Saturday 25 February 2012

Kavkaz 2012

Graham Knight

Russian Military Base in Gudauta, Abkhazia (RIA Novosti)
In January 2012 the Russian Defence Ministry announced that it would be conducting extensive military training operations, labelled ‘Kavkaz-2012’, in the autumn.  An official date of September has been set.  This annual show of strength is nothing new having commenced in the summer of 2008 prior to the August war with Georgia.  In July of that year, eight thousand Russian troops conducted military operations in eleven southern districts.  This led a number of commentators to argue that Kavkaz-2008 allowed Russia to successfully mobilize troops during the war itself and ultimately contributed to Russia’s overall success. 
However Kavkaz-2012 will exhibit a number of key departures from previous training exercises.  Firstly, operations will involve the full spectrum of Russia’s military capabilities which include the army, the navy, the air force and the security forces.  Secondly, one of the key aims of the military operations will be the testing of a new and high-tech ‘network-centric’ approach to modern warfare.  The approach utilises a single, centralised information network to control the movements of all military forces and the Russian Defence Ministry believes this will allow it to successfully combine electronic and cosmic reconnaissance, drones as well as forces on the ground.  Russia’s ability to test such technology is an indication of its growing military capability and Putin’s commitment to continuing this process of development was confirmed on 20 February in an article published in Rossiskaya Gazeta.  £487bn has been committed to the army over the next decade (BBC news).

Finally, unlike previous military training operations, manoeuvres may also take place in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Armenia.  To date, only six UN member states have taken the step of recognising Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence; Russia itself, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauri, Vanuata and Tuvalu.  Thus any deployment of Russian troops as part of Kavkaz-2012 onto what the majority of the international community continues to recognise as sovereign Georgian territory will be in violation of international law.
The decision to conduct operations outside Russian territory is the most recent indication of Russia’s well documented and growing influence in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  In the case of Abkhazia, the de-facto Abkhaz authorities and Moscow signed a ‘military cooperation treaty’ in September 2009 which has led to a significant build-up of Russian forces on the border with Georgia (International Crisis Group) .  Military bases have sprung-up in Ochamchira, Gudauta and most recently in Gali in close proximity to the Inguri Bridge, a crossing point into Abkhazia.  Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s decision to allow Russia to conduct operations on their own soil represents a clear signal of both regions’ desire to remain within the Russian field of influence.
Kavkaz-2012, as reported by the Russian liberal newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, will centre around a hypothetical response to a future war between the ‘West’ and Iran  (Nezavisimaya Gazeta), a scenario that seems to be ever more likely.  In January 2012 Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin announced that a war in Iran would be a direct threat to Russia’s national security.  As such Kavkaz-2012 will play-out a scenario whereby the conflict expands beyond Iran’s borders into the South Caucasus region.  Russian forces will seek to prevent the destabilisation of the South Caucasus region to prevent any conflict seeping over the border into Russia itself.   
However, these new games are less about Iran and more about the ongoing stand-off between the West, read NATO and the US, and the Russian Federation.  In recent years Russia has been developing a more hard-line stance against what it sees as Western attempts to expand a unipolar, liberal vision for the world.  Hence, both Putin’s (2000) and Medvedev’s (2008) foreign policy concept statements talked of what they perceived as a stifling US domination of the world’s political and economic stages.  Moreover, many political commentators felt Kavkaz-2008 represented Russia’s first major attempt, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, at publically signalling to NATO and the US that it would no longer sanction what it saw as their imposition of this unipolar vision into the so-called post-Soviet space.  Kavkaz-2012 would seem to be aimed at something similar.  Russia is signalling to the West that it will not condone a Libya-style intervention into Iran which sits just over 400km from its Southern border. 
It is though important to acknowledge that many of Russia’s concerns are well founded and as Andrei Tsygankov has pointed out in no uncertain terms, “Russia has had to swallow...two rounds of NATO expansion, the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, the U.S. military presence in Central Asia, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and plans to deploy elements of a missile-defence system in Eastern Europe, along with a media war implicating Russia as a potential enemy,” (Tsygankov 2008).  One might argue that had the US been placed in such a position it might also have adopted such a hard-line and aggressive foreign policy.

Kavkaz 2008 (RT)
Nevertheless Russia’s military operations contain the potential to once again destabilise the Southern Caucasus region.  The Georgian government responded to Moscow’s announcement by accusing the Russian government of militarizing the region and destabilizing an already precarious status quo.  One can perhaps sympathise with their argument.  Furthermore, military tensions are already high between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorny-Karabakh region.   
In both these cases a return to outright military confrontation is unlikely in the foreseeable future but Russia’s continuing insistence on explicit shows of military strength both within and along the borders of the region will simply reopen old wounds.  Rather than defuse the tensions in the region Russia will once again highlight why it represents a poor candidate for resolving any of the conflicts.  Sending troops into the South Caucasus will not convince the Georgian government, for example, that Russia’s interests in the region are anything but self motivated.

Finally, Kavkaz-2012 is an indication that attempts at rapprochement between Russia and the US under the Obama administration have failed to address the key underlying Russian concern: Western foreign policy is driven by a desire to undermine its sovereign security.  Whether that sovereign security should be at the expense of stability in the South Caucasus region is open to debate.

