Russia’s Caucasus Wars: The Wrecks of Empire and the Wars of Decolonization

Stephen Blank. American Foreign Policy Interests. Volume 34, Issue 4, July-August 2012.

The North and South Caucasus (or Transcaucasus) are among the most volatile places in the world today. The potential for conflict among or between its states and non-state terrorist movements is high, with conflicts either occurring or frozen. Russia, although by no means the only factor behind these conflicts, is clearly one of the governments most responsible for the current state of unrest that characterizes these two regions. This article examines Russia’s current dispositions and strategies in regard to the conflicts in these regions and the high stakes for which Moscow is playing here even though it is clearly incapable of imposing a legitimate and enduring regional security order throughout the North and South Caucasus.

Testifying on threats to U.S. interests in 2010, Director of Central Intelligence Dennis Blair told Congress that the unresolved conflicts of the Caucasus provide the most likely flashpoints in the Eurasia region. Moscow’s expanded military presence in and political [and] economic ties to Georgia’s separatist regions of South Ossetia and sporadic low-level violence increase the risk of miscalculation or overreaction leading to renewed fighting.

As of 2012, that is still the case. Indeed, if anything, the threat of such conflicts has grown and Moscow’s unrelenting determination to exercise an exclusive sphere of influence over the Caucasus remains one of the principal (although by no means the only major) causes of that threat. While it would take a book to unravel all the potential sources of conflict in both the North and South Caucasus, this article focuses on recent manifestations of Russia’s policy there, a policy that can only be described as neo-imperial or neo-colonialist. Indeed, the conflicts that currently roil the Caucasus are either the result of Russia’s new neo-colonialism or owe much to the legacy of empire (not only Russian) in the Caucasus and can duly be characterized, along with the crises directly involving Russia, as the wrecks of empire.

In his recent brilliant monograph, Alexander Etkind emphasizes that Russia’s history is one of self- or internal colonization. Russian rulers related and, as Etkind observes, still relate to their subjects as if they were the masters of a colonial government ruling over subjects who were both alien to them and not to be regarded as autonomous human beings. Furthermore, borrowing Hannah Arendt’s term of “imperial boomerang,” he notes that the practices of colonial administration employed by these rulers in Russia’s peripheries were often particularly brutal, corrupt, and brought misrule to Russia’s heartlands. Etkind’s framework applies with great saliency, if not poignancy, to the North and South Caucasus—the most war-prone region of the former Soviet empire. Here, especially in the North Caucasus, the imperial boomerang is in full flight—visible to all. In both the North and South Caucasus (or Transcaucasia for the latter), Russia’s continuing neo-colonial approach has been a major, though not the only, contributor to the current pervasive unresolved wars and ethno-religious conflicts. And certainly the legacy, if not the current example of Russian governance, has contributed greatly to the overarching authoritarianism that characterizes the Caucasus, north and south. But, as the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-1991 marked a major, albeit incomplete, decolonization of the entire Caucasus, the wars and potential wars that are now occurring there should properly be seen as wars of decolonization concerned with the future structure of both domestic and international politics in the Caucasus. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that these wars and the threat of war throughout both the North and South Caucasus will last for quite some time. Although the reasons for saying this are many, two simple observations stand out. In the north, an insurgency and corresponding Russian counterinsurgency are under way and are only the latest of two-and-a-half centuries of such wars—indicating a fundamental and enduring failure of Russia to establish the legitimacy of its rule. Meanwhile, in the Transcaucasus, no true political process is currently operating to deal with or resolve the multiple conflicts that continue to fester.

Indeed, these wars have already lasted a long time. In Chechnya and the surrounding North Caucasus, wars have been ongoing since 1994; in Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, an unresolved war began in 1992. And, during 2010-2011, the supposedly frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh saw a rising number of provocations and incidents that could trigger a new hot war. Georgia’s wars, perhaps the best-known crises in the area, also began in 1992. Russian forces supported the Abkhaz insurgents and, in 1993, forced the tottering Shevarnadze government in Georgia to accept Russian forces as supposed peacekeepers. This led to a situation that, by 1995, was clearly recognized as signifying that the survival of the Georgian state within its original territorial bounds depended on Moscow’s goodwill and its military. By that time, what was also increasingly clear was that such “peace-creating operations,” to use the Russian term (Mirotvorcheskie Operatsii), were integral to Russia’s project to preserve its hegemony in the former Soviet Union as a whole and exclude any foreign military or political influence from those areas.

