Russia’s Drive in the Caucasus

Adebate is going on within the analytical community on what Russia’s strategic interests in the Caucasus region are. It is worth saying from the get-go that they are a mixture of economic and political imperatives.

There are at least five reasons behind Russia’s drive to dominate the region, a region linking Russia’s hinterland with the Middle East and serving as a bridgehead between the Black and the Caspian seas. Moreover, indirectly, the Caucasus bridge also serves as a major potential way in which the Central Asian region can be connected to the European market. The Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, the South Caucasus Pipeline (gas), and railway infrastructure such as Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, are major projects which reconnect not only the two seas, but potentially Central Asia with Europe.

Thence comes Russia’s geopolitical imperative to project its influence in controlling gas and oil exports to Europe, which can potentially endanger Russia’s monopoly in that continent.

There are many tools Moscow has used, including ethnic conflicts and subversion of pro-European policies. And these tools are still very much effective. Indeed, Nagorno-Karabakh and other conflicts can easily be ratcheted up by Moscow to gain geopolitical momentum. As such, the South Caucasus represents one of the major theaters of the West-Russia confrontation.

The Caucasus is also important for its large number of ethnic groups. This is an important factor, often forgotten in geopolitical analyses, as the Russian North Caucasus has been a source of unrest for several centuries to date. The role of the North Caucasus is also quite striking as it is in this region that Russia’s potential weakness will first be reflected. In other words, instability in the North Caucasus equals a prerequisite for the demise of Russia’s geopolitical force.

Yet another reason is the Caucasus’ proximity to the Middle East. Wars in Syria and Iraq have played an important role in raising the profile of the Caucasus in Russian geopolitical calculus. Moscow is worried that Islamist extremism could be expanded to the restive Chechnya and Dagestan. In fact, this was one of the reasons why Russia entered the Syrian war in late 2015.

A large part of the Russian strategic thinking rests on the premises of the existence of the Caucasus Range. This is a significant obstacle: in fact, it represents by far the only large geographic barrier the Russians have ever crossed in their history. Russia could well have shut itself behind the mountain range and not have tried to cross into the South Caucasus. But since the decision was made in the late XVIII-early XIX centuries by Russia, its rulers have always aimed to improve the existing and create additional routes through the range to be better positioned in the region.

Russia could not allow those natural and artificial passes to be under foreign control as it would essentially mean barring Moscow’s projection of power into the region. Currently, Russia has three major routes in: the first from Sochi and the surrounding territories to Abkhazia along the Black Sea coast; the second through the Roki Pass in South Ossetia (Samachablo); and the third along the Caspian Sea coast from Dagestan to Azerbaijan. Russia has consistently dominated the three routes and when threatened, has used military action, much as it did in 2008 when there was a real possibility of the Roki Pass being overtaken by Georgian troops.

The reasons behind Russia’s drive in the Caucasus are only several which are most visible in everyday politics. If Russia has traditionally been the power which shielded the region from Turkey and Iran, nowadays we see an interesting picture where these powers interact pretty much smoothly in numerous theaters, most importantly in Syria. It is interesting though how this changed dynamic will have a bearing on the Caucasus itself.

By Emil Avdaliani

19 March 2018 17:20