Russia: September 4, 1999


Russia has reached an agreement to withdraw its Border Guards troops from Georgia by 1 Nov. The troops will hand over half of their weapons and equipment to Georgian Border Guards when they leave. Russian peacekeeping troops will remain in Abkhazia.--Stephen V Cole

A 660 pound car bomb went off next to an apartment complex for Russian military dependents in Buinaksk, Dagestan, killing 64 and injuring 146. Many of the casualties were wives and children of Russian officers. A few hours later, some 2,000 Chechen rebels, again led by Shamil Basayev,  crossed into western Dagestan and occupied several villages in the Novolakskoye region  Russian troops showed up soon, and when the rebels refused to surrender, the Russian artillery opened up. Some 2,000 civilians promptly fled the area..

September 4; Estonia has declared that it will have met all NATO conditions for membership by 2002 and must then receive an invitation to join. The Estonians believe that Russian opposition to its membership in NATO will evaporate as quickly as Russian opposition to Polish membership did, a belief that may be overly optimistic.--Stephen V Cole

September 3; Chechen rebels continue to move back and forth across the border. Worse yet, they still effectively control the two villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi. Between 600 and a thousand rebels are involved, and bad weather is limiting the number of Russian air strikes.

September 2; The last rebel held village in Dagestan was seized by Russian troops. In the last few days, 25 Russian troops have been killed as they swept the border looking for remaining Chechen rebels. Over a hundred Dagestanis have also been arrested for aiding the rebels. Russian troops and Dagestani volunteers on the border have been stopping additional Chechens from entering Dagestan. Russia reported that about 1,200 rebels remain in Chechnya and appear ready to renew their invasion.

September 1; Just Another Crises in the Caucasus

Since 1996, Russian troops have fire in the Caucasus three times. This is no accident. Indeed, what is amazing about these mini-wars is that there have not been more of them. For several hundred years, Russia has had problems in the Caucasus. The main problem is the geography, mountainous with hundreds of easily defended valleys. This in turn has led to over fifty different ethnic groups living in the area, a strip of land between the Black and Caspian seas. In theory, you could quickly travel from the Middle East to the great plains of Eurasia (southern Russia) by passing through the Caucasus. In practice, you could only do so if you made arrangements (paid bribes or did favors) with the various tribes and clans occupying the valleys and hill tops you had to pass through. With an army, you could fight your way through. But most generals realized it was a costly proposition and rarely worth the effort.

In the 19th century, Russia decided to deal with the "Caucasus problem" and spent several decades conquering the place. This they did, but the conquered peoples never fully accepted the situation. When the Soviet Union came apart in 1991, the Caucasus ended up a festering cauldron of ethnic animosities. Consider the portions of the region that the Russians retained nominal control over.
The Karachay-Cherkessia republic is a 14,000 square kilometer region with a population of 370,000. The principal ethnic groups are Karachay, Cherkess, Abaza and Russian. The region almost broke up into ethnic microstates when the USSR dissolved in 1991. Local elections kept the region divided, with neither the Karachay, nor Cherkess (the two best organized minorities) able to obtain control of the government. As a result, there has been a tense standoff in the area ever since. Russia appointed an interim president of the republic, which satisfied no one (except possibly the local Russian minority.) 

Chechnya is mostly Muslim and Chechen republic of 13,000 square kilometers and a population of 1.2 million. Because of its ethnic homogeneity, and long tradition of independence, the Chechens rebelled in December 1994 and fought the Russians for twenty months. In August 1996, the leader of the rebels, Aslan Maskhadov, negotiated a peace agreement in which the Chechens pretended that they were independent and the Russians pretended that the area was still part of Russia. Maskhadov was elected president of Chechnya in February 1997. Rival warlords do not accept the results of that election, leaving the region in a state of anarchy. 

Dagestan is a largely Muslim republic of 50,000 square kilometers and a population 2 million. The area is home to 34 different minorities of which the largest are Avars (some 500,000 people), Dargins (270,000) and Lezgins (200,000). Although everyone dislikes the other ethnic groups, and especially the Russians, most dislike the aggressive Chechens even more. The radical Wahhabi Muslim sect has been appealing to local fundamentalists for several years, but without much success. 

Chechnya and Dagestan have one other thing in common, besides religion and a dislike for Russians, and that is a pipeline carrying crude oil from the Azerbaijan to Black Sea ports. The pipeline brings money, at least to those who control and who can keep the oil flowing. 

North Ossetia and Ingusgetia used to be a single republic, but are now separate entities within the Russian federation. North Ossetia is small, only 8,000 square kilometers with a population of 600,000 Ossetians and Georgians. Ingushetia is even smaller, with only 2,700 square kilometers and a population of 200,000. Both republics were at war with each other, and Russian troops, from November 1992 to February 1995. Several hundred civilians were killed and 35,000 Ingushetians were expelled from North Ossetia. In December 1994 Ingushetians attacked Russian troops moving into Chechnya, but the Russians cracked down hard and the two republics have been fairly quiet ever since. 

The three other Soviet republics of the Caucasus; Georgia, Armenia (both mostly Christian) and Azerbaijan (largely Muslim Turks) became independent when the USSR broke up. But fighting continued in Georgia, where separatist Abkhazians established their own autonomous area, and Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to fight over disputed territory.

Russia has controlled the Caucasus for little over a century. What keeps them there now is oil. Russia controls the cheapest route for Azerbaijan oil to reach world markets. Russia also controls much of the Caspian sea, where more oil waits to be found. Were it not for the oil, most Russians would be willing to let the Caucasus go, at least for the moment. But many Russians still miss their empire, and the Caucasus was the most expensive, in terms of money and lives, portion of that empire to conquer. Whether it be memories of empire, or cold cash, Russia will be drawn to the Caucasus for some time to come.

The Russian strategy appears to be methodical, instead of the headlong and brute force tactics it used in Chechnya three years ago. The Chechen campaign was a disaster. This time Russia has assembled over 10,000 of its best infantry and commandos and proceeded to carefully scout out the rebel positions. Russian troops are also apparently attempting to cut off rebel supply routes. In a tactic that worked in Afghanistan, the Russians are attempting to maintain good will with as many of the Dagestanis as possible. This is not all that difficult, as the 30 different ethnic groups in Dagestan see the Chechens as invaders. The Russians have been careful to avoid casualties among the local civilians and are taking care of the refugees from the combat zone. Another angle the Russians are probably pursuing is the factionalism within Chechnya itself. The rebels activities are not condoned by everyone in Chechnya and this may make it easier for the Russians to cut off rebel support from within Chechnya, either via force or bribes. This strategy was successful in Afghanistan, where some factions there were kept out of the fighting for considerable periods of time.

September 1; A bomb went off in a Moscow shopping mall, injuring 41. A note found at the scene claimed that a revolutionary writers group did it to protest growing consumerism in Russia. The leader of the group later denied responsibility, although other Chechen rebels fighting in Dagestan later claimed responsibility.




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