Throughout 2010, Russia has pursued
pro-active foreign policy to strengthen its military presence outside of its
borders in the Caucasus and the Black Sea. Even though Moscow has failed to
preserve its dominance just after the collapse of Soviet Union, it succeeded to
rebuild its presence in the post-Soviet space in line with a strategic doctrine
that requires preserving its stance in this geography for the countrys
sovereignty in its own territory. In this sense, Russia is creating a buffer
zone out of its borders, and trying to take preventive measures as well as act
like a balancing power in the region.
Russia has started to strengthen its
position in the eastern and northern part of the Black Sea, after becoming
neighbors with NATO forces in the west and southern part of the region as a
result of eastern expansion of the North Atlantic Alliance. In fact, Russia
gained some privileges in 1990s, thanks to the emerging conflicts and its
psychological influence or structural superiority on Newly Independent States.
Before these privileges coming to an end Russia has taken decisive steps that
will shape the balances in the region in the upcoming 25 years.
Russian fleet in Crimea has a
strategic importance in terms of preserving Moscows dominance in the Black Sea
and being able to reach to the Mediterranean when necessary. Accordingly, the
very essence of the existence of the fleet is one of the main reasons behind
Russias aggressive reflexes recently. In this sense, causing a great concern
in the Kremlin, the debate on Russian fleets existence -which was guaranteed
until 2017 by an agreement that goes back to 1997- acted as a catalyst that
gave a big blow to Yushchenkoss political career in Ukrainian politics. As can
be recalled Yushchenko started a new rhetoric just after the Russo-Georgian
war, which is based on the arguments that Russian fleet should leave Crimea
and Russia should not use its navy in Ukraine for its irredentist policies.
Consequently, Russia had to face the
fact that it had to deal with a similar scenario in Ukraine, which is perceived
as a natural part of fatherland, like in Baltic region that it encountered
after Estonia, Lithuania and Latvias membership to NATO. To tame this kind of
twisted ideas, Russia started to use energy instrument more efficiently on
Ukraine to weaken Yushchenko administration and the existing system, and also
stimulated its relations with the opponents of the pro-Western leader. This
aggressive change in Russias policies created a favorable environment for
Yanukovich to come to the power in 2010 presidential elections. As a result,
pro-NATO discourse eliminated from Ukrainian political sphere and Russia gained
the privilege of keeping its fleet in Crimea up until 2042 with the signed
agreement with Kiev in April 2010.
In fact, Ukraine only represents a
small portion of the latest change of balances in the region. In this respect,
the dynamics that emerged after August 2010 can be examined to be able to
understand how important the balances of the Black Sea for Russias strategic
concerns. According to some experts, having well-founded concerns regarding its
existence in Crimea, Russia did not hesitate to recognize Abkhazia and South
Ossetias independence in spite of having a fragile-federal structure back at
home. Recognizing Abkhazias independence, Russia would extend its coastline in
the Black Sea, and would guarantee the existence of the Russian fleet in the
Black Sea. Thus, Russia could use Ochamchira port efficiently and Plan B
would be ready when necessary.
In this respect, Russian Federation
does not hesitate to enlarge its presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the
expense of violating the ceasefire treaty with Georgia. Abkhazia and South
Ossetia agreed to host Russian military bases for a period of 49 years.
Currently there are 1700 Russian troops in Guduata town of Abhkazia and this
number is expected to reach 3000 with the new agreement. By the way, Ochamchira
port is being rehabilitated for the efficient use of Russian Navy.
Moscow also deployed S300 air defense systems in Abkhazia, but according to
Georgian authorities this is an open violation of the ceasefire.
Yet, it should be emphasized here the deployment of powerful systems like S300
missiles, does not feel like a measure taken against Georgia, rather a message
to NATO and the US.
Ariel Cohen argues that Russias
next step would be rehabilitation of the biggest airbase in the South Caucasus,
which is located in Bomboro near Guduata. This is
the largest military airfield in the Southern Caucasus, boasting a 4-kilometer
long runway, thus making it a strategically coveted facility. The runway ends
less than 100 meters from the sea, allowing aircraft to take off at very low
altitudes over the sea and proceed undetected by enemy radar in the initial
phases of flight. When all
these restorations and deployment of troops completed it is assumed that there
will be 4000-5000 Russian troops in Abkhazia. Thus, Russian dominance will
strengthen not only in the Black Sea, but also in the Caucasus.
