the military''s willingness to halt operations in the future should Putin decide to freeze developments during elections or to pursue negotiations. In either case, the results will be distressing - an uncontrolled or deeply frustrated military.

Putin has also sought to secure military support through pledges of increasing the military budget (110 billion rubles per year) by 26 billion rubles (about $1 billion). See discussion in Izvestiya, "Everything for the front," 7 October 1999 and Reuters report on Johnson''s List, no. 3549, 7 October 1999. While supporting this decision, Finance Minister Mikhail Kosyanov has not been able to explain from where these funds would be drawn. Not unexpectedly, the increasing influence of the military has resulted in the heightening of tensions in the High Command, between Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and Chief of the General Staff Anatolii Kvashnin, over directions for military development. Following the first war, many officers have stressed the need to rebuild Russian conventional strength. However, in circumstances of finite resources, the defense minister and others in the Strategic Missile Troops have sought to prevent any redirecting of funds away from strategic nuclear forces. As a result, the debate over military doctrine has flared again. After discussions in the Security Council, the MOD published a draft doctrine in early October. This draft recognized an extensive list of internal threats facing Russia. However, it placed emphasis on the threats emerging from the wider international environment, particularly NATO. In response, the draft stressed the possible use of nuclear weapons to prevent war as well as to respond to large-scale conventional aggression against Russia and its allies. The National Security Concept is also under review. The revision of these two documents reflects the rise of military thinking on threat perception and specifically military responses to threats. But this thinking fails to grasp the real threats facing Russia and the more complex non-military means of addressing them.

This recent phase in the doctrinal debate highlights three factors. First, there remain deep divisions within the High Command about directions of military development. Second, the publication of the draft reflects the renewed confidence of the military, despite internal divisions, to call upon further resources from the government. As Putin stated, a consensus has emerged in Moscow on the "strengthening of the force component of the state." Russia Public TV, 6 October 1999, SU/3659, B/6. Third, the resurgence of the military in politics will undermine the implementation of military reform. The disbursement of additional funds to weapons development will distance the government from the real problems facing the armed forces, which reside in the poor conscript/contract base, desperate service conditions, and the absence of training. Prioritizing weapons procurement will lead to the further collapse of the armed forces.

Second, after a period of rapid advance, the absence of strategic planning by the government is becoming increasingly evident. The advance of Russian forces towards Grozny has highlighted divisions over strategic directions in Chechnya. Reports in the Russian press have noted Yeltsin and Sergeev''s initial reluctance to push beyond the Terek river, while Kvashnin, commanders on the ground, and other officers in the MOD all argued for retaining the strategic initiative through further advances. In either case, Russian forces will face great difficulties, with increasing indecisiveness in Moscow, poorly equipped forces, and an essential lack of reserve troops. Moscow''s refusal to understand the real local dynamics of the "Chechen problem," instead placing the conflict in the wider geopolitical context of a struggle against international terrorism, has narrowed its policy options to purely military responses. Putin''s unwillingness to talk to the Chechen authorities has left Moscow saddled with restive "liberated" areas and stalemated military choices.

Third, Russian policy will have direct impact on the parliamentary and presidential elections. For the moment, Putin has gained in public approval ratings. The prevalent sense of shock following the terrorist acts and Putin''s decisiveness has strengthened positive perceptions of the new government. This public support will fade with time, particularly if the fighting drags on and Russian casualties mount (and if further Chechen terrorist acts are not carried out). Developments in Chechnya are certain to affect the tone and substance of political discourse in the up-coming elections. The result will likely be a shift towards increasing polarization and a weakening of the "center" in the elections.

Effects on the North Caucasus:

Within the North Caucasus, Russian policy towards Chechnya has had three immediate effects. First, the ground operation and air campaign have created a massive wave of Chechen internally displaced persons (IDPs) towards neighboring republics and regions. As of mid-October, an estimated 170,000 refugees had fled Chechnya, with 155,000 going to Ingushetia (population 340,000), 3,200 to Dagestan (mainly Nogais and Kumyks), 3,000 to Stavropol, 3,000 to North Ossetia, several hundred to Azerbaijan, and 2,000 to Georgia. The strain of the IDPs on the host republics and regions is very serious. Neighboring areas have called for the closing of their borders to further flows. In reality, there are very few formal borders to close. Basic food and health care provisions are already overwhelmed throughout the region. It is uncertain how the financially strapped government will be able to prevent further humanitarian problems as the winter approaches. While the conflict is ongoing, it is unlikely that the IDPs will let themselves be repatriated in significant numbers to Russian-occupied territories.

