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Volume XIII, Number 4 (March - April 2003)

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Russia Pressures Southern Neighbors


Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy

The latest war of words between Tbilisi and Moscow over Georgia’s bilateral military agreement with the US reflects tensions that have been building between Russia and its southern neighbors. Simply stated, Russia is reasserting imperial ambitions vis-à-vis former Soviet states.

NATO provides a current example of security agreements between states with (at least temporarily) common objectives. Thus, the Werhofstadt plan, named after the Belgian prime minister, constitutes a collective attempt by Germany, France, Belgium and Luxembourg to create a separate entity within NATO. In the wake of September 11, and on the eve of the conflict with Saddam Hussein, the US entered into a number of mutually beneficial security arrangements with Caucasian and Central Asian states.

On the other hand, it is difficult to discern common objectives between Russia and certain other post-Soviet republics. Coercion and blackmail appear to overshadow any communality. In order to understand fully Russia’s overreaction to Georgia’s bilateral agreement with the US, it is important to reflect on Moscow’s current relationships with the other states south of Russia. Such analysis reveals a pattern of Russian behavior that reflects its real aspirations in the region. That pattern includes a continued Russian military presence in these countries, frequently without their consent, as well as other means of imposing Moscow’s will.

Thus, in Georgia, Russia has approximately 8,000 soldiers (as compared to the 80 US special forces officers training Georgian troops). These are located in three Russian "garrisons" (Moscow has prevaricated over withdrawal for years) as well as Russian "peacekeepers" between Georgia proper and its secessionist province of Abkhazia who prevent the return of 250,000 ethnic Georgian refugees to Abkhazia.

Moscow is keeping a keen eye on all of the Caucasus. Last month, the Russian State Duma approved a statement condemning as "an exceptionally unfriendly and even hostile act" the bilateral Georgian-US agreement on military cooperation that the Georgian parliament had ratified. (1) Members of the Duma objected especially vocally to the (hypothetical) possibility that Georgia might grant the US military the right to cross into Georgia’s secessionist South Ossetian and Abkhaz republics, claiming that Russian servicemen stationed in Georgian "garrisons" are unable to do so.

The Russian Duma decries as "an unfriendly act" the deployment of "a US military contingent, hardware and armaments in the vicinity of the Russian state border.... This may lead to an exacerbation of the situation with regard to the Russian military bases in Georgia."(2) Duma CIS Affairs Committee Chairman Andrei Kokoshin added that "the Georgian-US agreement creates an uneven playing field for Russia by granting privileges to US servicemen in Georgia that do not also extend to Russian military personnel. The Georgian move will hinder joint antiterrorism efforts in the region."(3) (Again, the reference is to 80 US officers as compared to 8,000 Russian troops.)

In fact, the agreement simply states that US military personnel is allowed visa-free entry and exit from Georgia, is permitted to carry weapons, and is immune from prosecution in Georgian courts. The agreement also allows the US armed forces to deploy hardware on Georgian territory without impediments. It merely puts into writing the rules under which 80 US special forces officers train Georgian troops in counter-terrorist operations, an activity that has been continuing for over 12 months. (4)

In Tbilisi’s response to Moscow, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili pointed out that "other NATO members have signed analogous agreements with several CIS member states. The Duma’s harsh reaction will reflect adversely on Russia’s international image."(5) Georgia’s ambassador to Russia, Zurab Abashidze, added, "Russian servicemen, whose number in Georgia amounts to 8,000, could enjoy the same privileges if Russia did not introduce a [travel-impeding] visa regime on its own initiative. There is nothing secret in Georgia. We propose to create a Washington-Moscow-Tbilisi triangle to solve the problem of fighting against terrorism in southern Caucasus by joint efforts." (6)

As justification for Moscow’s overreaction, Alexander Shabanov, chairman of the Russian parliament’s committee on geopolitical affairs, claimed that "the US Georgian pact confirms Washington’s desire to expand its global reach. This agreement seriously upsets the balance of forces in the [Caucasus] region and poses a threat to international security." (7) The implication is that Moscow reserves for itself dominant influence in the region.

