Russia’s policy in the South Caucasus conflicts

2 June, 2017

Georgian tabloid Asaval-Dasavali released in its May 15-21, 2017 edition an interview with Valeri Kvaratskhelia, leader of Socialist Georgia, in which the latter accuses the United States of the emergence of ethno-political conflicts in the South Caucasus and notes that Russia is the only guarantor for defending Georgia.


Valeri Kvaratskhelia, Socialist Georgia: "Russia’s factor has been weakened and now Mullah’s Bayati awakens Batumi in the mornings. The West has a lot of levers to explode the Caucasus that will further be used against Russia. The problems of Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been fully created by the U.S. special services in order to leave mines in the Caucasus. Whenever they need, they will explode these mines. In this case, nobody will defend us. On the contrary, even our neighbors will go against us. We have the only historical defense mechanism and it is Russia’s patronage! Our great ancestors knew it and just this mechanism helped us survive several times. Since its destruction, Georgia has been moving rapidly on its path towards disintegration and extinction.”

Valeri Kvaratskhelia’s statement is false, because Russia usually used the South Caucasus conflicts as a lever against respective countries. As for the processes ongoing in Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia, Russia used to back one or another side, in line with its own interests, while Russian armament frequently found its way into the hands of the both sides that actually further complicated the possibilities of peaceful resolution of conflicts. Although Russia’s physical involvement is not confirmed in case of the Tskhinvali Region in 1991-1992, as a result of political statements made against the Georgian government and Moscow’s involvement in the peacekeeping process, the Georgian side lost control over this region. During the August 2008 war, Russia carried out a clear military intervention in the territory of Georgia.

The Issue of Nagorno-Karabakh

1.Initially, Stalin handed over Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, but later he revoked this decision and placed the territory under Azerbaijan’s control

The present-day conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputable territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has its root in the decisions made during the Sovietization of the South Caucasus countries in 1920s. On December 2, 1920, Stalin, who served then as the Commissar of Nationalities, made a decision, according to which Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhchivan would fall under the control of Armenia. But this initiative was condemned by Nariman Narimanov, the head of Azerbaijani’s revolutionary committee. Four months later the Soviet Union and the Republic of Turkey signed the Treaty of Moscow or Treaty of Brotherhood. To further strengthen the partnership with Turkey, Stalin placed both Nakhchivan and Karabakh under the control of Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan.

Along with weakening the Soviet Union, the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh caused further tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The armed conflict was unleashed in 1988, which further overgrew into full-scale hostilities following the Soviet Union’s disintegration.

2.Russian militaries participated in the war on both Azerbaijani and Armenian sides

In 1990-1991, the Kremlin expressed open support to Azerbaijan, because, unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan had not declared independence before the 1991 Soviet coup d'état attempt (Putsch). Starting from 1992, Russia changed its position in favor of Armenia.

Within the framework of the 1992 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (Tashkent Agreement), both Armenia and Azerbaijan received Soviet armament, though its number was limited to 220 battle tanks, 220 armored combat vehicles and 285 artillery units. Besides legally transferred armaments, Human Rights Watch also pays attention to the armament that was illegally purchased or stolen from old Soviet bases.

"These armaments, some transferred legally to the Soviet successor states, some stolen, and some sold by corrupt military officers or by armament factories hungry for customers, have fueled conflicts throughout the former Soviet empire and increased the toll of civilian suffering.”

Some Russian militaries were involved in the conflict on both sides. Human Rights Watch said in its report that armaments of the 4th and 7th Russian Army, deployed in Azerbaijan and Armenia, respectively, found their way into the hands of combatants on both sides.

Another important issue is the involvement of the troops of Russia’s 366th motorized infantry regiment deployed in the Armenian city of Stepanakert in the developments ongoing in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly on Armenian side. Two days after the developments Azerbaijan bought Russian military helicopter that would have taken journalists to Khojaly but it was downed by another military helicopter, which was owned neither by Armenia, nor by Azerbaijan by that time. In September 1992, the Azerbaijani side detained six members of Russia’s special troops in Karabakh.

3.Russia hampered the peace process led by the Minsk Group

The Minsk Group was created in 1991 by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, presently Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)) to encourage a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia hampered the peace process by holding unilateral meetings with the sides without informing CSCE on it. U.S. Ambassador to OSCE, John Maresca wrote in 1994:

"Russia wished to reestablish its dominance in the region and to exclude outsiders, particularly the U.S. and Turkey… Moscow would like to reestablish control of the former Soviet frontier with Turkey and Iran, and to share in Azerbaijan’s oil riches. To accomplish these aims, Russia has been pressing Azerbaijan to accept the reentry of Russian troops as a separation force and as border guards, and to give Russia a share of the oil concessions being developed by Western companies. For leverage, the Russians have used an implicit but dramatic threat: If Azerbaijan does not comply, Russia will step up its backing for Armenia, with disastrous military results for the Azeris.”