Second, Moscow''s support to local self-defense forces will have dangerous and unpredictable results. These groups have been formed around specific ethnic, local, or Cossack affiliations. In effect, Moscow is supporting the privatization of the use of force in a region characterized by extreme economic problems, political and ethnic tensions, and religious differences. Far from assisting Moscow in the region, this policy may lead to regional destabilization and inter-ethnic conflict. Tensions have already emerged in Dagestan between Akhin Chechen and Lak in the Novolakskoe District with the formation of local anti-Chechen self-defense forces. Local militias have played an important role in assisting MVD forces in "mopping up" operations in Dagestan, providing ample opportunity for the settling of inter-ethnic scores. Similar circumstances may emerge surrounding the refugees in North Ossetia, Stavropol and Ingushetia. Also, renewed combat and the large numbers of displaced persons may heighten authoritarian tendencies in regional politics. For example Mayor Mikhail Kuzmin''s ban on public demonstrations, Itar-Tass, 13 September 1999, SU/3640, B/4. In a region rife with inter-ethnic tensions and unresolved conflicts, Russian policy will increase regional instability and accelerate the weakening of central power in the regions. This process may spread to other regions and Republics, with the creation of local self-defense forces and independent military policies.

Third, Russian policy in Chechnya highlights the general weaknesses of its regional policy. The government has not demonstrated an ability for conflict prevention in this region. Government reactions towards the rise of tensions in the republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia since the 16 May 1999 elections have been reactive and ineffective. Vyacheslav Mikhailov has recognized the danger of serious "inter-ethnic collision" in the republic. Itar-Tass, 18 September 1999, SU/3644, B/14. Putin admitted that the situation was "getting worse" and that the Republic was "becoming criminalized." Russia Public TV, 5 September 1999, SU/3632, B/9. This statement reflects the prevalent lack of understanding in Moscow about the nature of instability in the North Caucasus. Following Vladimir Semenov''s inauguration as president of Karachaevo-Cherkessia in September, deputies from the Abazin and Cherkess minorities in the republic declared the creation of an autonomous parliament, as well an autonomous Cherkess Republic. For years, tensions have existed between the dominant Karachai and the "smaller" populations. These latest developments represent a heightening of these tensions and reflect the impotence of Russia''s regional policy.

Effects on the Caspian region

The effects of this conflict on the Caspian Region have been direct and indirect. First, Moscow has placed pressure on surrounding states to prevent the transit of men and weapons across their territory to Chechnya. The MFA issued a strong warning to the Georgian and Azerbaijani governments to prevent transfers of weapons and volunteers from their territories into Dagestan and Chechnya. Reported in Kavkaskaya Press, Tbilisi, 22 September 1999, SU/3647, B/12. In late September, Deputy Interior Minister Igor Zubov said that "[Russia has] especially serious grievances against Turkey" as a base of external support to Chechen forces. The MFA also issued a warning to the Turkmen government to take measures to ensure that its territory is not used for the transit of volunteers from Afghanistan. The Russian Federal Border Service also called upon the Georgian government to allow for the deployment of Russian border troops on the Chechen-Georgian border. See statement by Deputy Director of the Border Service, Nikolai Reznichenko, Interfax, 28 September 1999, SU/3653, B/11. Their geographical proximity to the North Caucasus, and the transportation of Caspian oil through that region, has placed these Caspian states in a quandary in which Russian pressure cannot be ignored. As the conflict escalates, Russian pressure on these states will increase.

The start of the second war may herald a return to Russian military activism in the Caspian region, as witnessed in 1993 through indirect and direct interventions into these states. Azerbaijan and Georgia face in total three unresolved secessionist conflicts within their borders. The lack of conflict resolution gives rise to the possibility of Russia using these de facto mini-states as renewed leverage. With the strengthening of the military perspective in Moscow, this development cannot be ruled out. Despite a period of military retrenchment in the Caspian region between 1995-1999, the vehicles for renewed engagement exist in the shape of Russian bases in Georgia, alliances with Armenia and Tajikistan, and border troop deployments in Armenia, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. In the medium term, the rise of the military voice in policy-making in Moscow may lead to the polarization of the nascent alliance system in the Caspian region - with increasing Russian military engagement in her close allies; greater pressure on states seen as hostile to Russia; and the heightening of regional arms races (nota bene: the Russian provision of four MiG-29s to Armenia in late October). The recent announcement of a Russia-Belarus "regional military coalition" may set a precedent for renewed military engagement throughout the CIS region. Regional polarization would undermine further such projects as the EU TRACECA transport corridor intended to integrate the economies of the region.

Secondly, Moscow has sought to compel surrounding states to support Russian policy to isolate Chechnya. In this respect, the development and transportation of energy from the Caspian region is likely to increase as a primary focus of Russian policy. Russian government perspectives on these issues have followed strict zero-sum calculations. Until 1999, however, Russian policy was uncoordinated. The conflict in Chechnya may produce increasing state coordination and control in this area. The invitation by the Russian pipeline company Transneft to the Caspian states to participate in the construction of a pipeline bypass through Dagestan falls in line with this strategy. Failing their participation, Transneft has pledged to create a "Caspian-Caucasus Pipeline Joint Stock Company" on the basis of government funds and the mandatory participation of Russian oil companies. In this perspective, Russian policy will more actively seek to prevent the construction of a Trans-Caspian gas line to Turkey, and stress the Russo-Turkish Blue Stream project. The MFA recently condemned US policy in this area as "unscrupulous competition," stating that it may affect the nature of bilateral Russian-US relations. See report by Yurii Chubchenko, Kommersant, 19 August 1999.

