The Russian military focus on tasks in the Caucasus and Central Asia

Led by Pavel K. Baev

Jan 2006 – Feb 2007



The chain of dramatic events in the neighbour-states, starting with the ‘orange revolution’ in Ukraine in November-December 2004, continuing in the sudden collapse of the Askar Akaev’s regime in Kyrgyzstan in February-March and taking a different turn with the brutal suppression of the violent uprising in Andijan, Uzbekistan in May, caused a major re-evaluation of the security threats in Moscow. Deterring new ‘coloured revolutions’ has become the major goal in foreign and security policy, and Central Asia has been identified as the key theatre where the main efforts, including the military activities, have to be concentrated.

Another area that has required attention and action is the Caucasus which has seen a very different security dynamics. The Russian leadership has grown less concerned about the developments in Georgia expecting its ‘revolutionary’ leadership to fail due to internal squabbles and even agreeing to withdraw its troops from bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki. Internal disturbance in Azerbaijan has been perceived as noisy but lacking power and irrelevant for Russian interests. While the hostilities in Chechnya continued with hardly any decline, the Russian leadership has been encouraged by the fact that not a single major terrorist attack occurred in Moscow. It was the North Caucasus where the security situation has significantly deteriorated and the violent clashes in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria in mid-October showed that multiple low-intensity conflicts could suddenly escalate to a dangerous level.

From the point of view of the Russian leadership, the security challenges emerging in the Caucasus and in Central Asia have dissimilar character and require different counter-strategies. More convincing and usable military power, nevertheless, is required to make these strategies work. This calls for more than just further increases in financing the military programs from the much-expanded state budget. Speaking to the top brass in mid-November, President Putin did not request any reforms but the some decisions on reshaping the Russian Armed Forces are long overdue, so it appears essential to combine monitoring and research on Russia’s security posture.

The research problem and the background

President Putin is entering into the decisive year of his second term when his firm control over the political situation in the country might suddenly weaken due to escalation of tensions in his no longer united team or a major external influence of a ‘revolutionary’ character that could trigger unrest in some of the regions and resonate in Moscow. He also attaches great importance to Russia’s chairmanship in the G8 that is expected to provide him unique opportunities for building his international profile. That determines priority attention to the security challenges emanating from two regions to the south of Russia’s borders: the Caucasus and Central Asia.

In Central Asia, Moscow has made the stake on propping up the established regimes against the pressure from below and on shielding them from the demands for change that come from many international organizations and, specifically, from the US. Russia has invested much effort in strengthening the network of institutional ties with this region, from the bi-lateral alliances with Turkmenistan and, more recently, with Uzbekistan, to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which serves as a gateway for China into this region. These efforts are analysed in the recent article Pavel Baev, ‘Russia evolves its commonwealth policy’ (Jane’s Intelligence Review, November 2005, pp. 44-45). These organizations and institutions exploit a new counter-revolutionary discourse that incorporates many elements of the counter-terrorist rhetoric, which has become an international lingua franka.

In the Caucasus, Russia has adopted a ‘wait-and-see’ stance vis-à-vis Georgia, the pioneer of the ‘coloured revolutions’, expecting that its leadership to fall into one of several self-made traps set by the urgent need to resolve the frozen secessionist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A humiliating setback would, in Moscow’s opinion, turn the tide of ‘revolutionary’ dynamics, much the same way as the decisive clamp down in Andijan altered the situation across Central Asia. These expectations may or may not prove correct but it is increasingly obvious that Moscow cannot design an effective counter-strategy against the spread of violent instability across the Northern Caucasus. President Putin tries to present the quick suppression of the uprising in Nalchik as a ‘decisive victory’, which testifies rather to the Kremlin’s unwillingness to conduct a serious risk assessment and address such root causes of destabilization as the total corruption of the system of power.