Moreover, the West had already by then demonstrated its incapacity and unwillingness to expend political capital to pacify the Caucasus. Thus, that denouement and the present situation there highlight both the accuracy of Blair’s warning and also the unresolved contradiction in his testimony, namely that while Russia’s policies aggravate local conflict situations and this region is of great importance to European security, the West, either collectively or acting as individual governments, is unwilling to pursue the defense of those interests with the vigor needed.

The North Caucasus

In the North Caucasus, which remains part of the Russian Federation, Etkind’s framework is particularly useful. The violence that spawned the current insurgencies in the North Caucasus had already begun in 2002-2003, growing out of the war in Chechnya. But that violence has clearly evolved into a religious war led by the Caucasus Emirate (CE) rather than mainly or purely nationalist insurgencies—which is how the Chechen War began. This does not mean that more purely nationalist goals are absent among insurgents and residents of the area; indeed, some analysts believe that, despite the overtly jihadist character of the insurgencies, nationalist sentiments among the local populace are growing. But the leadership and ideology of these insurgents is firmly in the hands of the CE—whose message of religious war resembles that of Al Qaeda, not that of traditional North Caucasian nationalists or religious insurgents.

Yet, the primary cause for this insurgency is Russian misrule throughout the region after 2000. While the North Caucasus resisted Chechen efforts to destabilize it in 1999, Russia’s conduct of the Second Chechen War that began in 1999 was crucial to the provocation of the current uprising and showed Etkind’s boomerang at work. Paradoxically, the causes for this failure to stabilize the North Caucasus lie in the motives that drove Moscow’s successful counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign in Chechnya. That campaign’s ultimate goal was not just to salvage the state but, rather, its total reconstruction with an ever-more-centralized autocratic and authoritarian regime run from Moscow. In addition, COIN was increasingly driven by the personal acquisitiveness and greed of its ranking officials to the point where today corruption is the system and brutality, misrule, and harsh, violent repression the norm, particularly in the North Caucasus. Accordingly, the two principal causes of the ensuing resurgence of violence in an already troubled environment are the destruction of mechanisms of local self-governance in favor of the corrupt, self-seeking toadies of Moscow and the brutal anti-Islamic policies of Russian leaders that aggravated tensions in an area with difficult economic conditions that adjoins the insurgency.

That these trends were directly responsible for the upsurge of violence was already clear by 2006, if not earlier. Gordon Hahn observed then that Putin’s policies of creating “a power vertical” and dismantling the residual traces of genuine federalism established by Boris Yeltsin lay at the heart of the insurgency’s causes. These measures included the following steps undertaken by the Putin regime through 2007:

  • creation of new, extra-constitutional districts as a means of facilitating federal interference in regional politics;
  • new legal requirements that rendered federal law supreme in all spheres of life that it addresses;
  • in cases of conflict between federal and regional law, a “federal intervention” mechanism was put in place that allowed the president (with court approval) to remove a regional governor or a republic’s president and call elections for a regional parliament should they refuse to follow court findings;
  • termination of power-sharing treaties between the federal government and individual Russian regions, thus effectively ending regional autonomy;
  • reorganization of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, into a legislative body appointed by regional officials, half of whom are appointed by the Russian president;
  • recentralization of budget revenues; and
  • presidential appointment, rather than popular election, of regional governors and republic presidents (and possibly even city mayors and district heads).

In other words, the use of the Chechen War to reinstitute Putin’s cherished vertical of power (Vertikal’ Vlasti) led to the return of a traditional internal colonialist pattern of rule that incited unrest when applied to a twenty-first-century problem and in an environment that could no longer be governed in the old ways. These policies triggered greater nationalism in several North Caucasus Muslim republics. Absent democratic federalism, Russia’s complex ethno-geography and administrative structure are likely to produce outliers. In Russia’s Muslim republics, those outliers tend to be Muslim ethnic groups, creating a pool of potential allies and recruits for radical Islamists. In Dagestan, Putin’s harmonizing of regional and federal laws—and his (re)interpretation of the Russian Constitution—triggered the dismantling of Dagestan’s “consociational” political system that had previously preserved interethnic harmony among Dagestan’s many small ethnic groups through pluralistic representation in the executive and legislative branches. As a result, by 2003, Dagestan’s two largest Muslim groups, Avars and Dargins, were on the brink of a major interethnic conflict because of disputes over power-sharing within the region’s ruling State Council. Simultaneously, the newly empowered Silovye Struktury (power structures) were freed from any accountability either to local or central legislatures or even quasi-democratic officials and organizations. Having no standing other than their loyalty to Moscow (because Moscow had ousted any truly popular and locally authoritative figures), these members of these new power structures proceeded to engage in a veritable orgy of corruption and brutal anti-Islamic repression. Again, Hahn is instructive on this point. In the wake of the Beslan tragedy (Chechen terrorists invaded an elementary school in September 2004; the Russian attempt to liberate the school by force went horribly wrong and resulted in several children’s deaths).