Monday 13 February 2012

Russia's Syrian Veto

Joanna Christou

Russia vetoed the UN resolution on Syria, provoking widespread condemnation. Washington Post

On February 4th, Russia and China vetoed a United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution which would have condemned the Syrian government’s violent crackdown on its people and backed the Arab League’s plans to end Bashar al-Assad’s regime and promote elections. Condemnation of the veto has been loud and clear, particularly - but not exclusively - from the West. Hillary Clinton said the veto was a ‘travesty’, William Hague called it a ‘great mistake’, while the head of the Arab League branded it ‘unacceptable’.  Publicly, Russian officials have claimed the reason was the lack of forethought on how to deal with armed opposition groups. But when considering the background factors two things become evident. Firstly Russia is protecting its interest and secondly its foreign policy is still swayed by a Cold War-esque mentality which pits Russia against the US.  
In many ways, perhaps the veto should not come as a surprise. The Russian regime itself has a strong history of cracking down on dissidence, with Chechnya representing the most violent instance. And while the condemnation of the UN-led strikes on Libya last year were more muted, Russian unease with the situation was apparent. It abstained on the vote which authorised all necessary measures to be used in Libya, and later on was vocal in criticising the UN of overreaching its mandate. 
Obviously financial interests are also a big part of the equation. Arms trade represents a large source of income for Russia, which has delivered an estimated US$4billion of arms to the Syrian regime, while its overall investments in the country are estimated at US$20billion. Beyond this, Syria is an old Soviet ally and in recent years the Kremlin has been keen to hang on to old friends. This factor conceals another, perhaps more important reason behind the Russian stance on Syria, namely its persistent paranoia over the US-led international order.
Admittedly, the word paranoia is a strong one, but it does seem fitting when one takes into account the rhetoric currently emanating from Russian officialdom. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov branded western reactions to the Syrian veto as ‘bordering on hysteria’. And now, Putin has openly accused the US of inciting the Russian protests. All of this points to a little more than just a deep distrust of the west.  Yet, it is the Kremlin’s policies which give the clearest indications of its perceptions of the world.
Since Putin’s accession to power, and continuing with Dimitri Medvedev, Russia has constantly sought closer ties with the Middle East which has been viewed as an effort to curtail US dominance. The Kremlin has links with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and arms deals with Syria, Palestine and Iran. Arms deals have represented an important source of trade with other states including China, Venezuela and India – all of whom aside from the latter have complicated relations with the US to say the least. In fact, Russian co-operation with Iran on nuclear matters has often drawn the ire of the West. Beyond this, in the last decade or so Russia has persistently sought to impose its dominance in its neighbourhood. Its military operations in Georgia in 2004 and the gas wars with Ukraine are apt illustrations. In fact, when at the Munich security conference in 2010 Vladimir Putin openly criticized the US of trying to establish a ‘unipolar’ world, with ‘one master’. There was no clearer an indication of Russian feelings. This all points to a Cold War-esque mentality which is influencing Russian foreign policy. 
Since the Sino-Russian veto bloodshed has ensued in Syria. This image is from the besieged city of Homs. Sky News
So, it is obvious that the Kremlin is uneasy with the US’s dominance. This leads us to another question, what should the West, particularly the UK, be doing in order to ease Russian fears and to promote a less aggressive Russian policy? 
UK-Russian relations have not been smooth sailing in recent years, with the extradition disputes surrounding Boris Berezonsky, the espionage saga (including the involvement of a somewhat comical spy rock) and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London, all having caused very public tensions. William Hague’s open criticism of the Syrian veto is now but another example. 
Obviously Hague’s reaction is justified and represents continuity in British policy regarding humanitarian interventions, with operations in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya all having been supported by the UK. Quite tellingly, Russian support was overt only in the case of Afghanistan. The common denominator here is the US-UK special relationship and their constant support for one another’s policies, which must only heighten Russian perceptions and anxiety. What this highlights is a growing need for western states, the UK included, to connect with Russia on a bilateral basis, outside the auspices of fora such as the Security Council which only add another layer of mistrust and paranoia to the mix. 
David Cameron’s trip to Moscow late last year was a step in the right direction. Security, trade, investment, science and innovation were identified as key areas for co-operation. What is needed is growing engagement in these areas and continued co-operation at a bilateral level and now is a perfect time. The Arab Spring has startled the Kremlin and has already brought the downfall of old allies (Mubarak and Qaddafi) and problems at home. Engagement on a one-on-one basis would allow the Russians to feel like an equal partner and help dispel fears of growing isolation whilst slowly building trust.
Ultimately, the Russian veto on Syria is regrettable. While the bloodshed continues, Lavrov is in Syria attempting to negotiate a transition to power mirroring the failed efforts of Turkey just a few months ago. The fact that Russia has gone against the Arab League’s wishes in this whole fiasco is but another indication that its perceptions of the world are influencing its policies. It is now time for the UK to start dealing with Russia alone on a more regular basis with the simple aim of re-building ties and instilling some trust in what is a relationship with a great deal of baggage. This could eventually result in, at least, some reasonable debate and, at best, growing co-operation on the issues that really matter.