In both regions, the success of Moscow’s political manoeuvring would depend to a large degree upon the availability of military instruments. President Putin has recognized the importance of modernizing the deteriorating military structures but remains unable to establish the priorities of the long-postponed military reform. At the start of his second term in office, he made the conscious choice against launching any fundamental military reform and opted for modernizing the existing Armed Forces. This decision essentially ignored the incompatibility between the political aims for applying military force and the existing military capabilities, which has grown wider due to the new obligations in Central Asia and new risks in the Caucasus.

Putin‘s choice is to a significant degree validated by the much-improved economic situation, since Russia has enjoyed a six-year period of dynamic, even if diminishing growth and has accumulated significant financial reserves. This strong performance creates an opportunity to invest substantial resources in upgrading its military might and acquiring the capabilities necessary for achieving the ambitious political goals. The military budget for 2006 is significantly increased again after the sharp expansion in 2005. However, a closer look at the acquisition programme shows that the troops would receive only a limited number of modern weapons, while the most urgent needs in computer-age command-and-control systems remain unaddressed. The crucial question about abandoning the draft and shifting to a professional army is tackled with extreme caution and is effectively postponed till the end of the decade.

These essentially ‘good weather’ plans in reorganizing the military might turn out to be entirely inadequate if a sudden eruption of conflict in either Central Asia or the Caucasus requires a large-scale application of military might. Moscow first response might come in the form of punitive air strike against a high-visibility target appointed as a terrorist base’. There has been a stream of official statements about the readiness to deliver ‘preventive’ strikes since Autumn 2004 and President Putin even tested a new long-range missile during strategic exercises in August 2005 (this issue was analysed in the article ‘Russia insists upon preventive strikes: Possible options’, RUSI Newsbrief, October 2004). Sooner rather than later, a real strike may be seen as necessary to support the credibility of this strategic bluff – and this would inevitably raise serious questions about Russia’s capabilities for projecting power.

Assessing the immediate and mid-term prospects, as well as risks, for build-up and application of the Russian military might in Central Asia and the Caucasus is, therefore, a complex research problem, which could be structured as a two-fold task:

· to analyse the interplay between the counter-terrorist and counter-revolution strategies in Central Asia;

· to evaluate the risks related to the combination of conflict manipulation in the South Caucasus and containing instability in the North Caucasus.

For the first task, the key issue is the pattern of cooperation/competition with the US and international efforts aimed first of all at advancing the post-conflict state-reconstruction in Afghanistan. Moscow is obviously not interested in shifting the current flexible pattern towards a more rigid confrontation but would exploit every opportunity to emphasise the vulnerability of Western interests. For the second task, the major problem is the unpredictability of potential spillovers between various seats of conflict, which could put the decision-making mechanism in the Kremlin under great stress. The increasing involvement of several European organizations, and first of all NATO, in the political transitions in the South Caucasus could expose Western interests to sudden challenges which Moscow could be eager to exploit. In order to substantiate this analysis, the project would focus on two specific cases, which have particular impact on Russia’s military posture. The first one is the deadlocked low-intensity war in Chechnya, which has seriously affected the political climate in the country as well as the professional culture and morale in the army. The second specific issue is the content of Russia’s policy towards Turkmenistan where the risk of a violent and sudden regime change in a form of a coup or a spontaneous burst of public discontent is increasing. The analysis of these cases will be linked with the research on the role of energy interests in shaping Russia’s security policy in the Caspian area (supported by the newly-launched Russian studies programme sponsored jointly by Statoil, Norsk Hydro and the OED).

