Changes in the Caucasus
Date: March 6, 2002
In the 1990s, rivalry between the US and Russia contributed to the tensions in the Caucasus region and stalled energy resource development that could have brought prosperity to the area. At the same time, the competition between the sides generated support for some of the independence movements active in the region. The new relationship between the United States and Russia may bring to an end to that support for regional elements and there might even be coordinated action to squash some of these movements.
Russia finally got what it wanted. For over ten years, Moscow has been trying to convince the world that its campaign in Chechnya is a battle against "Islamic fundamentalists" who are supported by international Islamic movements, and is not a local national independence struggle. Moscow calculated that the West would be sympathetic to a battle of this nature, and, it was basically right. Russia has justified its strong-armed tactics against Tbilisi and its attempts to coerce Baku with the claim that international Islamic terrorists are using the territory of Georgia and Azerbaijan to give support to the Chechens.
Specifically, Russia has failed to fulfill its commitments to withdraw troops from Georgia and has constantly violated its border with the republic, claiming that it needs to combat terrorists who have found a haven in the Pankisi Gorge. September 11th only made it easier for Moscow to argue that its military assaults in Chechnya are part of an international struggle against Islamic terrorists. After years of refusal to accept Moscow's version of the conflict, it seems that formally Washington has agreed to accept Russia's line, at least for a while.
The US has finally taken the bait and announced last week that it planned to send a large contingent of anti-terror advisors and significant equipment to the Republic of Georgia to improve Tbilisi`s ability to combat terror elements based in the Pankisi Gorge area. This decision and Moscow`s compliant response demonstrate that we have entered a new era in great power interaction in the Caucasus. The end of the zero-sum nature of Moscow and Washington's relations in the Caucasus can create possibilities for newfound conflict resolution options in the region, especially for the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, while at the same time can bring to consorted action against the actors that are challenging the political status reigning in the area, such as the Chechens.
In the 1990s, rivalry between the US and Russia contributed to the tensions in the Caucasus region and stalled energy resource development that could have brought prosperity to the area. At the same time, the competition between the sides generated support for some of the independence movements active in the region. The new relationship between the United States and Russia may bring to an end to that support for regional elements and there might even be coordinated action to squash some of these movements. In order to turn this new relationship into a force for positive developments in the Caucasus, a number of points should be kept in mind:
* There is a big difference between relative power and relevant power. The United States is indeed the global hegemon, but Russia is still a big weight in the Caucasus, and for security and peace arrangements in the area to succeed, Moscow must feel that it has a stake in them. Moscow can still play the role of the "spoiler" in the region. Moscow possesses the ability to undermine through local forces almost any arrangement the United States sets in the area, and Washington should keep that in mind. In dealing with the conflicts in the area, such as Nagorno-Karabagh, the United States should not attempt to erect a Pax Americana peace. Instead, Washington should ensure that peace processes are carried out in full partnership with Russia.
* Al-Qaeda members are the homeless of the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda activists are a very different breed than those involved in territorial-based conflicts. Precisely what characterizes these activists is their lack of connection to a territory, their rejection by their countries of birth and their lack of assimilation into Afghan society despite presence there for decades. These people are very different from the activists of territorially anchored struggles, such as Chechnya. The United States should endeavor not to link its fight against Al-Qaeda with dealing with local territorial based conflicts around the globe and not let local governments suck them into these disputes.
* Paradoxically, increased US military presence can weaken Georgia. The United States deployment of the advisors and equipment signals Washington`s commitment to Georgian independence and stability. Nonetheless, this symbolic contingent cannot play a major role to ending the conflicts in Georgia. In fact, since the announcement of the intension of deployment, representatives of some of the separatist regions in the state have escalated their demands. Moreover, the US dispatchment to Georgia gives legitimacy to Moscow to maintain military presence in Georgia, under the pretense that they are also fighting against Islamists in Pankisi.
* Policymakers need to be careful in their description of groups. Policymakers use a variety of inappropriate and imprecise terms in describing the affiliations of various actors in the region. Moscow and many governments in the region use the term "Wahhabist" to refer to Islamic elements of all types and many Muslims that are interested in changing the social and political status quo in the area, despite the fact that most of these groups have no ties at all to Wahhabist movements or ideology. Specifically, the Pankisi Gorge is filled by a number of violent elements, including many criminals.
Only a small number, if at all, possess ties to foreign terrorist groups . The United States needs to recognize that many elements in the area are exaggerating the extent of the links between local elements and Al-Qaeda in order to get the United States more entrenched in the area. Moreover, the U.S. should be careful to not embroil itself in domestic conflicts in the Caucasus and should continue to prod Tbilisi towards domestic conflict resolution.
* Could be bad news for the Chechens. Even if there is not an explicit agreement, Moscow will interpret the United States` military presence in Georgia has a sign that Washington accepts Moscow`s claim that it is confronting international Islamic elements that are present in the north Caucasus. This will give Moscow a feeling of having a freer hand for actions in Chechnya. A sign of the U.S. position on Chechnya is Washington`s recent request to Radio Liberty not to launch its planned broadcasts in the languages of the north Caucasus- a gesture that was made to appease Moscow`s sensibilities.
* Opportunity to resolve the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict. This conflict has significantly been exacerbated by Russia`s playing of the sides against each other in the early 1990s, and later from U.S.-Russian rivalry in the area. The newfound understandings between the United States and Russia could breathe air into this peace process. Last week, the OSCE Minsk Group launched new proposals, and these should be given serious attention by Washington, Moscow, and other actors in the region. The Nagorno-Karabagh peace process is further facilitated by the emergence of a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship has between Turkey and Russia. The shift in relations between Moscow and Ankara, and the consequential reduction in threat perception by Moscow, can lead to Moscow lowering its security demands in the south Caucasus, such as deployment of fewer troops on the Armenian-Turkish border, creating more options for furthering resolution of Nagorno-Karabagh.
The United States' decision to send troops to Georgia and Moscow`s subsequent reaction to this decision symbolizes an important shift at work in the framework of relations between these two powers. The implications of that shift can contribute to conflict resolution in the Caucasus region, but they can also lead to different scenarios of increased military action against political movements in the region and, potentially, the aggravation of conflict.