Putin has called for—and the Russian Duma has prepared—new legislation granting the Kremlin vastly greater police and security powers in the name of “counterterrorism.” Given the inherently anti-democratic instincts of Russia’s security services, this new leeway has inevitably reinforced heavy-handed law enforcement practices. In mid-September 2004, for example, Moscow police conducted a series of “counterterrorism” sweeps that resulted in the detention of more than 11,000 suspects. Authorities in the Moscow Oblast rounded up about 2,500 unregistered people during similar sweeps. Such tactics have been particularly aggressive in Russia’s Muslim republics, exacerbating the alienation of Muslims from the Russian state. Meanwhile, Vladimir Ustinov, Russia’s Prosecutor-General, has publicly proposed the detention of the families of hostage-takers, noting the policy could be broadened to families of all “terrorists,” however that might be defined. And, according to Ustinov, the round-up of family members of terrorists should be “accompanied by a demonstration to these terrorists of what might happen to (their families).” This proposal has met with widespread approval in the Russian Duma. Russian authorities have also undertaken several assimilationist policies, including bans on ethnic and religious parties and on non-Cyrillic alphabets as well as an attempt to establish mandatory courses on Russian Orthodox Christian culture in schools. In this political climate, grassroots targeting of Muslims has predictably expanded, with cases of assault and harassment rising exponentially.

The reaction was quick. By 2005, the entire region was on the brink of a massive outbreak of violence on top of what had already resulted from the impact of Putin’s policies. These consequences of Putin’s policies made themselves felt after 2002-2003. Since 2006, Moscow has reaped what it has sown. Indeed, by then, some 250,000 Russian military forces, mainly members of the Internal Forces of the Ministry of Interior (VVMVD) along with units of the regular armed forces, were present in the Caucasus. But Moscow has given little sign that it understands the problems that it has created for itself.

This problem is inherent in the attempt to subordinate all organized sociopolitical life to the dictates of state security. Two Canadian champions of the human security agenda are compelled to admit that

In a world where “security” seems to be overwhelming all other normative frameworks, to treat all these important issues as security concerns has actually come to cloud justifications for action and risks undermining important mechanisms of legal constraint.

Similarly, this author has repeatedly argued that the failure to subject defense policy and the institutions responsible for it to authentic civilian democratic control creates a constant temption for war either in Russia or around it. The record of five wars in and around Russia since 1991, the coups of 1991, 1993, two Chechen wars between 1994 and 1996, and since 1999—plus the war with Georgia in 2008 that Russia instigated, not to mention Yeltsin’s suspected election tampering in 1996, 1998, and 1999, all highlight the danger of this trend. And, to judge from local press reports, the Russian military forces are to a considerable degree out of control and committing indiscriminate acts of forceful repression throughout the North Caucasus. Moscow has more than enough military in place to suppress the insurgency, but its state structures are uncoordinated, anti-Islamic, and either resort to indiscriminate violence or are massively corrupt, patrimonial, and anti-Islamic. Accordingly, they undo any good resulting from attempts at improved governance.

The consequences of Russia’s perennial threat inflation and devaluation of the concept of security were not long in coming. An unchecked process that subsumes ever-more spheres of organized social life under state security also results in an unending spiral of politicization that may make dealing with these threats more difficult while also corroding civil society and democratic politics. Every conceivable object of policy becomes a security question and thus overpoliticized, which in Russia means that it is then removed from public debate. Yet, at the same time and paradoxically, but not surprisingly to any student of Russian institutional history, the effort to impose uniform systematization of government inevitably breeds its own centrifugal forces that mock those aspirations. The efforts to reimpose strict centralization based on the wars in the North Caucasus validate Etkind’s arguments.

All these trends have become visible in the North Caucasus since 2005. While these conflicts go on with no end in sight and jeopardize Moscow’s aspirations to host the Sochi Olympics in 2014 and its larger geopolitical ambitions, they are hardly the only conflicts in the area. The stakes of this war for Russia are immense. Moscow clearly recognized and still believes, probably rightly, that in Chechnya and in the conflict in the North Caucasus that the terrorists’ goal was the breakup of the Russian state. President Putin even invoked a domino theory. To this day, he believes (probably correctly) that Russia’s territorial integrity is at stake in the North Caucasus.