Addressing these tasks, the research project builds on the findings of eight previous projects: ‘Russian Army as a Political Instrument and Policy-Maker’ (1994-1995); ‘The Russian Army and Russia’s Evolving Security Posture’ (1995-1997); ‘Regionalism in Russia and the Transformation of the Russian Army’ (1998-2000); ‘Russia’s Foreign Policy, Military Reform and Regionalism’ (2001); ‘Russia in the Global War Against Terrorism: Limits of Partnership With the West, Internal Challenges and Military Reform’ (2002); ‘Transforming the Russian Military: A Fresh Effort or More of the Same?’ (2003); ‘Could the Russian military be a partner to NATO in counter-terrorist operations?’ (2004); and ‘Putin’s Vision and Plans for Modernizing the Russian Military: Counter-Terrorism and Power-Projection’ (2005). These projects are presented at and their general output was the book The Russian Army in a Time of Troubles (London: SAGE, 1996), 13 book chapters in edited volumes and 25 articles in academic and policy-oriented journals (for the goals and the output in 2005, see the updated presentation of the project at as well as the forthcoming report). The research planned for 2006 will take this analysis further and – by importing findings from research projects focussed on Russia-Europe relations – provide for examining new trends and perspectives. It will also contribute to further competence building in one of the traditional priority areas as identified by the Defence Ministry.

The research activities were structured accordingly, but the fourth goal was integrated in the analysis and assessments related to the first three goals forming the basis for the conclusions. At the same time, an additional goal was added in the course of implementation of the project:

· to assess the risks related to the threat of terrorist attacks against energy infrastructure in the Caucasus and Central Asia and the relevance of military instruments for addressing these risks.

The findings and output of the research in each of the four areas can be summarized as following.

Russian armed forces as an instrument for deterring the threat of ‘coloured revolutions’

During 2006, the assessments in Moscow focused on the scale and urgency of the threat of ‘coloured revolutions’ both in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood and in some of its constituent republics and regions were radically revised. At the start of the year, the still powerful resonance from the ‘orange revolution’ in Ukraine (November-December 2004) further strengthened by the ‘Tulip revolution’ in Kyrgyzstan in February-March 2005 determined high and even alarmist assessments of this security challenge. In the second half of the year, however, the perception of the receding tide of the ‘revolutionary wave’ was gaining ground. The brutal suppression of the uprising in Andijan, Uzbekistan by the forces loyal to President Islam Karimov was recognized as the turning point, and the swift defeat of the small-scale and essentially desperate insurrection in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria in October 2005 was seen as a decisive victory that eliminated this threat in the republics of the Northern Caucasus.

This re-evaluation has brought a significant reduction of the demands for counter-revolutionary readiness in the Russian Armed Forces since the need in their deployment for countering this threat has become perceived as diminishing and even disappearing. For that matter, the new escalation of internal unrest in Kyrgyzstan in November 2006 was generally ignored by Moscow and no military measures involving the Russian Kant airbase (near the capital Bishkek) were seriously contemplated. The absence of any significant social protests or insurgent attacks in the North Caucasus is now seen as the convincing evidence of the victory in the ‘war against terror’. The reduced tasks and diminished burden related to that protracted war have even created some ‘free military capacity’, which is seen in Moscow as a usable instrument for a more pro-active advancement of Russia’s interests and, more specifically, for putting more pressure on Georgia.

In the framework of this project, attention was focused on the gradual shifts in political risks assessments in Moscow and their translation into strategic guidelines. A broad perspective on the patterns of conflict was presented in the article ‘Thucydides’ three security dilemmas in post-Soviet strife’, Journal of Military Ethics (vol. 5, no. 4, December 2006, pp. 334-352). The convergence and blending of the counter-terrorist and counter-revolutionary strategies was examined in the article ‘Putin’s Counter-Terrorism: Parameters of the Strategic Dead-End’ published in Small Wars & Insurgencies (vol. 17, no. 1, March, pp. 1-21). The relation between Russia’s regional/federal policy and the plans for reforming the military, particularly for abandoning the traditional system of military districts, is re-examined in the chapter ‘Military reform and regional politics’, pp. 114-130 in Stephen L. Webber & Jennifer G. Mathers (eds), Military and Society in Post-Soviet Russia (Manchester: MUP).

