Beware Russia’s three tinderboxes

William Courtney Denis Corboy Kenneth Yalowitz
1 September 2009

Denis Corboy is director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at Kings College London and was European Commission ambassador to Georgia and Armenia. William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. Kenneth Yalowitz is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and was U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.

The United States and Europe now face triple-barreled security challenges from Russia - its growing pressure on Georgia and Ukraine, and spiraling terrorism and repression in its Muslim-dominated North Caucasus region. Russia's muscular approach could ignite sparks in any one of the three confrontations, leading to  wider instability.  The West cannot stop Russia from harming itself, but it needs to prepare for and seek to avert dangerous Russian overreach.  The upcoming EU and G20 Summits should urgently address ways to do this.

The most serious Russian challenges in the near abroad are directed at Georgia and Ukraine, two countries which seek EU and NATO membership and have some form of democracy.

Russia continues to stoke tensions along the cease fire line of the August 2008 war in Georgia and its separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow refuses to comply with the ceasefire and is slowly annexing these regions. Prime Minister Putin recently visited Abkhazia and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to bolster military and border facilities.

Russia is trying to provoke Ukrainian leaders, as they did Georgian leaders prior to the calamitous war against Georgia a year ago. On August 11, President Medvedev wrote Ukrainian President Yushchenko and smugly predicted that "new times will come,"a clear reference to Ukraine's presidential elections in January. Medvedev accused Ukraine's government of "distorting" history regarding Stalin's artificial famine in the early 1930s, and "obstructing" Russia's Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol, in Ukraine's Crimean region. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, a Kremlin favorite, recently provoked Ukrainians by asserting that they and Russians are "one and the same people." The Russians are also smarting over Ukraine's policies to promote use of Ukrainian language vice Russian.

Russia's overbearing tactics are often unproductive.  Its neighbors refuse to recognize the "independence" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Belarus and Uzbekistan have declined to join a regional "rapid reaction" force to be based in Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus is seemingly more open to improved ties with the US and EU.  In April, Turkmenistan blamed Russia for a mysterious gas pipeline explosion and at long last pledged to ship gas through the planned, Western-backed Nabucco gas pipeline to Europe.

North Caucasus

Terrorism, repression, poverty, and clan rivalries in the Muslim North Caucasus pose the third challenge.  The brutal subjugation of Chechnya in two separatist wars since the early 1990s has caused widespread alienation.  Human rights activists, journalists, and political opponents of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov are murdered with shocking frequency.  Attacks against police forces, known for corruption and torture of prisoners, are steadily mounting.  Spreading violence in Dagestan is particularly worrisome.  With two-and-one-half million residents from thirty-odd ethnic groups, it is much more populous than Chechnya and lies on Azerbaijan's northern border.

Moscow's appointed leader in Ingushetia, a former paratroop general, seems unable to quell violence.  Indeed, in June he was wounded in a terrorist attack.  After a suicide bomb attack this month in Nazran which claimed twenty-five lives, the Kremlin dispatched a battle-hardened KGB veteran to restore order.  Medvedev has called for terrorists to be "liquidated without emotion," and for an end to jury trials for them.

Yet he may recognize that force alone is not enough.  In an implicit rebuke to former President and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has masterminded the second war in Chechnya which began in 1999, Medvedev lamented  that "some time ago we got the impression" that the terrorist situation in the Caucasus "had improved."  In fact, Russia's emplacement of local warlords in positions of control in the North Caucasus, allied with Russian security services, has made the region dangerously ungovernable with potentially disastrous consequences for the Russian Federation itself.

The immediate security concern for the West is Moscow's ambition for control over its neighbors and propensity to threaten or use force to get its way.  US and European leaders have already conveyed frank concerns to their Russian counterparts. Ill-considered use of force could spark wider conflagration.   As during the second Chechen war, Russia may charge that Georgia or Azerbaijan is aiding terrorists in the North Caucasus by not interdicting arms flows or by offering safe havens, and threaten to extend the hostilities into these countries.

What the West should do

A better institutional framework for security in Europe and Eurasia could help defuse strains.  A key hindrance is that the governing security architecture has not changed since the Yeltsin era, when Russia was less muscular and sought equality and democratic legitimacy.

Russia is now stronger and more assertive.  It has used its veto to impede the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from fostering democracy in the East or criticizing official abuses in the North Caucasus, and to force an end to its mission in Georgia.  Moscow has also used its UN Security Council veto to oust UN peacekeeping monitors from Abkhazia.

In its dialogue with Russian leaders, NATO must address how to help Russia's neighbors abate threats and pressures and how to encourage Moscow to pursue peaceful accommodation in the North Caucasus.  Especially since state-controlled media constantly portray America and NATO as threats, the NATO-Russian Council will likely have limited utility.  Although Moscow now allows land transit of non-lethal items for NATO in Afghanistan, it has its own interests in defeating Islamic extremism and enhancing NATO dependence on Russia.

In Georgia, as in Kosovo earlier, the EU is taking over former OSCE roles which Russia has precluded.  The EU Monitoring Mission for Abkhazia and South Ossetia ought to be expanded to include US, Canadian and other participants.  More resources should be devoted to observing unfolding events in the North Caucasus and assessing their risks.

Georgia and other neighbors of Russia need to develop territorial defense strategies, with substantial training and advisory help.  Decisions on providing defensive military equipment should depend on military risk.

These steps could be accompanied by an offer to explore with Russia what it means by "privileged interests" in neighboring countries, how Russian activities accord with its OSCE obligations, and what security assistance NATO might provide should a neighboring country come under threat.  Transparency with Russia and its neighbors about Western policy is fundamental to building a more secure future.

To undergird a more effective security architecture, the EU and the US should increase programs to build democracy and promote inter-ethnic tolerance.  The EU should expand free trade and visa-free travel with key Eastern partners.  More international media attention should be given to the North Caucasus, Russia's neighbors, and Russia itself.

It will be difficult to help Russia deal more effectively with its own problems in the North Caucasus.  Russia needs new political, economic, and social strategies to address underlying problems.  In addressing violence in the North Caucasus, heads of state agreed in the 1999 OSCE Summit Declaration that it was "important to alleviate the hardships of the civilian population" and that a "political solution is essential."  These priorities are just as compelling today.  Europe and the US should exercise leadership in the EU and G20 meetings on aid to NGO's and humanitarian aid in the North Caucasus.

These actions, if carried out openly, will help Russia and its neighbors foster reform and political accommodation for a more secure future.  Georgia and Ukraine ought to take conciliatory steps as well.  They should exercise caution in taking actions which might provoke sharp Russian responses, such as interdicting ships bound for ports in Abkhazia or Russian military trucks traveling on public roads in Crimea.

When Russian forces alongside Chechen irregulars invaded Abkhazia in the early 1990s, Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze warned Russian President Yeltsin that igniting separatism in Georgia would come back to haunt Russia in the North Caucasus.  He was right.  The three tinderboxes pose new risks to Western security. They deserve new priority and a broader perspective to keep the peace.

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