Expressions of concern that US troops might cross the borders into Abkhazia and South Ossetia betray an assumption that these provinces somehow constitute a part of Russia. In effect, Russia is using the bilateral agreement as a pretext to justify keeping its troops in Georgia. This may have been Moscow’s intent all along. During current negotiations, Russia claims it will take 11 years to withdraw troops from Georgia, whereas Tbilisi has offered Moscow a full 4 years to accomplish this task. (8)

Courting both sides

Azerbaijan is another important Caucasian republic because of its position on the western edge of the Caspian. Its ailing president, Heydar Aliev, has long disappointed Moscow, by courting Moscow’s viceroy there. Russia clearly expected to gain more influence over Azerbaijan in return for allowing Aliev to gain power. Speculation abounds as to what Aliev will do to secure his chosen successor; concessions to Russia, in return for political and perhaps military support from Moscow, are not beyond the bounds of credibility. While the 10-year Russian lease on the Gabala radar station allows Moscow to have some units in the country, any situation providing Russia with an alibi for moving additional troops into Azerbaijan is likely to be exploited. (9)

Indeed, visits to Baku by Russian Federation Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov sparked rumors that such an alibi had been provided. The officials signed intergovernmental agreements on military and technical cooperation, leading at least one Azeri newspaper to conclude that "during the visits they discussed the creation of the second military facility in Azerbaijan. Such agreements might result in Russia deploying new military units in our country in the future, or Azerbaijan allowing Russia to deploy its troops ... in exchange for military assistance and staff training." (10)

However, Aliev has not been quick to agree to anything that would cement an orientation toward Russia. Meeting with the chairman of the US Senate’s NATO committee in mid-April, the Azeri president explained that, since joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program in 1994, Azerbaijan has "been quietly doing everything to facilitate the process" of obtaining an invitation to join the Western alliance. (11)

In the meantime, Azerbaijan continues to watch closely events in Armenia. The recent deployment of Russian troops (withdrawn from one of the "garrisons" in Georgia) to the 102nd military base in Gyumri, in northwest Armenia, (12) was not met with enthusiasm in Baku.

Economic & military pressure

Of the other republics to Russia’s south, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia seem unable to withstand Russian pressure. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have unstable governments and fragile economies. In the last few months, Moscow has increased its military presence in these two countries to over 19,000 troops, 12 fighter aircraft and 13 transport and training aircraft. (13) Russia uses the Collective Security Treaty’s (CSTO) Central Asian sector, comprised of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as a justification for increasing its troops and security forces in these countries.

Armenia falls in the same category. It needs Moscow’s assistance to continue its occupation of Azerbaijani territory, leaving it little choice but to fall in with Russia demands. (14) There is also a high level of economic dependence. Last year, to wipe out a $100 million debt, Yerevan offered to hand over Armenian industrial assets to cover the amount owed. The acquisitions — including a power station, an electronics plant and three high-tech factories — join a large number of Armenian assets already held by the Russian Federation. The ramifications will not be simply economic. As Vladimir Socor of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies in Washington, DC, pointed out, "Armenia has become the first case study in Russia’s strategy to regain political dominance over post-Soviet countries by taking over their economic infrastructure." (15)

Nationalism versus imperialism

Kazakhstan is less vulnerable. Kazakhstan has rich reserves of oil spread across its territory. There is a definite sense of national identity. Moscow has conducted numerous military exercises and exchange programs with Astana in hope of establishing a permanent military presence within Kazakhstan’s borders. The Kazakh government is in the process of moving its capital (for the second time in less than 10 years) to the nearby city of Agmola, maintaining its presence in the northern region where a large Slav population previously threatened the Kazakh foothold. Moreover, Kazakhstan has engaged in a degree of flirtation with the West, to Moscow’s evident displeasure. Geographically, Kazakhstan blocks Russia’s access to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. However, Moscow has been successful at establishing some influence over Kazakhstan. One example is the recent joint military command structure established by Russia, and including Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which gives military teeth to the Collective Security Treaty Organization set up in 1992. (16)

