A Lethal Folly?

The Jamestown Foundation’s “Chechnya Weekly” has an interesting article by Pavel Felgenhauer on the growing instability in the Russian North Caucasus, and in particular the impact of repeated Russian threats to annexe part of Georgia inhabited by ethnic Ossetians.

In part these threats form part of a history of Russia seeking to exert undue pressure over its much smaller, and rather unstable neighbour: at various times over the last few years senior officials have referred to Georgia as “the second terrorist nation in the world, after [Taleban-controlled] Afghanistan”, hinted that Russia would give its acquiescence to a US-led attack on Iraq as a quid pro quo for being permitted itself to invade Georgia, as well as, more recently, implementing bans, on entirely spurious grounds, of imports of (delicious) Georgian wines and (famed) mineral waters to Russia.

The situation is complicated further by two “frozen conflicts” in two northern regions of Georgia: Abkhazia and South Ossetia that broke up around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. (The other half of Ossetia, or Osetiya, on the northern range of the Caucasus mountains, forms a Republic of the Russian Federation.) Russia remains a substantial military presence in Abkhazia, but it is in South Ossetia that it has sought most actively to undermine the Georgian state, threatening territorial integrity.

Virtually all South Ossetian residents have been issued Russian passports since the year 2000, and they freely cross the Russian-Georgian border through the strategic Roki Tunnel under the main Caucasian ridge. The mass distribution of Russian passports has given Moscow a legal pretext to intervene militarily in Georgia at any time. Russia has in the past officially announced that it may use “appropriate means” to defend the well being of its citizens in Georgia (RIA-Novosti, May 12, 2005).

During a joint meeting of the North Ossetian and South Ossetian governments in the capital of North Ossetia, Vladikavkaz, in March, Gennady Bukaev, an aide to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, announced that the Russian leadership had decided “in principle” to annex South Ossetia and to form a new joint constituent unit of the Russian Federation comprised of both Ossetias and named “Alania.” On March 22, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti announced the intention to petition the Constitutional Court of Russia to rule that South Ossetia is an integral part of the Russian Federation (Vedomosti, March 23).

I’m not particularly interested in defending the administration of Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia: for all the talk of the “Rose Revolution” of 2003 bringing about a new, more democratic, less corrupt, era, there are serious regions to have doubts or uncertainties about the democratic credentials of the new regime. (This is not the case, for example, with the Yushchenko administration in Ukraine, however.) However, that is, in the scheme of things, something of an aside. What is clear is that the kind of bullying that Russia is imposing upon Georgia is statecraft of the most irresponsible kind, and could easily led to a further destabilization of what is already one of the most turbulent regions in the world. Felgenhauer suggests that “kadyrovtsy”-armed forces hitherto answerable to the recently appointed Prime Minister of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov (son of the former President, Akhmad haji Kadyrov), and who have become notorious for their brutality, even by the standards of the Chechen conflict, may be dispatched to fight to represent what Russia perceives as its interests in South Ossetia.

Felgenhauer concludes:

Serious renewed fighting in South Ossetia may hurt not Saakashvili, despite Kremlin preferences, but it could spill over into the North Caucasus, undermining pro-Moscow rulers in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Ossetia. The Islamist insurgents in the North Caucasus could use this opportunity to cause even more trouble.

Moscow’s confrontation with Georgia over South Ossetia is a lethal folly. Saakashvili met Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on June 13 in an apparent last-ditch attempt to forestall the evolving confrontation. After the meeting there were reports of partial successes, although nothing concrete was apparently agreed. Will this be enough to prevent a seemingly imminent disaster?

Read the entire piece