So Many Invasions, So Little Time

Russia’s next war won’t be with Georgia. It’ll be with Georgia’s unruly northern neighbors—Russia’s supposed vassals—the Chechens, Dagestanis, and Ingush.

That’s one plausible explanation for why, as Eurasia Daily Monitor reported, Russia’s defense ministry is simultaneously drawing down the number of troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia while organizing a massive new army training exercise in the North Caucasus.

There were originally supposed to be 3,700 troops stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But on Wednesday, May 17, Russia’s top military commander, First Deputy Defense Minister Army-General Nikolai Makarov, announced that this number would be cut. He didn’t give any specifics, only that the stationed force  “will be reduced, since the initially announced number is perhaps too large.”

This is happening in conjunction with Kavkaz-2009, a training operation that is the successor of Kavkaz-2008, which took place last summer. The Kavkaz-2008 operation amassed and equipped 8,000 Russian troops on the Georgian border; they subsequently marched into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to the dismay of the Georgian military forces who had been hoping to bring the two republics back under Georgian control.

This year’s Kavkaz exercise involves an even larger fighting force of 8,500. Eurasia Daily Monitors’ Pavel Felgenhauer speculates convincingly that Russia is planning on a new round of combat, this time bringing the fighting straight into Georgia proper. Most likely, it will take place in July or August.

Their objectives will be decisive,” he wrote. “Regime change and the forceful demilitarization of Georgia… establishing a secure land corridor linking Russia to its strategically important military base in Armenia… (and) transforming Georgia into a loose confederation of its many semi-independent regions with their regional king-pins, with a weak central government and without any national military-security forces.”

He notes that recently Makarov claimed to be worried that Georgia would be an instigator of new trouble. In the general’s own words, “Georgia is saber-rattling and preparing weapons to resolve its territorial problems by any means.”

Felgenhauer suspects that Makarov is just laying out a justification for an invasion of Georgia that the Russian military is already set on undertaking. Stationing this major military operation in the north Caucasus is the invasion’s planning phase:

If Moscow were indeed anticipating a possible new Georgian attack, it would have been logical to place forces in forward positions to prevent a sudden assault. But if Russia itself is preparing major military action, using the accusations of Georgian aggression as a pretext, it makes practical sense not to spend resources creating large permanent military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is much more expedient when the time for action arrives to move combat troops from permanent bases within Russia.

Felgenhauer may be right. But the only problem is that this summer might be an inopportune time. There are too many other invasions that Russia will likely have to initiate. Specifically, into Chechnya, and neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia.

Never mind that Russian president Medvedev and Chechen governor Ramzan Kadyrov officially celebrated the end of the Chechen war over a month ago. Things are, as the head of a local NGO told Caucasian Knot, “not so mild and beautiful.”

Militia groups keep up the fight. Among their latest sorties, as told by Eurasia Daily Monitor: a shootout that killed a police officer in Shali on May 28; and an explosive device that wounded two police officers on May 30 in Grozny.

Caucasian Knot concurs with the NGO head: “Kadyrov has serious reason to be dissatisfied with the actions of law enforcement agencies.

That’s why Kadyrov gathered his security chiefs together on Wednesday, May 17, and told them “I am giving you two weeks to change the situation. The rebels must be destroyed.

Will the Chechen forces be able to do in two weeks what the far more powerful Russian military was not able to do in 10 years? Probably not. Russian leaders have every reason to be worried. They may reason that Kadyrov will need some extra help. Enter another 8,500 Russian troops.

They might see it as a sound investment, given that havoc in Chechnya seems to have a tendency to spill over into neighboring republics:

  • On June 1, a man was severely wounded by an improvised explosive device in Dagestan’s capital city of Makhachkala. Three law officers were wounded in a shootout in Makachkala the day before.
  • The same day as the shootout, another bomb blew up a car parked at a gas station in Karabulak, Ingushetia, killing the three passengers inside.

It’s natural that what starts in Chechnya might continue in Ingushetia. The Chechens and Ingush share many historical ties: Both are mostly Sunni Muslim, 20.4% of Ingushetians are ethnically Chechen, the two languages are almost mutually intelligible, and both peoples share an antipathy toward their overlord Moscow.

Dagestan is Sufi Muslim, not Sunni. But that hasn’t stopped Chechen rebels from trying to inspire the Dagestanis to rise up against Russia many times since the fall of the Soviet Union. And even before–Shamil, a warlord of Dagestan in the nineteenth century, drew most of his followers from Chechnya.

Russian officials might be open to taking on Georgia some time in the future. But for the time being, any plans to gain new territory might have to be put on hold while they must fight for the territory they already have. Apparently they feel Chechnya is worth expending a decade and hundreds of thousands of lives over. Or maybe they fear that the loss of it would be enough to turn the Russian people against Medvedev-Putin’s United Russia party, which is already losing popular support due to the tanking economy. It doesn’t need an unsuccessful war to sour the public mood even more.

In any case, they’re not going to simply leave the situation to Kadyrov, who is already showing that he can’t quell uprisings alone. They’re going to try to do what they haven’t done in over a decade, i.e., restore order themselves.

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2 Responses to “So Many Invasions, So Little Time”

  1. Timothy Post Says:

    There is one super big hole in Felgenhauer’s thesis that Russia wants to take-over Georgia. namely, if, in fact this were the case, then Moscow could have, and easily would have, done so last August when it was within spitting distance of Tiblisi.

    The reality is that there is zero proof that Moscow has such aims on Georgia. Sure, the Kremlin doesn’t like Saakashvili. Hell, most of Saakashvili’s own people, not to mention his former colleagues, don’t like him. However, such sentiments do not therefore translate into a military strategy.

    Moscow knows that Saakashvili’s days as Georgia’s President are numbered. The Georgians themselves will decide on his future in the next election. There is simply no need for the kremlin to initiate an uncertain and probably very bloody campaign this Summer.

  2. rickdocksai Says:

    All good points. I agree that Russia would have a lot more to lose than to gain by invading Georgia. As you point out, Saakashvili is in a very weak position at this point. Left to his own devices, he will remain weak and will eventually be replaced – and if Moscow is smart, it could discreetly influence to succession process behind the scenes so as to ensure a pro-Moscow successor.

    Invading would throw a giant monkey wrench into all of this. Saakashvili would be overpowered eventually, but not before rousing his people toward him and against Russia. Anti-Russian resistance in Georgia would be a drain on Russia’s manpower and money for years to come. Not worth it. History shows that even if a people do not like their leader, they like even less the invader who tries to forcibly replace him.

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