Furthermore, as evidence arises of the spread of Islamic agitation into Russia’s Tatar and Bashkir provinces along the Volga and in the Ural Mountains, many elites follow Putin in holding to something like a domino theory of the conflict. Accepting the secession of the North Caucasus would generate pressure for similar religious or possibly ethnic insurgencies in these Volga-Ural areas in Russia’s heartland. Russia’s elite fully understands and accepts this point and understands, too, that secession would trigger demands for a change in the government in Moscow. Given the presence of this version of Islamist ideology in Bashkiria and Tatarstan (even though they are currently at peace), this threat or perception of threat is certainly not a groundless one.

Moreover, the idea that Russia’s integrity could successfully be breached gives the Russian elites grounds for believing that Russia is not only no longer a great power, but that it is also in danger of disintegrating into a host of “appanage princedoms.” Such outcome spells the end of Russia as a great power. Since the elites’ understanding of Russia as a great power rests at least in part on Moscow’s ability to form a sphere of influence (or to use Carl Schmitt’s term, a “Grossraum“) in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the western borderlands of the former Soviet Union, successful secession in the North Caucasus would call into question the entire domestic and foreign policy project of the state. If the North Caucasus becomes effectively independent of Russia, any hope of restroring this “Grossraum” in the Caucasus would go by the board. As Marie Broxup wrote in 2001:

The North Caucasus will play a decisive role in the political future of Transcaucasia as a whole. It is indeed difficult to imagine viable and effectively independent states in Georgia, Armenia, or Azerbaijan without the active political cooperation of the North Caucasian autonomous republics or at least their neutrality as buffer-states between Russia and Transcaucasia, and hence Turkey and Iran.

Failure to win this phase, coupled with mutiplying signs of public anger at North Caucasians and unwillingness to spend heavily on behalf of developing the region, could undermine public support for Russia’s counterinsurgency and for continued Russian rule of the area. Indeed, if Russia were to retreat from the North Caucasus, given the CE’s leadership of the insurgency, the area could conceivably turn into another hotbed of Islamic terrorism. Similarly, Russia’s position in Chechnya would become considerably more tenuous as a result of that defeat. Beyond that, any hope of projecting sustained power into the Transcaucasus would also fade, and, with it, Russia’s ability to present itself as a major world power beyond the Caucasus (e.g., in the Middle East). Russia would also then have great difficulty in maintaining its military detachments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia along with its base in Gyumri, Armenia, because direct land routes to these areas will have been lost. More immediately, the viability and security of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014—which are intended to be a huge showcase for Putin’s Russia—will be compromised, possibly fatally.

The Trans-Caucasus or South Caucasus

The conflicts in the North Caucasus and those in the South Caucasus, or Transcaucasus, are linked not only geographically but also strategically. Moscow gave insurgents in North Caucausus perfect justification to demand a new “parade of secessions” in that territory by: (1) forceably abridging Georgia’s territorial integrity (2008); (2) recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states; and (3) claiming that its Georgian “adventure” was justified on the grounds of “self-defense” of Russian citizens (in truth, citizens of Georgia who had been issued Russian passports en masse) and also justified by the humanitarian right to protect (R2P). Having thus undercut the legal-political branch upon which it sits, Moscow now cannot sustain its position either in the north or south except by force.

Unable to to assert either control or truly legitimate authority over this corner of Eurasia, Moscow’s actions have also revealed that the overall situation in Eurasia—civil war in Syria and potential Islamic governments in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Gulf where unrest continues, not to mention the multiple causes of conflict in Central Asia—is deteriorating beyond anyone’s efforts to control it. Indeed, Russia now uses the incidence of civil war in the North Caucasus, the threats of allied intervention in Syria, and, perhaps even more, in Iran as pretexts for a vast militarization of the South Caucausus.

On March 20, 2012, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told the Defense Board that

New centers of power with claims to regional leadership and sources of military-political tension for Russia have emerged. A tendency toward an escalation of tensions along the perimeters of our borders is increasing the risk of Russia being dragged into different military conflicts … The deployment of the global missile defense shield is seriously disturbing the established status quo and strategic stability in general.

This was only the latest in a series of threat assessments that highlight Moscow’s almost-certain belief that a Western attack on Iran will occur by the summer of 2012. On November 17, 2011, Chief of Staff General Nikolai Makarov told the Defense Ministry’s Public Chamber that

The possibility of local armed conflicts virtually along the entire perimeter of the border has grown dramatically … I cannot rule out that, in certain circumstances, local and regional armed conflicts could grow into a large-scale war, possibly even with nuclear weapons.

Makarov further warned that the cause for such wars in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) lies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) advance to the borders of the CIS and Russia.

