Thwarting Base Ambitions

In the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union collapsed, the remnant of the Soviet Army in the Transcaucasus region was harassed and its weapons stolen or expropriated. The Defense Ministry in Moscow was mostly preoccupied with removing essential equipment like tactical nuclear warheads and secret satellite communication stations before they were taken over by the locals.

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Everything changed in the mid-1990s as a string of ethnic wars, accompanied by ethnic cleansing, crippled the three Transcaucasus republics of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Armenia defeated the Azeris in Nagorny Karabakh but was then blockaded by Turkey. Weak and defeated Azerbaijan was seeking Russian help in an acute conflict with Iran over drilling rights in the oil-rich Caspian Sea.

By 1995, the Russian military dominated most of the Transcaucasus. There were some 15,000 Russian soldiers on Georgian territory, outnumbering the ragtag local military that was devastated by civil wars and the defeat in Abkhazia. Russian border guards fully controlled the Turkish border. By 1995, the Georgian and Armenian governments signed agreements to allow Russia to keep military bases on their territory for as many as 25 more years.

While recruiting Armenia as an ally, Russia also extended substantial influence into Azerbaijan. Both rival nations were seeking favor in Moscow and the Azeri government authorized the Russian military to continue to operate a large early warning radar in Gabala, west of Baku. This radar allows the Defense Ministry to monitor things like U.S. military air activity over Iraq and Iranian ballistic missile tests.

The Georgians hoped that in exchange for military bases, Moscow would press separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia to reach a settlement with the central government in Tbilisi. Moscow did attempt to mediate but halfheartedly and with zero effect. During the last decade, the Kremlin has not proposed a single workable solution to any of the long-lasting conflicts in the region.

The restoration of Russia's influence in the region was facilitated by ethnic wars in which Moscow intermittently aided both sides, sending arms and military specialists first to help Armenia, then the Azeris and then back again. The same pattern was repeated in Georgia, and Russian aid always equaled battlefield success for the favored side.

Many in Moscow believed that keeping conflicts in the Transcaucasus frozen but unresolved would preserve Russia's newly gained influence. The Georgian parliament did not ratify the agreement to keep Russian military bases because there was no progress in resolving the Abkhazia problem or, most important for the Georgians, in negotiating the return of refugees to Abkhazia. Now this treaty has been abandoned, and this month the Georgian parliament demanded the immediate removal of the bases, threatening sanctions and a moratorium on visas to Russian officers sent to serve in Georgia.

As the military got mired down in Chechnya and all battle-ready resources were sent to the North Caucasus, its presence in the Transcaucasus region dwindled. Today there are only around 4,000 soldiers left at Russian bases in Georgia, and they are not fully battle-ready.

The $100 a month earned by regular contract solders was a lot of money in the 1990s. Armenians, Georgians and Abkhazians paid bribes to get papers to prove they had the right to Russian citizenship, which allowed them to serve under the Russian flag. At the Russian base in Batumi, Georgia, on the Turkish border, most of the rank and file are local Georgians. Armenians staff another base on Georgian territory in Akhalkalaki, as the Meskheti Turks that once lived in the region were expelled by Josef Stalin in the 1940s and replaced by Armenian settlers. If the Georgians decide to blockade the Russian bases, the garrisons staffed with locals would likely offer only token resistance.

Instead of forming alliances with the Transcaucasus nations based on long-term interests and aspirations, the Kremlin has kept various factions and ethnic groups at each other's throats. Since 2002, under orders from the Kremlin, Russian passports have been freely distributed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in an obvious prelude to annexation.

The Georgians could either agree to become a Russian dependency along with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or lose these areas entirely. However, when push came to shove over military bases, it became apparent that President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin has no spare capacity to support its ambitions with force. And Soviet-style policies do not work without Soviet might.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.