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Jan 26, 2006 | 22:18 GMT

6 mins read

The Russian Reversal: Part 1

Recent events in Ukraine and Georgia and the recent scandal involving British diplomats in Russia have hinted at Russia's attempts to reassert control over its interior and periphery. Russian President Vladimir Putin's administration has enacted laws restricting nongovernmental organizations and has used natural gas policy to impose Putin's will on Russia and the former Soviet states as well as Europe. Moscow is preparing to try reversing the tide of pro-Western "color revolutions" that have swept the region and shield its borders from further Western political and economic encroachment by fortifying its near abroad. In the next several years, Putin will consolidate his power and find a way to remain in a position of influence beyond the March 2008 elections.
Russia has been especially active during the past several months in consolidating power in the Kremlin and reinforcing its position in its near abroad. The "color revolutions" in the former Soviet Union (FSU) have destabilized the Russian flank and precipitated moves to centralize and reinforce Moscow's power in the region. Recent incidents in several FSU countries resulted from Russian action or reaction and represent the former regional overlord's attempts to slowly start its comeback.
Russia has for the past two decades conducted a policy of trying to strengthen itself through economics at the cost of geographical influence. Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently decided that this plan will not give Russia the best chance to remain a strong player in the world arena. Thus, in efforts to tie the periphery back to Russia, Putin is making moves to create new tensions — or exacerbate old ones — in the friction points surrounding Russia. Ukraine
Ukraine has been at the forefront of international attention of late, primarily because recent events there have affected Western European states. The Russo-Ukrainian natural gas debacle, which reduced supplies to Germany and other countries, put Europe on alert and led it to reconsider its current reliance on Russian energy. In particular, Germany will delay and possibly scrap the construction of a natural gas pipeline directly connecting it to Russia. The second gas shutoff to Europe, blamed on cold weather and Ukraine's blatant siphoning of natural gas meant for delivery to the Continent, has further cast Russia as an unreliable energy partner. However, Russia is willing to accept this economic risk to gain geopolitically. Endangering Ukraine's political shift toward the West is worth the inconvenience; Russia considers Ukraine's alignment a paramount concern because Ukraine's geography is vital to Russian security and physical integrity. Without Ukraine, Russia's ability to control Belarus, the North Caucasus and other areas would be greatly diminished. Putin might say he is involved in Ukrainian politics out of concern for the Russian minority there, but he is certainly involved for his own interests. The Ukraine situation is further complicated by Russia and Ukraine's takeover of each other's strategic objects on the Crimean peninsula. Operating under a lease, the Russian Black Sea Fleet has its only warm-water station on the peninsula and also maintains bases and lighthouses along the coast. The Ukrainians are drawing attention to the area in a bid to sway the upcoming Ukrainian parliamentary elections in favor of President Viktor Yushchenko's faction. Russia is portrayed as an aggressor and interloper, and the nationalistic element in Ukraine is provoking hostilities in the Crimea in order to inspire support for Yushchenko's Western-leaning Our Ukraine party, which came to power in the Orange Revolution, in the run up to the elections. Russia, meanwhile, will certainly support whichever candidate toes its line during the elections. The Caucasus
Trouble in the Caucasus has been prevalent lately as well. The region's very nature lends to outside interference; the many disparate groups in the Caucasus have warred for centuries and are vulnerable to Russian influence. The mountainous terrain is conducive to ethnic and social instabilities and tensions, of which outsiders have always taken advantage. Hostilities are on the rise between Russia and Georgia after a series of announcements regarding the future of Georgia's secessionist regions; tensions escalated further after three explosions cut off energy supplies from Russia. On Jan. 17, Russia announced it would consider heeding the Georgian Parliament's request to withdraw peacekeepers from the disputed Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the same day, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili announced an additional military draft. This series of actions, plus the recurrent tensions in the Gali region on the Abkhaz border, indicate a willingness among both the Russians and the Georgians to escalate the situation. Explosions Jan. 22 along two natural gas pipelines and an electricity transmission line — all close to the Georgian border in Russia — precipitated yet another confrontation. The incidents disabled energy delivery to Georgia, which quickly rerouted supplies from Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey. Saakashvili had been pushing to diversify the natural gas supply even before the explosions, and the transition to alternative sources was relatively easy. The question about the explosions is not who benefited from them — the question is who among the beneficiaries took the initiative? Georgian authorities have accused the Russians, specifically Russia's military intelligence agency GRU. The Russians have blamed the Chechens — the Northern Caucasus has not grown any less volatile — and pinned a charge of terrorism to the investigation. However, there are additional implications. The natural gas pipelines were struck in Russia's North Ossetia, just across the border from the Georgian-controlled South Ossetia. The electricity transmission line went down in Russia's Karachaevo-Cherkessia, near Abkhazia. Both of Georgia's breakaway regions are propped up by Russia, which also supports the Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti, where Russia holds an army base. Russia could use the energy infrastructure attacks to try to destabilize Georgia and its leadership, which came to power through the "Rose Revolution." Russia has shown that it is willing to do what is needed to achieve its goals, even if it means withdrawing support from certain regions. Also in the Caucasus, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is resurfacing. The Armenian-populated area of Azerbaijan was taken by force by militants who also secured a corridor to Armenia and a surrounding barrier. A tenuous cease-fire has been in place since 1994, and now French President Jacques Chirac has invited the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to meet in Paris in February to negotiate a settlement. However, Azerbaijan is in a position to escalate hostilities. Since his recent re-election, President Ilham Aliyev has been consolidating power in preparation for the income Azerbaijan will receive when the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline launches (which is due any time now). The revenue will surpass anything Azerbaijan has ever collected, and the possibility of it buying arms and attacking is substantial. During his visit to Baku on Jan. 24, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Russia wants to station peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh rather than risk depending on troops from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and that it is willing to arm both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani defense minister, in turn, said if the negotiations do not go well, Azerbaijan is ready to retake Nagorno-Karabakh by force. Armenia receives support from its diaspora community, Russia and, to a lesser degree, from Iran and the United States. Azerbaijan counts on U.S. financial and military support, as well as heavy Western investments into its energy sector. Russia would stand to benefit from its involvement in this conflict as well, de-stabilizing both of the factions and establishing itself in the Transcaucasus.

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