Undoubtedly, a serious potential exists for wars along the frontiers of the CIS, formed out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991-1992, or even among some of its members, notably Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, although the threat does not come from NATO. Since Makarov’s warning, attention has focused more sharply on Iran. Rapidly accelerating developments have dramatically heightened the prospect of a conflict involving Iran that would, by Russian lights, still be a conflict with enormous potential for spillover and repercussions to the CIS and Russia. In Moscow’s eyes, a formal border notwithstanding, Iran is, as in Soviet times, a neighbor. According to Russian defense analyst Sergei Konovalov, Moscow is receiving reports of a U.S.-backed Israeli (possibly also the United States) surprise strike on Iran. According to defense correspondent Pavel Felgenhauer, open hostilities with Iran are supposed to begin in the summer of 2012; since Israel cannot finish the job, the Russian government and military expect U.S. forces to take part in the operation. When added to the civil war now germinating in Syria, these reports have generated great concern in Moscow about the fate of Russian troops in the Caucasus and the Caspian basin because Moscow believes that the United States will have bases in or support from Azerbaijan and/or Georgia and that Iran could attack in the Caucasus in response to a U.S. strike on it.

Thus, Moscow has begun military and diplomatic moves to forestall such strikes or, if those fail, has started preparations to respond credibly to any threats. Indeed, those preparations began in 2010. In September 2011, Russia created sniper units in its army brigades and reinforced its troops with new T-90A and T-72BM armored vehicles. During 2010-2011, Russian forces in what is now called the South Military District (SMD) received more than 7,000 pieces of new heavy weapons and were 70 percent rearmed with modern weapons (the rest of the army is only modernized by 16 percent). Similarly, forces in the SMD has received new communications equipment and land-based antiship missiles.

During October-November 2011, Moscow optimized the 102nd military base in Armenia. Dependents were sent back to Russia, the garrison near Yerevan was reduced, and subunits stationed there redeployed to Gyumri—nearer to the Turkish border. In December 2011, Russian forces at their bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia were put on full combat readiness. Russian land forces in Armenia are now essentially isolated because Georgia has broken off the treaty allowing military transit through its territory, leading some former commanders of these forces to voice thoughts of having to launch breakthrough operations to support the Armenian-based troops in the event of a conflict in Iran. The routes by which this breakthrough would be effected led through Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.

Meanwhile, the Black Sea fleet is patrolling near Georgia (which could side with the anti-Iran forces). A separate coastal missile division armed with Bal-E (Bastion) coastal antiship missiles (possible range: 130 km) was placed on permanent combat readiness. The missile launchers of the Caspian flotilla were redeployed from Astrakhan southward to Makhachkala and Kaspiysk to form a single ship grouping there. The missile patrol ship Tatarstan, the flotilla’s flagship, will be joined by the small artillery ship Volgodonsk and the Dagestan missile ship. The Tatarstan‘s missiles have a rage of up to 200 km. An aircraft carrier group of the Northern fleet has departed for the Mediterranean led by the aircraft cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov to call at Tartus. Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shammanov has also announced that the Russian troops in Armenia will be reinforced by paratroopers (VDV in Russian), possibly together with attack and transport helicopters. These assault VDV units with helicopters may be moved into Abkhazia and South Ossetia. To justify this naval, airborne, and land rearmament, defense correspondent Pavel Felgenhauer writes that “The Russian military believes that when the U.S. goes to war with Iran, it may deploy forces in friendly Georgia and warships in the Caspian with the possible help of Azerbaijan.” And, given the possibility of a war in Nagorno-Karabakh that could break out in conjunction with a conflict of Iran, the military commentator Col. Vladimir Popov raised the possibility of a Russian operation to defend Armenia against Turkey, a NATO member (a threat that led Russia in 1993 to warn Turkey that such an operation risked nuclear war). Thus, Makarov’s scenario could materialize in this admittedly somewhat far-fetched (at least to us) fashion.

At the same time, the controversial military commentator Aleksandr’ Khramchikin, deputy director of the Institute for Political and Military Analyses, claims that U.S. moves to withdraw from Iraq and reopen Alaskan oil fields suggest the likelihood of an impending strike against Iran. He also believes that a U.S.-Israeli strike on Iran would lead Iran to destroy infrastructure everywhere near its borders (presumably for shipping energy to Europe), including Kazakhstan, and draw Moscow into the war. He, too, notes the strengthening (described above) of the Caspian flotilla. Indeed, he sees the September 2011 exercise, Operation Tsentr—involving land, sea (this flotilla), and air forces in Central Asia and the forces of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that rehearsed precisely this scenario of an Iranian attack on Kazakhstan—as another sign of Russian preparations against such a scenario.