The question about the sustainability and the consequences of the success of Russian counter-terrorist strategy was examined in the report ‘Has Russia achieved a victory in its “War against Terror”?’, presented at the annual conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington DC, December, available at, for the conference agenda, see Several articles on relevant topics, from the reorganization of Russia’s military-industrial complex to the shifts in counter-terrorism, were published in Eurasia Daily Monitor, produced by Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC (

  • ‘Putin’s ambitions and Russia’s military feebleness’ (11 September);

  • ‘Russia wrapping up its war against terror’ (14 August);

  • ‘Moscow outraged by the US sanctions against two Russian companies’ (7 August);

  • ‘An informal farewell for the dysfunctional Commonwealth’ (24 July);

  • ‘Russia’s virtual military might shield against US criticism’ (15 May);

  • ‘Moscow puts PR spin on its shrinking nuclear arsenal’ (17 April);

  • ‘Ivanov takes charge of Russian military-industrial complex’ (28 March);

  • ‘Moscow’s initiative: Your terrorist is our dear guest’ (13 February);

Re-asserting Russia’s dominance over Central Asia : What role for the military?

Moscow was profoundly concerned about the shrinking of its role as the ‘security guarantor’ in Central Asia and the increase of US influence in the aftermath of the coalition intervention in Afghanistan and the deployment of US forward airbases in the region. Up until the end of 2004, Russia’s attempts to restore its positions had been only partly successful at best, but the rising threat of ‘coloured revolutions’ and the spectacular collapse of Askar Akayev’s regime in Kyrgyzstan in February-March 2005 opened new opportunities. Moscow assumed the role of ‘protector’ of semi-authoritarian or outright despotic regimes and wholeheartedly supported the brutal suppression of the mass revolt in Andijan, Uzbekistan in May 2005. The forced withdrawal of US airbase Kharshi-Khanabad (K2) from Uzbekistan by the end of 2005 was seen in Moscow as the definite proof of its rebuilt dominance.

During 2006, Moscow gave priority attention to upgrading the activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), while concentrating its own efforts at strengthening the energy relations with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The SCO indeed showed much vigour but underneath the PR ‘smoke-screen’ its security structures remained seriously underdeveloped. The regimes in the three energy-rich Central Asian states gradually recognized that Russia had no intention to act pro-actively in a possible crisis situation as the level of Russia’s military commitments remained quite low and the ‘counter-terrorist’ exercises involved mostly symbolic contingents. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that faced real security challenges were mostly neglected by Moscow despite the much-advertised Russian military presence on their territories. Moscow missed no chance to criticise NATO for failing to address the opium problem in Afghanistan but remained entirely unconcerned about the gradual transformation of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan into drug-trafficking states. The sudden death of President Niyazov in Turkmenistan in the last days of 2006 illuminated Russia’s lack of reliable instruments for asserting its influence while its dependence on importing natural gas from Central Asia has become no less than critical.

In the framework of the project, attention was primarily focused on the shift of Russia’s policy in Central Asia towards the energy-related problems and on the limited role of the military means in this policy. The shortcomings in Moscow’s ‘energy-first’ approach and the possibility of a new erosion of its influence were analysed in the article ‘Turning counter-terrorism into counter-revolution: Russia focuses on Kazakhstan and engages Turkmenistan’, European Security, vol. 15, no. 1, March 2006, pp. 3-22. The short-termism of Russia’s policy and the lack of a strategic vision in the region were discussed in the paper ‘The Caspian direction in Putin’s “Energy Super-Power” strategy for Russia’ presented at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, AAASS (Washington, November 2006, available at Several relevant issues were addressed in the shorter articles published in the Eurasia Daily Monitor (available at

  • ‘Russia ignores the Riga summit and expects NATO to fail in Afghanistan’ (4 December);

  • ‘Moscow quietly raises its game in the Middle East’ (31 July);

  • ‘What “holy alliance” does Putin want to avoid?’ (3 July);

  • ‘Has Moscow turned its back on Tehran?’ (16 January).

