Terrorism and the Caucasus. Russia into Georgia?

Courtesy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. 

by Zeyno Baran, Director, Georgia Forum & Adjunct Fellow, Energy and National Security Program

The initial uncertainty about the ground rules of the new global war on terrorism harbors the risk of abuse and promises the escalation of regional conflicts where old belligerents will seek a “terrorism angle” to justify their assaults. Russia has already taken the opportunity in the Caucasus to try to recapture the influence and domination it lost over the region with the end of the Cold War. Moscow and others need to be reminded that the new war will be fought under U.S. leadership, and not as a free-for-all venture to renegotiate the post-Cold War era.  

Of the three Caucasus countries, only Armenia has military cooperation with Russia, and also has had the least problem with terrorists. In Russia’s eyes, Azerbaijan has taken some serious steps in fighting terrorism, including extraditing Chechen rebels. Georgia, however, has not been able to establish effective control over its border area with Chechnya. And now it is at center of Moscow’s anti-terrorism efforts.    


Since the United States declared “war against global terrorism,” Russia has been building a case that Georgia needs to cooperate with Russia to ensure tighter border security and to stop harboring Chechen terrorists, especially those who may have links to Osama bin Laden’s network. Failing that, Russia, as some there have indicated, might enter Georgian territory to go after these men, who are part of  “global terrorism.” While Georgia denies harboring any terrorists, the growing concern is that no matter what the Georgians do now, Russia may use going after terrorists as a pretext to exert more military and political pressure on Georgia and later on the entire Caucasus.

Even worse, individual military commanders at the Russian-Georgian border may take matters into their own hands—with or without the permission from Moscow. Some among the Russian decision-makers may also think that the United States is distracted by its own war against terrorism, and therefore not pay sufficient attention to developments in the Caucasus. Moreover, President Putin has indicated his desire to strike a bargain with the United States over the use of Central Asian countries for attacks and may hope in return for some leeway in Moscow’s efforts to re-exert influence in the Caucasus.


Among the most likely hideouts for the terrorists who manage to get out of Afghanistan are the mountainous regions of the Caucasus. Surrounded by Iran, Russia, and Turkey, the Caucasus region is a strategic transit corridor from Central Asia to Europe.

Stability of the Caucasus is essential for Caspian oil and gas to be transported uninterrupted to world markets. Given the uncertainty over the reliability of Persian Gulf supplies in the coming war against international terrorism, the incremental oil coming out of the Caspian region will become increasingly relevant for U.S. national security interests.

In order to enhance security of supply, the U.S. has been closely cooperating with Azerbaijan and Georgia (and Turkey) on developing an east-west transportation corridor to assure the region non-Russian alternatives for Caspian energy to reach world markets. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and the Shah Deniz gas pipelines would effectively break Russian monopoly over transportation routes out of the Caspian. But Russia still has not given up its desire to maintain its monopoly of Central Asian and Caspian hydrocarbon and goods transportation into Europe. Knowing that the success of these projects would guarantee an end to its monopoly over the Caspian region’s economics, and later on politics, Russia so far has not been in favor of these projects.


As the last Caucasus country in the east-west corridor, Georgia is key to the success of the pipeline projects. If Georgia were to be dragged into a regional war over terrorism, or if Russia were to get political concessions from Georgia, then Russia would de-facto regain control over the east-west corridor and therefore Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Russian-Georgian relations have actually been strained since independence, in large part because of Russian bitterness toward Georgia’s President Eduard Shevardnadze, who was a key player in both the demise of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany. Some of the hardliners still have not forgotten and forgiven Shevardnadze and have mounted several assassination attempts, as well as continuously look for opportunities to destabilize Georgia, which they now may have found.

Georgia’s internal weakness irresistibly tempts the Russians. It is therefore clear that in the changing world order, if they want to keep Russians out of their territory, Georgians will have to take more serious steps. One immediate measure could be the adoption of policy of zero-tolerance for corruption. Given massive corruption in Georgia, it has been difficult for the Georgian leadership to successfully keep groups with ties to terrorists out of its territory, which obviously needs to change immediately.


Russian-Georgian relations have gotten worse since the second Chechen war. Chechnya has been a source of great embarrassment for the Russian military and constant fear for the political leadership. Russia has blamed Chechen terrorists for the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings that killed several hundred people. Then Russian president Boris Yeltsin asked Shevardnadze for permission to use the Russian military bases in Georgia as a launching point for attacks into Chechnya. Alternatively, he wanted to position Russian border guards on the Georgian side of the Russian-Georgian border with Chechnya, the Pankisi Gorge. Fearing that such a move might drag Georgia into the Chechen war, Shevardnadze refused to cooperate. Since then, Russia has accused Georgia of having ineffective control of its borders and of allowing both the Chechen and the Islamic mujahideen into its territory and, in fact, harboring them in the Pankisi Gorge. Most recently, Russia referred to the Pankisi Gorge as a “base of support for international terrorism in the rear of the (Russian-Chechen) front.”