Thirdly, more indirectly, renewed conflict in the North Caucasus will be accompanied by an increase in crime and arms smuggling throughout the region. This development will increase the pressure on already overwhelmed law enforcement and border protection organs in the Caspian states.

Finally, the start of the second Chechen war may produce shifts in Russian foreign policy, after a period of military quiescence following Primakov''s appointment. However, the testiness of the military during the Kosovo conflict produced the "dash" of a Russian armored column to Pristina airport ahead of the NATO occupation forces. The strengthening of the military since then may lay the foundations for a wider transformation in Russian policy, which would be reflected in critical areas of international security - such as Russian participation in NATO-led activities in Europe, arms control agreements with the US, and deepening military ties with China and Iran. This transformation would reflect the more aggressive pursuit of a "multipolar world" and lead potentially to the emergence of a "Cold Peace."

Long Term Prospects:

The normalization of the Caspian region since 1995 was presaged on a pragmatic and retreating Russian policy. A deep shift in Russian policy may threaten this trend, leading to internal instability and external polarization in the region. However, while developments in the short-term raise these possibilities, Russia faces deep constraints on renewed military engagement and activism. Beyond the short term, Russian policy in Chechnya is likely to accelerate the weakening of Russia''s position throughout the region and hasten its military withdrawal. Four dimensions of this weakening are important in the long term.
First, the strengthening of the military in Russian politics has occurred within restrictions, and is likely to remain limited. Across the political spectrum, a consensus has emerged on increasing military spending. However, all major politicians have publicly set limits on increases. Externally, Russian military disengagement has continued throughout the Caspian region. Despite recent tensions in the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan resulting from Uzbek fundamentalist groups, Sergeev stated that Russia will not send troops to support Kyrgyz and Uzbek actions. In a visit to Tashkent in September, Sergeev called for the creation of a Russian-Uzbek-Kazakh-Kyrgyz task force to destroy the rebel formations. However, he stated that Central Asian troops will represent the bulk of the task force, with Russia providing only military-technical assistance. The head of the Federal Border Service, Konstantin Totskii, pledged to continue the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kyrgyzstan despite the danger of increased tensions. Moreover, the "regional military coalition" with Belarus remains a symbolic measure without any substance. These developments highlight the government''s recognition of deeply limited military resources. As the war continues, Russian military needs in the North Caucasus will accelerate military withdrawals from abroad, including from peacekeeping operations.

Second, the MFA under Igor Ivanov (who took over from Primakov in September 1998) has not been eclipsed by the MOD, as had happened with Kozyrev in 1993-95. In policy towards the North Caucasus, the MFA has carefully aligned itself with the prime minister. However, Ivanov has continued to pursue pragmatic policies. The MFA has stressed Russia''s desire for a stable Caucasus, linking Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh with Chechnya. In early October, the MFA condemned the Abkhaz presidential elections as "unacceptable and illegitimate." Beyond the Caspian region, the MFA has raised the possibility of renewing official contacts with NATO in 2000. The continuing role of the MFA raises the possibility that the war in the North Caucasus will be de-linked from Russian policy towards the Caspian region and wider foreign policy. The strengthening of the MOD has not yet occurred at the expense of the MFA in wider foreign policy-making.

Third, Moscow''s focus on Chechnya and its continuing disengagement from the Caspian region may strengthen the ability of the Caspian states to sustain consolidation, allowing them more room for maneuver. In Central Asia, the weakening of Russia''s position has already resulted in an increasingly active Uzbek role in regional security, witnessed in its air bombing campaign in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan since mid-1999. In the South Caucasus, developments in Chechnya are likely to strengthen non-Russian regional coalitions, as well as security ties with states and organizations outside the CIS.

Finally, Russian policy in Chechnya will only exacerbate the weakness of its position in the North Caucasus and other parts of the Federation. Putin has pledged to "see (the war) through to the end." Russia TV, 6 October 1999, SU/3660, B/3. Russian commentators have already started to question the "end" sought in Putin''s policy. Academic and former Yeltsin advisor Emil Pain has argued that it is a folly to use force to eliminate "rebels." Vremya MN, 7 September 1999. In his view, not only is this policy extremely costly, it will also weaken Russia''s wider presence throughout the region. Pain maintained that the "end" will lead inevitably to negotiations with the Chechen authorities - which will be all the more humiliating for Moscow as these could been held much earlier. Grigorii Yavlinsky has argued that "Russia may not survive another defeat in the North Caucasus." RIA News Agency, 6 October 1999, SU/3660, B/6. The fundamental flaw in Putin''s policy is that it can but lead to defeat. The result will be a polarized and frustrated Russia, increasingly weakened both internally and externally.

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For Academic Citation: Lynch, Dov. “Russian Military Engagement in the Caspian Region.” .