Losing ground in the South Caucasus but enforcing stabilization in the North Caucasus

Since mid-2004 and during 2005, the security situation in the North Caucasus acquired the features of steady destabilization driven by widespread social discontent and triggered by a chain of terrorist attacks. The unexpected even if desperate insurrection in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria in October 2005 convinced the Russian leadership in the urgent need to address the accumulated problems; it even showed some readiness to cooperate with the EU in developing programs focused on reducing social tensions. Moscow continued its stake on the massive use of military force against the terrorist cells but sought to combine it with greatly increased subsidies for republican budgets and careful reshuffling of republican elites orchestrated by Dmitry Kozak, presidential envoy in the Southern district. These measures did produce a considerable effect so that during 2006 the North Caucasus did not see a single large-scale terrorist attack or an explosion of public discontent.

A crucial factor in promoting this still uncertain stabilization was the gradual reduction of intensity of combat operations in Chechnya achieved primarily through the empowerment of local para-military forces under the command of Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov (known accordingly as kadyrovtsy). While generous funding for reconstruction projects brought visible improvements in the functioning of key elements of economic and social infrastructure in the republic, the concentration of power in the hands of Kadyrov Jr., who had few doubts in using it in the most brutal way, created serious problems. Besides deliberately provoked clashes with Russian and pro-Russian forces inside Chechnya, there were several incidents on its borders and even a remarkable case in Moscow when a former ‘field-commander’ was gunned down in broad daylight in Leninsky prospect by an execution squad sent from Grozny. The Kremlin, nevertheless, prefers to insist that the Chechen problem is solved and the absence of any terrorist attacks in Moscow since mid-2004 is the most convincing evidence of that.

The relative but sustained stabilization in the North Caucasus and the significantly diminished intensity of combat operations in Chechnya reduced the burden of the Russian Armed Forces and even created some ‘free military capacity’, which could have increased Moscow’s foreign policy reach into the Southern Caucasus. The strategy in this region, however, remained incoherent and inconsistent. Armenia, which has positioned itself as Russia’s key ally, has received surprisingly little attention. Putin focused more on building bridges with Azerbaijan but the long-expected delivery of the first oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in 2006 increased President Ilham Aliyev’s confidence in the stability of his regime. Russia’s main target in the South Caucasus was Georgia, and its policy of combining economic pressure with military threats proved to be quite counter-productive. The series of loud scandals with Georgia seriously damaged Russia’s international reputation.

In the framework of the project, it was the situation in the North Caucasus, where shifts towards more stability were often interrupted by terrorist and insurgency attacks, that received the most attention. The ambivalent impact of the Islamic factor was examined in the article ‘Contre-terrorisme et islamisation du Caucase du Nord’, Politique éntrangère, vol. 70, no. 1, March 2006, pp. 79-89 (enclosed). The prospects for further normalization and the risks of a new destabilization were evaluated in the paper ‘The Russian military campaign in the North Caucasus: Is victory in sight?’ presented at the conference ‘The Future of the North Caucasus’ organized by the Jamestown Foundation, Washington, September (the paper and the conference proceedings are available at The evolving pattern of the Chechen war was examined in the article ‘Shifting battlefields of the Chechen War’, Chechnya weekly, vol. 7, no. 16, 20 April 2006 (available at

Moscow’s ambivalent policy towards Azerbaijan was analysed in the article ‘Putin tries to pull Azerbaijan into sphere of influence’, CACI Analyst, 8 March 2006 (available at The attempts to exploit the secessionist conflicts in order to put more pressure on Georgia were examined in the article ‘Russian quasi-federalism and Georgia’s non-existent territorial integrity’, CACI Analyst, 3 May 2006 (available at