Whatever the accuracy of Russian perceptions, these forces are more than just precautionary deployments. Even though, as of this writing, tensions involving Iran have subsided because of the opening of a negotiating round involving the permanent members of the Security Council, the European Union, and Iran, these deployments have not been recalled. These military moves have been accompanied by an accelerating Russian political campaign against Georgia and its president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Moscow misses no opportunity to defame Saakashvili both personally and for his policies, charge that Georgia is planning another armed intervention in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and upbraid NATO and the United States for supposedly rearming Georgia and contemplating its membership in NATO. More recently, Russia and its client government in Abkhazia claim that they broke up a joint Georgian-Chechen terror plot to strike at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Moscow still apparently wants to fabricate a casus belli against Georgia. As Felgenhauer observes, Moscow would certainly like to get rid of Saakashvili, but its belief that a war with Iran is imminent is a much more consequential issue that also allows it to conduct what might be called a preventive operation in the Caucasus. Specifically,

The Russian spearhead may be ordered to strike south to prevent the presumed deployment of U.S. bases in Transcaucasia, to link up with the troops in Armenia, and take over the South Caucasus energy corridor along which Azeri, Turkmen, and other Caspian natural gas and oil may reach European markets. By one swift military strike Russia may ensure control of all the Caucasus and the Caspian states that were its former realm, establishing a fait accompli the West, too preoccupied with Iran, would not reverse. At the same time, a small victorious war would unite the Russian nation behind the Kremlin, allowing it to crush the remnants of the pro-democracy movement “for fair elections.” And as a final bonus, Russia’s military action could perhaps finally destroy the Saakashvili regime.

These forces and threats make it possible for Moscow to play the role of a neo-colonial “Ordnungsmacht” (the force that makes order) in the Transcaucasus. These forces threaten all the oil and gas pipelines running through the Caucasus; they threaten another war with Georgia and, once again, Russian sources endlessly (and falsely) charge that Georgia is preparing to attack Russian territory and/or Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those propaganda attacks on Georgia and on its leader, President Mikheil Saakashvili, are unrelenting, suggest that Moscow still does not feel it won enough in 2008, and also intimate that its position in the Caucasus is insecure. Beyond the threat to independent Georgia and independent energy pipelines, Moscow also could use these forces to threaten Azerbaijan, which is no less a pro-Western and independent actor than is Georgia.

Threats to Azerbaijan

Georgia is certainly not the only threatened country—Azerbaijan, too, has reasons for concern about both Moscow and Tehran. Armenian political scientist Arman Melikyan claims that in the 2011 tripartite negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia (ostensibly “brokered” by Russia), Moscow was to arrange for the surrender of liberated territories, thereby ensuring its military presence. It was also to establish a network of military bases in Azerbaijan to prevent any further cooperation between Azerbaijan and NATO. While Armenian authorities reportedly accepted this plan, Baku refused to do so and saved Armenia, which clearly wants to incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh, from relinquishing the territory to Russia. Since recent revelations show that Azerbaijan desires NATO’s full cooperation and says it would even consider membership in NATO if not for implied Russian and Iranian opposition, Azerbaijan’s rejection of this transparent neo-imperialist Russian ploy is hardly surprising.

Moreover, these revelations show the danger in leaving the initiative in negotiating an end to the conflict in Russia’s hands alone. Azeri officials like Elchin Gusseynli of the Ministry of International Affairs have accused the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) of passivity and support for Armenia rather than for Azerbaijan. Gusseynli rightly cited the Armeno-Russian military collaboration that sustains the conflict and reflects Moscow’s unrelenting desire to recover some of its lost imperial heritage in the Caucasus. In response to Moscow, Yerevan Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz said in Baku that Turkey is ready to support and join with the Azeri army in defense production. Both states have also signed an agreement on strategic cooperation and formed a high advisory council. Thus, Azerbaijan decided to reject the Russian demand that it make its defense and security policy subordinate to Moscow.

Adding to Russia’s discomfiture on this issue is that the European Union has now registered its unhappiness with the stagnation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. European Parliament member Kristian Vigenin, returning from Yerevan, let the Parliament’s dissatisfaction with the failure of the OSCE Minsk Group process to get anywhere be known, stating that the Parliament suggested replacing France’s delegate to the Minsk process with an EU representative, even possibly the EU Commissioner for External Relations and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton. In addition, although Moscow had given no previous sign, Russia’s rulers also apparently believe that Washington is trying to revive the Bush administration’s “Big Caucasus Project” to pull the Transcaucasus out of Russia’s orbit and somehow supplant Russia in the Karabakh process. Turkey’s realignment with Azerbaijan clearly demonstrates it opposition to Armenia and Russia; if the European Union moves to join the process and weaken Russia’s position, then Turkey is likely to be on Baku’s side against Yerevan and Moscow.