Following September 11, Russia has been using the term “international terrorists” in reference to Chechens.  This is clearly an attempt to build a case for the international coalition to also go after the Chechen rebels and to use Georgian territory to do so. So far, Georgia has objected to having its territory be used for such an action. At the same time, however, Georgia has stated its willingness to have its territory used for the U.S.-led military operation against the terrorists in Afghanistan. Given that many in Russia abhor Chechens almost as much as Americans do the Taliban, this contradiction in Georgian policy has left hardliner Russians even more infuriated.

In addition to tension over the Chechens in the Pankisi gorge, there is also potential for increased tension over Abkhazia. It is important for Georgia to take severe measures to prevent smuggling of Chechen rebels into the uncontrolled areas in Abkhazia, such as the Kodori valley. Georgia has limited control in this area, and thus it could become a base for maverick operations.


Deliver a clear redline to Russia: The United States needs Russia’s cooperation in the war against terrorism, and clearly there will be a price tag attached. But that cannot be a free hand in Georgia. Moreover, Georgia should not become an excuse for the failure of the Russian military actions in Chechnya. Based on statements over the last weeks, Russian decision-makers seem to be testing the potential costs of military action in the Pankisi gorge. The U.S. administration needs to communicate firmly with Russia at the highest levels that anti-terrorism cooperation in Central Asia and against the Taliban by no means translates into turning a blind eye to Russia’s actions in Georgia and the broader Caucasus. Moreover, as the European countries have a tendency to focus on Russia at the expense of the Caucasus region, it will be extremely important that the United States also engage the European allies in furthering stability in the Caucasus. President Bush needs to outline clearly to President Putin the international political, economic, and possibly military costs of aggression in the Caucasus.

Deliver a tough message to President Shevardnadze: President Bush will meet with President Shevardnadze on October 5. This meeting would provide a great opportunity for Bush to impress upon Shevardnadze the urgency to end all speculation about Georgia allowing terrorists into its territory. Georgia needs to tighten its border control and, if it has not done so until now, prevent the movement of Chechens into its territory. Both the Pankisi Gorge at the Russian-Georgian border and the Kodori Valley in Abkhazia need to be brought under control so they do not become bases for Islamic terrorists. For increased control over its borders and these two regions, Georgia needs to explore new options, ranging from asking for help from the United States, Turkey, or NATO under the Partnership for Peace program, to finding new ways to cooperate with Russia on combating Islamic terrorism. Most importantly, Shevardnadze needs to hear that even in the face of the tough challenges he would face domestically, he needs to firmly commit to combating corruption and improving the socioeconomic and legal conditions in Georgia, which are necessary to strengthen the country internally, and to prevent terrorists from gaining sympathizers. Unless these issues are tackled urgently, a weak Georgia would leave itself, and by extension the whole Caucasus, extremely vulnerable to being dragged into a terrible regional conflict.

Cooperate with Russia on Caucasus stability: There is a possibility that Islamic terrorists, bombed out of Afghanistan, would try to make their way into the mountainous regions of the Caucasus. The implications of such a development are terrifying: resumption of regional conflicts on ethnic or religious grounds and attacks on the oil and gas pipelines. Given that both Russia and the United States have high stakes in preventing such developments, there is opportunity to can enhance cooperation on a number of areas. One possibility is to track down international financing for terrorists in Chechnya, and prevent further inflow of cash into their hands.

Remain engaged in the east-west corridor: All governments with a stake in this region, corporations that are making long-term investment decisions and the people of the region need clear signs from the U.S. administration that the United States will help maintain stability in the Caucasus and deter Russia from taking any steps to undermine the viability of the east-west corridor. Given its stated goal of a long-term fight against global terrorism, the United States also needs to rethink the type of military, economic, and political engagement it is willing to support in the Caucasus.

Abolish 907. The countries of the Caucasus have limited resources to devote to the increased border security and law enforcement measures that need to be taken. Moreover, the region will need additional assistance on military as well as pipeline security matters to prevent terrorist attacks. For the United States to effectively help enhance stability and security in the Caucasus, and to provide some of the much-needed assistance, section 907 of the Freedom Support Act needs to be repealed. This law prohibits the United States from many security-enhancing operations in Azerbaijan and Armenia that are essential in the long-term fight against terrorism. Section 907 also limits the type of support that can be provided to Azerbaijan for securing its oil and gas pipelines that transport oil produced by American companies. Through a more direct engagement with all three countries of the Caucasus, the United States can also effectively preempt increased Russian influence in the region.

Restructure assistance programs: Despite U.S. assistance since independence, all of the Caucasus countries face similar challenges of weak law enforcement, rampant corruption, deteriorating legitimacy of their governments, worsening socioeconomic conditions, and lack of democratization, as well as a growing sentiment of dissatisfaction and sense of hopelessness for their future. These are all conditions that create fertile grounds for terrorism. The U.S. administration and Congress need to rethink assistance strategies to help these countries to better address these domestic concerns.