Inventing a role for the military in securing the energy infrastructure

The greatly increased emphasis on energy-related issue in Russia’s policy, and first of all foreign policy, convinced the military leadership in the need to set relevant tasks for the Armed Forces. Terrorism was identified as the most serious threat for energy infrastructure, particularly pipelines, and the General Staff designed a series of exercises, both unilateral and cooperative, aimed at preparing for countering this threat. The goal of this conceptualizing and training was entirely pragmatic: To ensure more funding for the conventional forces, since political attention was shifting again, as in the late 1990s, to modernizing strategic nuclear forces with their high-value symbolism. The idea of building forces for protecting pipelines appeared unassailable but its one weak point was that it found no material evidence of existence of such a threat. Indeed, in the protracted struggle against terrorism, not a single attack on ‘strategic’ energy infrastructure was registered, with the exception of the explosions of the gas pipeline and electric energy power lines in January 2006 that left Georgia without energy for more than a week. This case, however, looks more like an exception that proves the general rule – and the program of training for the Russian forces thus acquires the character of preparing for actions aimed at energy infrastructure abroad, from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to the gas pumping stations in Turkmenistan.

This discrepancy between increasing preparations and non-existent threat was analysed in the article ‘Re-evaluating the risks of terrorist attacks against energy infrastructure in Eurasia’, China and Eurasia Forum, vol.4, no. 2, May 2006, pp. 33-38 (available at The security dimension of energy relations in Eurasia was also addressed in the paper ‘Russia takes stock of global energy security and aspires to the status of “energy super-power”’, presented at the conference ‘Geopolitics of Energy Security: The Rise of Asia’ organized by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi, December 2006; it will be revised into a book chapter in 2007.

This additional goal of the project provided a good connection to the research on geopolitics of Caspian energy conducted with the support of OED, Statoil and Norsk Hydro; the conference in Baku in September 2006 was particularly useful.

Expertise-building and networking

One of the major goals of the research project was to contribute to the development of expertise in Norway on current Russian security and military problems, first of all centred on conflict management in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Besides publications, one of the key means for achieving this goal was lecturing, both in the military institutions (lectures at the Forsvarets høyskole and Krigsskolen, consultations in the Forsvarets stabskole and Luftkrigsskolen) and in public forums (the Atlantic Committee, the University of Oslo, the Bjørkness college). Seminars and briefings on relevant topics were given at the FD, UD and OED. Another contribution was the supervision of the doctoral projects of Pinar Tank on ‘Turkey’s Military Elite at Crossroads: Paths to Desecuritization?’ (supported by the FD, currently revised after being submitted to the UiO in April 2006). In addition to that, there were quite a few consultations and advising for students working on their theses focused on the Caucasus and Central Asia in various Norwegian universities.

An important element of the project was extensive cooperation with other Norwegian and Nordic research institutes, first of all with the Centre for Russian Studies at NUPI (for instance, presentation at the conference ‘The Multilateral Dimension in Russian Foreign Policy’, December). Cooperative ties were established with the Finnish International Affairs Institute (FIIA-UPI), the Swedish Defence Research Establishment (FOI), which for a few years involved me as a consultant for the project focussed on the Russian military reform, and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which organized together with PRIO the international roundtable ‘Transforming conflicts in the North Caucasus’ in June 2005. Finally, a part of this networking was the participation in the NORFACE (Network of the Nordic social sciences research councils) conference ‘Rethinking Russia: Challenges and Opportunities’, organized by NUPI in January 2007.

The project also involved extensive international networking, including a range of military institutions. Among key partners in 2004 were the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington, a policy conference in December 2006 with a report (PONARS memo) presented); the NATO Defense College (the PfP academic seminar in Istanbul, Turkey in June 2006); the EU Institute for Security Studies (seminar on Caspian energy security in Paris, October); and the Jamestown Foundation (Washington, a conference on the North Caucasus, September). Of particular interest was the meeting of the Aspen Atlantic Group in Wilton Park, UK in April 2006 that involved several former foreign ministers; the theme was ‘Russia: Prospects for a Common Transatlantic Agenda’ and my presentation was focused on the developments in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. The ‘Research Note’ that constitutes a separate part of this Report would elaborate on some ideas coming from these discussions.

Many interviews with Norwegian and international media were performed in the course of the project in 2005; the letter in New York Times (1 March 2006), the quote in Washington Post (30 April 2006) and the interviews with Canadian CBC Radio (28 April) and Iranian FARS news agency (19 April) could be mentioned separately.

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