|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.