4.Today Putin supplies armament to both Azerbaijan and Armenia

Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization along with Russia, Belarus, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Armenia constantly buys armament from Russia and Russia ensures constant presence in Armenia. Moscow announced in November 2016 that it will establish a joint Russo-Armenian military unit, which will include troops of the 102nd Russian military base stationed near Yerevan as well as the 4th Corps of the Armenian Army. According to the initiative, "in peacetime, it will be subordinated to Armenian military structures; while in wartime, Russia’s Southern Military District will take command.”

Simultaneously, Russia supplies weapons to Azerbaijan. According to the 2012-2016 data of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia is the largest arms importer for Azerbaijan – Russia accounted for 69% of arms import to Azerbaijan.

The Issue of Abkhazia

1. Russia acted against Georgia in the Abkhazia war

Russia’s physical involvement in the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia is confirmed by a number of facts. The Russian Supreme Soviet increasingly backed Abkhazia; simultaneously, the Transcaucasian Military District supplied weapons to the Georgian government. In summer 1992, the Georgian government received a large amount of weapons from Russian militaries, who were ready to withdraw from the territory. Abkhazia’s armament was scarce, but quite soon the situation changed for better, in favor of Abkhazians.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its March 1995 report that the conflict in Abkhazia was heightened by the involvement of Russia, mostly on the Abkhaz side. According to the same report, Russian arms found their way into Abkhaz hands, while Russian planes bombed civilian targets in Georgian-controlled territory. "Russian military vessels, manned by supporters of the Abkhaz side, were made available to shell Georgian-held Sukhumi, and at least a handful of Russian-trained and Russian-paid fighters defended Abkhaz territory in Tkvarcheli,” the report reads.

Shortly after the conflict began, mercenaries from the North Caucasus arrived to back Abkhazians, while the border between Abkhazia and Russia fell under control of Russian troops. Already in October Eduard Shevardnadze openly accused Russia of intervening in the conflict, noting that Georgian units were bombed from armaments that were not available to Abkhazia in that period. HRW reported that Georgian helicopters, including civilian crafts, were shot down with what press on the scene described as Stinger-type heat-seeking missiles fired from gunboats in the Black Sea. The Georgian side claimed that they noticed T-72 and T-80 tanks and artillery units near Sokhumi, which were controlled by Russian military officers. Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported that Sukhoi-25 planes bombed Georgian positions during the fighting, which was centered on the Nizhny-Eshera region outside of Sukhumi. In March 1993 Georgian forces succeeded in downing a Su-27 fighter-bomber and its pilot was identified as a major in the Russian aid force.

As a result of Russia’s open involvement in the conflict, Georgia lost control over Abkhazia.

2.Russian hampered UN’s involvement in the processes

The United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) was established in 1993 to verify compliance with the ceasefire agreement between the Government of Georgia and the Abkhaz authorities in Georgia. Svante E. Cornell, a Swedish scholar specializing on politics and security issues in the South Caucasus, writes that as the UN became increasingly involved in trying to achieve a ceasefire, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev bluntly announced that Russia was not interested in UN involvement but desired to pursue its own efforts at mediation. In 1993 Kozyrev stated that no other group of nations "can replace our peace-making efforts” in the near abroad, that was one of the first clear messages against UNOMIG.

In 2009, the Security Council failed to extend the mandate of UNOMIG after Russia vetoed a technical roll-over for the mission. UNOMIG, thus, ceased to exist at midnight on the same day and 150 members of its staff left the country.

The Issue of Tskhinvali Region

Russia’s physical involvement in the developments ongoing in the Tskhinvali Region in 1991-1992 is not apparent, but Moscow used this issue as a lever against the Georgian government. Russia’s involvement in the processes became obvious from May 1992, following intensified attacks between the conflicting sides. Speaker of the Russian parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice-President Aleksandr Rutskoi made harsh statements against the Georgian government, using terminology defining the South Ossetians as Russian citizens, saying that Russia would spare no efforts to defend its "own citizens.” In his book Small Nations and Great Powers, Svante E. Cornell writes that Khasbulatov reportedly threatened to bomb Tbilisi in a telephone conversation with Shevardnadze.

Three weeks after Khasbulatov’s statement, an interim peace agreement was reached as a result of which the Georgian government lost control over the Tskhinvali Region and Russian troops were deployed at the administrative border.

In 2008, Russia unleashed a full-scale war against Georgia under the pretext of defending its "own citizens” and implementing "a peacekeeping operation” and carried out military intervention in Georgia.

Prepared by Sopo Gelava