Moscow also increases its grip in
South Ossetia as well. Signing a similar agreement with the de facto government of Tskhinvali,
Moscow aims to deploy 1700 troops, T-62 tanks, light armored vehicles, air
defense units and aircrafts in the seperatist region. Not hesitating to flex
its muscles, Moscow also guarantees the security of Abkhazia and South Ossetia
by taking some efficient defensive measures.
Where does Armenia Stand in the Big Picture?
Armenia could not avoid becoming a
satellite of Moscow, in spite of rising nationalism against Russian chauvinism
that created a national awareness among Armenians. Being a landlocked country,
having limited resources that cannot keep up Armenian economy without foreign
transfers, and having a security deficit, Yerevan has become an outpost of
Moscow in the post-Cold War period. Russian dominance in Armenian politics is
not limited in hard politics but also in economic sphere. In time, Russia has
become a monopoly in energy, mining, and petro-chemical sectors of the country
and holds a certain share in telecommunication.  This creates
an asymmetric interdependence in favor of Moscow and makes it difficult for
Yerevan to pursue an independent foreign policy.
Non-resolved Karabagh problem, which
poses security risks, is one of the main reasons for Armenias seek for
Russias support in the region. Unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan has succeeded to
find new funds after the independence thanks to energy resources of the
country. This creates an unbalanced situation between Yerevan and Baku in terms
of military expenditure. Azerbaijans military budget rose to $1.1 billion in
2007, whereas Armenias is assumed to be around $280 million.
Apart from having better weapons than 1990s, Azeri army has gained a well-disciplined
character thanks to the reforms implemented in the last decade. Relying more on
its economy and army, from time to time Baku does not hesitate to give messages
to Armenia that the military solution to the problem still remains on the
table. Furthermore, Azeri Parliament recently approved a new Military Doctrine.
This document officially puts forward the reasons of casus belli and underlines the fact that Armenias uncompromising
attitude for a political solution of the problem can cause emerge of a new war
in the region (Article 43).
A war between Azerbaijan and Armenia
will have severe consequences than the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. Neither
Russia, nor the US desires de facto
stability to turn into a war and cause deeper crises in the region. In this
sense, Kremlin is trying to play a balancing role in the South Caucasus to be
able to preserve its control over Armenia, while developing its relations with
Azerbaijan, which has gained momentum recently. Russias balancing role has a
vital importance for the faith of North Caucasian Republics of the Federation,
as well as Moscows hegemony that it has started to rebuild in the South Caucasus.
Under these circumstances, timing of
the agreement between Russia and Armenia to extent the right of keeping a
military base in Armenias second biggest city Gyumri until 2044 is well
Just after the release of military doctrine and the clash between Armenian and
Azeri forces in the disputed area of Karabagh,
the signed agreement gives direct messages to Baku.
Two reasons can be proposed for this
interpretation. Firstly, the extension was done so early. 1995 agreement
expires in 2020 and there is almost 10 years more to discuss the faith of the
base. Secondly, Armenia is a member of Common Security Treaty Organization, and
it enjoys the protection of Russia against a possible attack. Thus, the
military base in Gyumri is not necessary to protect Armenian territory and
people.. Yet, it has a deterring impact on Azerbaijan.
On the other side of the coin Russia
also mitigates the messages coming from Yerevan that emphasizes Russia will be
protecting Armenia better than before with the new agreement.
Sergey Lavrov indicates that after the agreement the role of Gyumri base did
not change, and also added that he believes that no state in the region plans
to launch new military operations, because it would be catastrophic.
Even though the government seems to be
satisfied with the agreement, Armenian opposition criticizes the decision of
extension. They argue that the new agreement makes Armenia more dependent on
Russia. Raffi Hovanissian says that the base is also a burden for Armenia. It
is a Russian base abroad that Russia does not pay any rent or reimbursement.
Russia is playing the role of
balancing in the region without changing its position radically. In other
words, it is telling Azerbaijan that the developing relations between Baku and
Moscow are not at the level of ignoring a war against Armenia. On the other
hand, it scratches Yerevans back.
In conclusion, Russia aims to
decrease the tension in the region with the new agreement. However, Moscow also
strengthens its position in the Black Sea and the Caucasus by taking another
complimentary step to build up a stronghold in the post-Soviet space after its
maneuvers in Ukraine and separatist regions of Georgia. The new agreements
shape the next 20-30 years and creates new barriers for those who intend to
challenge Russias position in the region, while building wave breakers in
front of Russias fragile region, the North Caucasus.
Hasan Selim Ozertem
USAK - Center for Eurasian Studies