At the same time, Iran has been waging a low-level but unremitting and long-running campaign of subversion, terrorism, and threats against Azerbaijan—fearing that Azerbaijan might be used as a base by Israel or the United States. Iran has incited Azeri unrest; three separate terror plots—against Azerbaijan’s government, Israel’s ambassador there, and Azeri Jews—have been uncovered in this year alone. Azeri officials recount that Iran’s media daily attacks Azerbaijan with claims that it follows “anti-Islamic policies.” And, on many occasions, Azerbaijan has been threatened with attack by Iran should it grant the United States or Israel a base on its territory. Thus, Elhan Shahinoglu, head of the Atlas Center for Political Research, said at a round table in Baku that “Tehran does not limit itself with anti-Azerbaijan propaganda and enhances military presence near Azerbaijan’s border. Presently, they are holding military trainings there, drug traffic from Iran’s territory to Azerbaijan would not cease.”

The U.S. Response

Given these Russian and Iranian threats to a region where Moscow has already shown willingness to threaten and use force and that is increasingly vital to European energy security and to the prevention of a renewed Russian neo-imperial formation, a strong U.S. policy would be a rational expectation. In fact, however, and sadly, there is no such thing. Any search for the elaboration of any kind of strategic vision for the Caucasus or ringing commitment to it would be in vain. As one recent assessment of the Obama administration’s record observes:

Concerning the Americans, the recent record bespeaks a kind of “inadvertent disengagement.” Verbal commitments to Georgia before and after the Russian war have not been matched by deeds. Washington had no ambassador in Baku for more than a year, blindly neglected to consult with President Aliyev when it was in the throes of negotiating with Turkey and Armenia, and then failed to include Azerbaijan in a meeting on nuclear arms while including both of the other two Caucasus states. A hastily arranged letter by President Obama to President Aliyev and visits from the U.S. Secretaries of Defense and State acknowledged that relations had gone off the tracks but were short on concrete steps to right them. Meanwhile, Yerevan also suffered from U.S. policy when the Obama initiative to open Armenia’s border with Turkey failed.

Indeed, at present there is no U.S. ambassador in Azerbaijan and the last ambassadorial nominee, Matthew Bryza, could not get confirmation in Congress because of the pressure of the Armenian lobby there.

In fact, the United States essentially still has no discernible policy for Azerbaijan, a fact that led analysts and the Azeri government to warn in 2010 that Washington might lose the country. Washington supported the misguided idea that Armeno-Turkish normalization had nothing to do with the Nagorno-Karabakh territory and frozen conflict there. U.S. officials still attack Azerbaijan as being undemocratic (a fact that is true for all the CIS regimes, but which has proved to be no barrier to friendly relations with Uzbekistan—whose record is worse, even gruesome). Many officials see Azerbaijan as being essentially important only insofar as it is a logistical hub for the war in Afghanistan and say that otherwise they do not want to hear of the problems of the Caucasus.

As for Georgia, recent statements by U.S. officials make clear that they are not prepared to step up support for Georgia beyond present levels (insufficient to meet the threats Georgia faces) despite the enormous Russian buildup and unrelenting campaign of bombing, subversion, and refusal to negotiate seriously about Abkhazia and South Ossetia (the detachment of these two territories from Georgia represents both a violation of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and the EU-Russian truce of 2008 after the war with Georgia). And, as regards Armenia, the United States has adopted a wholly passive position on the potentially explosive Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, allowing Russia to monopolize the diplomatic initiative to settle this conflict and, as noted above, thus freeing Moscow to attempt to impose a neo-colonialist order in the Caucasus.

Since this situation only benefits Russia at the expense of the United States and Western interests in the Caucasus, clearly many policymakers have concluded that—rather than formulating and executing policies that challenge Russian neo-colonialism in the CIS—placating Russia is the prime goal—in the dubious belief that by doing so we will get meaningful cooperation on proliferation in Iran. Likewise, apparently many of them believe that it is not worthwhile for the United States to become too involved with small states of the CIS since, after all, they cause trouble on their own or with Russia, and, ultimately, they are, in any case, part of Russia’s sphere.