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have continued to stand up to Russian pressure. The Uzbeks have a strong sense of historical continuity from the glory days of Bukhara and Samarkand and the Turkmen are fiercely independent. Both countries have cooperated with the West, especially in the fight against drug and weapons traffic. Uzbek officials recently worked with Western agencies and interdicted several shipments of material related to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) transiting their border. (17)

Still, as Vladimir Lukin, the deputy speaker of the State Duma, explained, Russia has not lost its influence in Central Asia. Noting a recently signed long-term agreement with Turkmenistan concerning gas transport, Lukin said "you can see that the interests of Russia are respected here. And they are respected in Tajikistan. And I think that gradually they will become respected in Uzbekistan, gradually, but to a lesser extent."(18)

Begun in 1991, the CSTO differs substantially from most other collective security arrangements. Ever since President Vladimir Putin took power three years ago, Moscow has pressed for an ongoing Russian military presence in most of the other treaty members. It is little wonder that Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan pulled out of the treaty, seeking instead a more Western orientation. (19) Border troops in former Soviet states constitute an important factor in Moscow’s political-military calculus.

Georgia constitutes a particular battleground between territorial integrity and sovereignty, on the one hand, and a continued Russian military presence (and support for secessionist border republics), on the other hand. Such persistent flouting of international law and custom has become increasingly rare in the post-1945 world. Especially grave is the fact that the host country has no control whatever over Russian troops on its soil. This pattern would be less ominous, were Moscow prepared to accept some degree of mutuality and consultation with the host countries. Particularly in the case of Georgia, this element is conspicuous by its absence.

The West has a distinct interest in helping these post-communist states to assert their sovereignty and territorial integrity, an essential base if they are to establish more democratic political systems and market-based economies. (This is the case especially in Central Asia, where porous borders and weak law enforcement have created significant opportunities for terrorism and for traffic in illicit weapons and drugs.)

The effect of such interest should not be underestimated. It is noteworthy that Russia’s bullying of the Baltic states, which differed only in degree but not in kind from its actions toward Central Asian and Caucasian countries, diminished significantly once Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were accepted into NATO.



1 Kommersant, 21 April 2003; WPS Defense and Security, via ISI Emerging Markets Database.

2 RFE/RL Newsline, 17 April 2003.

3 ITAR-TASS, 0749 GMT, 16 April 2003; FBIS-SOV-2003-0416, via World News Connection.

4 RFE/RL Newsline, 16 April 2003.

5 AP, 21 March 2003; via Lexis-Nexis.

6 Ekho Moskvy, 17 April 2003; BBC Monitoring, via ISI Emerging Markets Database.

7Transitions On-Line, 23 April 2003; WPS Defense and Security, via ISI Emerging Markets Database.

8 Ibid.

9 Federal News Service, 2 April 2003; via Lexis-Nexis.

10 Hurriyyat, 4 March 2003; BBC Monitoring, via Lexis-Nexis.

11 Kommersant, 21 April 2003; What the Papers Say, via Lexis-Nexis.

12 Prime-News, 1030 GMT, 11 April 2003; BBC Monitoring, via Lexis-Nexis.

13 Interfax, 1219 GMT, 2 December 2002; via Lexis-Nexis, and Agence France-Presse, 27 April 2003; WPS Defense and Security, via ISI Emerging Markets Database.

14 Ibid.

15 The Baltic Times, 3 April 2003; Global News Wire, via Lexis-Nexis.

16 Agence France-Presse, 28 April 2003; WPS Defense and Security, via ISI Emerging Markets Database.

17 RFE/RL Newsline, 17 April 2003.

18 Federal News Service, 16 April 2003; via Lexis-Nexis.

19 Analyst, The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, 14 September 2000.

Copyright ISCIP 2002
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