Caucasus Without Russia: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow


June 25, 2015

Caucasus Without Russia: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

By Rostislav Ishchenko

Translated from Russian by J.Hawk

US lost to Russia in Syria two years ago. They were not able to humiliate Russia whose positions in the region have grown stronger at US expense. But the “glory hounds” from the State Department and the CIA, while disappointed, did not show it. They left a blazing civil war on Syria’s territory, stoked by international terrorists from ISIS, then moved shop to Ukraine hoping to inflict a decisive defeat on the banks of the Dnepr.

But once again it misfired. Despite the whole complexity and tragedy of all that’s happening, Moscow managed to turn the situation in its favor. Now the US, stuck in Ukraine, started to think about how to cleanly get rid of the parasitical Kiev regime. Whose greed and incompetence threaten to turn Ukraine into America’s new Vietnam (as far as the level of pointlessly expended resources and loss of international prestige are concerned). At the same time the fighters “for democracy and oil” aren’t wasting time and are looking for another playing board from which Russia could be squeezed out while the civil wars in Ukraine and Syria destroy the evidence of US complicity in the crimes of the regime. So it’s time for the Caucasus to start smouldering. In principle, that was the “color revolution” launch pad into the post-Soviet space. The Georgia coup was successful. But the attempts in Armenia and Azerbaijan failed.

Caucasus is complex, with lots of mutual historical grievances, religious conflicts, territorial claims, and personal dramas. It’s enough to set one country on fire, bring radicals to power there, and the whole region will be swept by a wave of instability which will even attempt to splash into the Russian autonomies of the Northern Caucasus.

The first blow was struck against the economically weak link–Armenia, which is a member of both the Eurasian Union and the Collective Security Treaty, which means Russia’s largest integration projects are at stake. But is Russia the only country threatened by the attack on the Yerevan government? The overthrow of the government will bring radicals into power in Yerevan, it will put into doubt the continued existence of the Russian base in Gyumri, and will worsen the socio-political situation in Armenia thus endangering its trade and economic ties with its main partner, Russia.

In Ukraine, the problem of the rapid deterioration of the standard of living was dealt with by diverting attention to the civil war. It would be harder to start a civil war in Armenia–traditions are different, the scale is different, the population is multi-ethnic. But Armenia has a frozen conflict in Karabakh, and a foreign war is even more effective at bringing the people together than a civil one.

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There are daily provocations along the line of contact. Both sides are blaming each other, but the Russian military presence prevents the sporadic shoot-outs from escalating into a big war. But a potential coup in Yerevan would fundamentally change the situation. Russia today not only maintains good relations with both parties to the Karabakh conflict–the cooperation with Azerbaijan is rapidly expanding, Armenia has long been Russia’s military ally. A coup under pro-European and anti-Russian slogans would dramatically change the military and political balance. Radical forces in Azerbaijan which have long demanded Baku restore its sovereignty over the country’s whole territory will get a new argument. They will demand that Russia come to their aid in the event of a military confrontation. Radical Armenian forces will demand the support of the “civilized world” which will be due to them after having made the “European choice”, in order to consolidate captured territories. And they will have another argument in their benefit. Armenia already has enough, but Azerbaijan has to attack. Therefore it will be easy to accuse it of aggression and breaking the ceasefire.

Naturally, neither the US nor the EU will help anyone if the Caucasus conflict once again flares up. Two Moscow-friendly governments become destabilized. If two such countries start a war, Moscow will have to make a choice in favor of one or another, or to acknowledge its inability to pursue an active foreign policy on the Caucasus. But no matter what choice they make, it will require additional Russian resources. Considering that Ukraine’s situation is far from resolved, and ISIS is expanding its influence only 500km from Azeri borders, the situation could instantly transform into a chaotic militarized crisis.

Therefore if Russia is pushed out of the Caucasus and loses its ability to support a compromise peace in the region, the entire area between the borders of Turkey, Iran, and Russia can become one huge pyre. Which would be bad for Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

And although Moscow has for decades demonstrated remarkable restraint in using its armed forces in civil and hybrid conflicts, Turkey, for example, has more than once used artillery, aircraft, and even military incursions into Syria in order to establish a security zone along its borders. It failed to accomplish that, and only Russia’s firm position kept Turkey from becoming heavily engaged in the war.

When one considers the traditional disagreements and competition between Turkey and Iran, and the both countries’ tendency to use force, the situation in the Caucasus could quickly revert to the time when both Turkey and Iran had presence there but Russia did not. As long as the padishahs in Istanbul and the shahs in Tebriz and Shiraz fought over the control of strategic positions on the Caucasus, the population of Muslim khanates and Christian princedoms suffered equally from pogroms and pillage, in full accordance with the traditions peculiar to the warring countries’ armies. In the end, Russia doesn’t need the territory of Caucasus countries, but it does need friendly governments and happy populations.

Caucasus for Russia is a buffer zone protecting it from the unstable
Middle East, and Moscow is interested in ensuring that buffer flourishes
economically and does not become a zone of permanent conflict.

For Turkey and Iran, on the other hand, it is a backwater which may originate dangers. In earlier times enemies had to be kept from putting down roots in the region. Therefore both Turkish and Iranian armies gleefully exterminated the local population–no population, no quarter for enemy armies. The armies of the era existed at the expense of the local population. No population, and nobody can feed enemy troops. Therefore any enemy army appearing in the region would quickly have to retreat.

Now the security danger in that backwater is represented by ISIS. Should Caucasus become destabilized, hundreds of militants currently fighting in Syria and Iraq will swiftly appear there, acquiring local support. In view of how the Turks dealt with the Kurdish problem and the Iranians addressed the question of South Azerbaijan, we can easily assume that neither Tehran nor Ankara will suffer from excessive humaneness. They will treat the local population, irrespective of their religion or ethnicity, as a potential ISIS staging area.

It’s obvious that even in the worst-case scenario Russia will sooner or later (and sooner rather than later) return to the Caucasus. But thousands of civilians will not experience Russia’s return to Ukraine. Simply because they already perished. Therefore it’s best if Russia does not leave the Caucasus. Even temporarily and for a short time.

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