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Russian War Games: More Than Saber-Rattling?

Some Western analysts believe Moscow may be preparing for another strike into its southern neighbor, Georgia. The warnings are based on widespread rumors in Moscow and elsewhere – and on recent history. Russia’s strike into Georgia last August was preceded by military maneuvers similar to those now underway in the North Caucasus region, which borders Georgia.

In May and June, NATO staged military exercises in Georgia, much to Russia’s dismay. Russia began its own military maneuvers earlier this week, and its top commander said they would involve “all the brigades of the North Caucasus Military District, the Black Sea Fleet, and Caspian Flotilla marine brigades." The exercises involve thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks.

Eurasian expert Paul Goble, the author of many books and articles on the former Soviet Union, calls the show of force “very disturbing and dangerous.” He suggests Moscow is engaged primarily in “a game of tit-for-tat,” in retaliation for the recent NATO exercises. He spoke on VOA’s International Press Club (July 2, 2009).

The Restive Russian Republics

All seven republics in the North Caucasus region, which are part of the Russian Federation, border Georgia. Four of these republics – Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Karbardino-Balkaria – are particularly volatile.

On June 5, the highest-ranking law official in Dagestan was gunned down at a wedding celebration. Five days later, the chief justice of a local supreme court was killed in Ingushetia. Last week Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the reformist President of Ingushetia, was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber. And this week, after a series of attacks on police officers in Karbardino-Balkaria, Russian officials launched an anti-terrorist operation there.

An American Perspective

“The North Caucasus has never been stable, contrary to what Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says and what some Americans have been willing to believe,” Paul Goble said. “Things are worse now than they were three months ago, but it’s not as if you had a stable situation that is now unstable,” he said. “It’s only that people outside are now paying attention.”

Speaking with VOA host Judith Latham, Goble said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made some serious miscalculations after the attempted assassination of the Ingush President. “He assumed that force alone would enough to quiet things down,” Goble said.

But even more serious, according to Paul Goble, it appears that Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin are willing to rely on Ramzan Kadyrov, the President of Chechnya, to restore order beyond the border of his republic. “It opens up a real can of worms, not only because Kadyrov is one of the biggest thugs around but also because it will further exacerbate tensions in the region,” Goble said.

A Georgian Perspective

“In Georgia there is little perception of an immediate threat from Russia.” So says Ketevan Khachidze, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper The Georgian Times. Khachidze observes that most people are preoccupied with the political protests that have been going on since early April in which demonstrators have been demanding the resignation of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

“There is no consensus on what Russia’s ultimate goal is – just to grab Georgia’s breakaway republics or to invade Georgia and depose President Saakashvili as some foreign analysts are claiming,” Khachidze said. She agrees with those analysts who suggest it may be an attempt by the Kremlin to demonstrate to the United States that it can do whatever it likes in the Caucasus.

Nonetheless, Khachidze says Georgians are hopeful about the upcoming summit in Moscow, where U.S. President Barack Obama will meet early next week with the Russian President. She notes that a new survey conducted by an opinion poll company in Tbilisi reveals that Georgians have a confidence level in Mr. Obama of 71 %. According to Khachidze, many Georgians hope that “President Obama will tell President Medvedev that Georgia’s sovereignty – if not its territorial integrity – should not be threatened and that no tanks will roll into Tbilisi.”

A Russian Perspective

Russians appear not to be worried about the recent political violence in the North Caucasus. “In Dagestan and Ingushetia, for example, reports of assassinations – or attempted assassinations – of local officials are fairly common,” Russian journalist Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center points out.

Lipman notes that Ingush President Yevkurov, who is currently in grave condition, was appointed by the Kremlin. So, she said, Moscow was understandably concerned when, immediately after he was wounded, the President of neighboring Chechnya acted as if he were ready to take charge of both republics. “Of course, it would be really dangerous to put him in charge of this neighboring territory,” Lipman said.

Lipman said the Kremlin is likely to retain a major role in deciding who leads Ingushetia and the other republics of the North Caucasus. And she points to the example of a much loved Ingush leader whom Moscow got rid of “just because he was acting more independently than the Kremlin would expect from a local leader.”

The Murky Path Ahead

Although it is unclear whether Moscow intends to physically move into any of its neighboring republics of the former Soviet Union, many analysts think Russia is creating a psychological advantage in its relations with the West by flexing its military muscle and clearly asserting its sphere of influence in the Caucasus.