Moscow, Get Ready for Trouble

By Alexander Rahr22.09.2010Global Policy

The long shadow of the Soviet Union can be felt even today. Around Russia, former republics and part-republics are experiencing turmoil across national and ethnic borders. If Moscow is not careful to play her cards right, destabilizing forces could soon become energized.

The already difficult situation in the south of the former Soviet Union is tightening up. The signs are hard to overlook: in Kyrgyztan there has been the second violent overthrow within a short time, the future of the republics Abkhasia and South Ossetia – annexed by Georgia in 2008 – is insecure, and there are plenty of unsolved territorial ethnic conflicts as a result of the collapse of the multi-ethnic state 20 years ago, as well as increasing terrorist activities of North-Caucasian Islamic fundamentalists. Moreover, there is an increasing resistance of Islamic fundamentalists against the totalitarian and corrupt governance of local post-communist elites. The area is quite volatile, to say the least. There are no claims of the part-republics for more autonomy from Moscow, as there were in the time of the Chechen war, but the Islamist fundamentalists are now aiming to implement the constitution of an Islamist theocracy. An Islamist guerilla war against Russia is forming in the underground of the North Caucasian part-republics Dagestan and Ingshetia that is most likely supported by Al Qaida.

The Caucasus conflict puts the gas and oil pipelines at risk

The tensions in the northern Caucasus are aggravated by the existence of Abkhasia and South Ossetia, two regions that are not generally recognized as sovereign nation-states. All across the Caucasus there are historical, religious and ethnic trouble spots that cannot all be controlled by Russia. For two decades a conflict has been smouldering in the Southern Caucasus about the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, located between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It could evoke a confrontation between Russia and the West if it escalates one day. Furthermore, there are strategically important transit routes for gas and oil all through the Caucasus region, through to Europe. Another potential conflict exists in Moldova on the western border of the Black Sea. Russia sees itself as the protector of the apostate Transnistria while the new pro-Western government of Moldova is reaching out towards the European Union and NATO. The border between Moldova and Transnistria is patrolled by Russian “peacekeeping” forces. However, as is well known, a Georgian attack on Russian blue helmets in South Ossetia led to the war in August 2008. Finally, there are also political conflicts lurking on the Ukrainian Crimea. Russia is not willing to withdraw its Baltic Sea fleet from Sevastopol and wants to continue leasing the marine base from the Ukrainian government. On the Crimea itself there are tensions between Ukrainians and Russians on the one side, and between Ukrainians and Islamist Crimean Tartars on the other.

NATO and the EU are powerless

The post-Soviet region does not fall under the umbrella of NATO or EU influence. Thus, these two organizations have little political clout there. The OSCE would have the legitimacy to solve the conflicts pointed out above. However, it lacks the necessary mechanisms of enforcement. It has been a severe mistake of the West to put much of its military capabilities under the institutional structure of NATO while de-emphasizing the important role the OSCE could play. The root for some of the “frozen conflicts” in the Soviet area still lies in the collapse of the former Soviet Union. While the former Soviet republics have all been released into independence, the administrative subordinate part-republics have been denied their sovereignty. However, the biggest conflict potential is lurking on the border region between Russia and the Islamic world. Should Pakistan and Afghanistan fall into the hands of radical Islamists, determined to carry their concept of a theocracy further north, the threat of war for Russia would increase drastically.

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