Although signs of a change were evident in 2010, they have come to nothing. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates traveled to Baku in early June 2010, bringing with him a letter from President Obama pledging to treat Nagorno-Karabakh as a priority. He admitted that the trip was prompted by Azeri concerns about being ignored. President Obama’s letter, however, mentioned Nagorno-Karabakh at the end of the issues he deemed important, namely, support for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, preserving the southern corridor for energy ties with the West, and then Nagorno-Karabakh. Another issue prompting Gates’s trip was concern that Azerbaijan, because it felt ignored by Washington, might opt out of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) of which it is an important part (about one-quarter of the coalition’s nonlethal supplies to Afghanistan travel through Azerbaijan). President Obama’s letter also called for an enhanced and deeper bilateral relationship with Baku that includes defense. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also visited Azerbaijan in 2010 to show U.S. interest in that state. In addition, Gates indicated U.S. interest in revitalizing the Caspian Guard program to help Azerbaijan defend its coastline against terrorists and smugglers and also an interest in enhancing intelligence cooperation with Azerbaijan. These are all constructive steps that should be welcomed and expanded on, but they do not by themselves bring an end to all problems. Indeed, more cynical observers among U.S. intelligence officials assert that the only important issue for us is Afghanistan, not Aliyev’s agenda. If that is the case, it is not a healthy sign for the future of our ties with Azerbaijan. Thus, Secretary Gates’s visit, Secretary Clinton’s visit, and the president’s letter only marked a beginning of a new phase that needs to be implemented because Baku clearly wants Washington to play a more active role in bringing the Nagorno-Karabakh issue to a political resolution.

Were we to fail in this endeavor or backslide and once again neglect Azerbaijan and the larger Caucasus, we would be incurring serious risks. This neglect of the Caucasus is particularly dangerous because the consequences of the Russo-Georgia war are still with us and not only in Georgia. First, clearly an Armeno-Azeri war over Nagorno-Karabakh would be a disaster for all parties and would only bring heightened Russian influence over all three Caucasian states despite their clear desire (in Baku’s and Tbilisi’s cases) to avoid that outcome. In such a crisis, Washington could do or contribute little to bring about a rapid end to hostilities and some form of political settlement. Beyond that, continued neglect of Azerbaijan does nothing to resolve this conflict, does nothing to increase chances for democracy in either Armenia or Azerbaijan, encourages adventurers in Azerbaijan (who argue that starting a war would force people to take notice of the issue), undermines progress on emancipating both the CIS and Europe from Russian efforts to use energy to impose its neo-colonialist policies, and creates greater likelihood that Russia will persuade Azerbaijan that it cannot rely on Washington and should ship its gas through Russian pipelines—an outcome catastrophic for Europe.

Clearly, Azerbaijan wants greater U.S. involvement because it believes Armenia is procrastinating and that only pressure by the United States and its involvement will galvanize Armenia into acting. In fact, analysts like Svante Cornell and Zeyno Baran say that both Armenia and Azerbaijan trust only the United States and that Azerbaijan believes that the only way to a solution is through negotiations among the big powers. Moreover, Azerbaijan, like Georgia, desires NATO’s full cooperation and says it would even consider membership in NATO if not for implied Russian and Iranian opposition. NATO has now grasped the nettle and sent a delegation to Azerbaijan to discuss setting up an Individual Partnership Action Plan (PARP) under NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. So, perhaps change for the better is around the corner.


The prior neglect of the Caucasus never was justifiable because failure to address this region’s issues undermines the security of Europe and leaves open-ended the prospect of a revived Russian neo-colonial bloc that threatens the status quo. If European security is as indivisible as we have steadfastly claimed, it must include the Caucasus. Otherwise Russia will continue to probe and seek to undermine the post-cold war status quo that ended the cold war in Europe. Moreover, a policy that engages the South or Transcaucasus and possesses a clear strategic vision for the region backed by coherent and unified Western polices meets the expressed desires of the local governments—even, to some degree, Armenia, which has expanded cooperation with NATO.

Moreover, a vibrant Western policy will help secure the primary goal of engaging an increasingly democratic Russia, since, as long as “the lure of something erotic on the peripheries” is seen by Moscow as not just enticing but also attainable, Moscow will continue to pursue policies of internal (and external) colonialism described by Etkind—with terrible results for its own people as well as for its neighbors and interlocutors. Ultimately, a Russian empire, even a watered-down neo-colonial one, is incompatible not only with democracy and genuine prosperity for Russia, the former Soviet republics, and Europe, such ersatz empire is also incompatible, as the North Caucasus shows, with any chance for peace inside Russia. As long as Russia continues to pursue the wrecks of empire it will, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, stand as an admonitory symbol to the rest of the world to “look on my works ye mortals and despair.”