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How realistic is the prospect of a serious Caucasus war?

Wednesday, October 1
At first glance Russia won a great victory in the Caucasus last August. It dealt a big blow to the West’s prestige in the region. It also indirectly but willfully attacked US interests there, and took no heed of NATO interests either. Russia strikes the pose of a victorious gorilla beating its chest.

But the situation in the Caucasus region has now in fact become more dangerous than it was before the war. Some serious analysts, including Russian ones, predict complications in the North Caucasus based on ethnic backgrounds and territorial claims. As Russia has demonstrated it recognizes no law or recognized mode of conduct, there is no telling where its own conduct might lead it, and its neighbours, at any time.

If it had not been for the EU’s prompt interference in the Georgian war Russia could have occupied the whole of Georgia. Its failure to do so is already a source of public regret for Russian warlords. But it still managed to lop off two complete Georgian regions, establishing and later recognizing the “independent” states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia there. Now it has forced almost all the Georgian population out of them and is rapidly constructing military bases and infrastructure in those regions. Russia is doing all this a couple of hours’ drive from Tbilisi, and is doing it right now, as you are reading this article.

Moscow has scared away some near or distant neighbours of Georgia. For instance Kazakhstan, which was one of the biggest investors in Georgia until recently, has withdrawn from several proposed projects and will most probably not continue investing on the scale previously planned. Azerbaijan has already resumed its previous flirtation with Russia and is considering several joint moves. Armenia is trying not to expose its Western sympathies too much and has temporarily given up some of its claims against Turkey. The latter is happy with the temporary calming of Armenian “pressure” and welcomes the warming of relations with it. However, even against the background of such tacit support for Russia there remains a very modest but still visible aggravation of the situation in the North Caucasus.

While hostilities were still taking place in Georgia the situation in Ingushetia worsened, leading to the killing of an independent journalist. In Chechnya and Dagestan as well as Ingushetia tensions are about to boil over. The North Caucasus has always been problematic for Russia, as its peoples have always fought against the Imperialistic claims of their northern “brother.” Both Muslim fundamentalism and nationalistic separatism speak against Russian domination and Russia’s recognition of Tskhinvali and Sokhumi has awoken separatist sensibilities. Georgian expert on Caucasus issues Mamuka Areshidze admits that there is the possibility of serious anti-Russian action in the North Caucasus.

Areshidze says that Moscow has made a very dramatic mistake in recognizing the two separatist regions in Georgia. It has triggered a domino principle time bomb. The Kremlin is once again trying to divide and rule by using Chechen soldiers against Georgia. The Chechen battalion, under the leadership of field commander Sulim Iamadiev, fought in South Ossetia and lost forty soldiers. Chechen involvement in the fighting was very negatively evaluated by the President of the nationalist Chechen independence movement, Doku Umarov. He has declared all Chechens who fought against Georgia to be traitors and has sentenced Iamadaev to the death penalty in absentia. Both Chechens and Ingush have territorial claims against Ossetia and are not happy about Abkhazians as well, as they have never supported these nations’ struggle for independence. Chechens have not forgotten that at the end of the 20th century the world turned a blind eye to Russia practically carrying out genocide during two wars there.

Mamuka Areshidze is convinced that serious complications can be foreseen in the region. Moscow will probably try to confront the different separatist clans with each other. However, it is inevitable that sooner or later turmoil will start and the Kremlin will have to pay for its ill-calculated policy towards Georgia. There is little chance that this time Moscow could counter anti-Russian moves by just strangling their instigators, as before.