There are signs of intensifying and escalating conflict in the Caucasus. Recent statements by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov have spotlighted a potential fissure inside the Russian government that pits Kadyrov against Russian federal security elements in the North Caucasus. As the bellicosity is ratcheted upward, questions mount as to what exactly underpins the ongoing power struggle between the Chechen leader and the security services headquartered in Moscow.

Meanwhile, the curiosities continue in the South Caucasus as well. The integration treaties that Moscow has signed with Georgian breakaway territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia have altered the power dynamic in the past 12 months. Tension inside the Georgian government has been exacerbated by provocative Russian military exercises in neighboring Armenia.

The exercises outlined in the article below (ongoing in Russia) are somewhat reminiscent of those that took place prior to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. Both Abkhaz and South Ossetian military officers partnered with the Russians during the 2008 exercises, which were called ‘Caucasus 2008’. Make particular note of the trucks: The invasion in 2008 occurred through the Roki Tunnel, via ground transport. In fact, former President Mikheil Saakhashvili claims that intercepted communications the night before reflected staging operations by the Russian military on the other side of the Roki Tunnel in North Ossetia. The attack that commenced was based partly on those supposed communications intercepts. The operations going on now include ‘intensive truck drivers’ exercises.’ Armen Grigoryan recently identified and examined the specific focus on the ongoing military exercises in an article for The Jamestown Foundation:

Indeed, Russian troops stationed in Armenia have been involved in a wide series of military exercises in recent weeks. In February, Southern MD intelligence divisions started month-long exercises aiming to practice operations in mountainous areas located more than 2,000 meters above sea level (RIA Novosti, February 5). These training drills were followed by intensive military truck drivers’ exercises, including 300-kilometer rides along mountainous terrain (RIA Novosti, March 5), engineer corps exercises (Gazeta.ru, March 10), MiG-29 flight exercises (Regnum.ru, March 13), drills involving a second military intelligence group (Gazeta.ru, March 17), as well as artillery training, including BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers (RIA Novosti, March 18). It is worth pointing out that, compared to the 300-kilometer training rides practiced by Russian soldiers, the distance from the Russian military base in Gyumri to Georgia’s border—not to mention the distance from South Ossetia to Tbilisi—is less than 50 kilometers. (Armen Grigoryan, The Jamestown Foundation, April 2)

Georgia: To Russia or Europe?

The recent split between the president and prime minister of Georgia, the former leaning towards NATO and the latter accused of accommodating Moscow’s demands, reflects a significant fracture line inside the Tbilisi government. Russian strategists could see this as a good opportunity to exacerbate the differences, collapse the government, catalyze political unrest (splitting the government), and inspire turmoil in the population.

The establishment of the anticipated NATO training center is likely the red line for the Kremlin in regards to its security policies in the South Caucasus. For many reasons related to national security policy, Russian strategists have crafted an overarching policy structure that relies heavily on the fomentation of conflicts along its periphery. These ongoing conflicts ostensibly prevent countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia from acceding to NATO and, as such, ensure that any perceived encroachment by Western powers along its eastern and southeastern borders is impeded.

Planned for establishment at the Vaziani military base, the NATO training center is a significant step in Georgia’s anticipated path toward NATO membership. The announcement of the facility has once again roiled strategists and officials in Moscow, signifying in the larger sense an intensification of the conflict between Russia and the West. Given the likelihood of continued violence in Ukraine and Russia’s ongoing refusal to acknowledge its part in the rebellion, Russia might assess the period prior to the opening of the training center in Vaziani as its last real opportunity to impede Georgia’s accession to the Atlantic Alliance.

Strategic Imperatives and Geopolitical Interests: Caucasus

Read Next: Strategic Imperatives and Geopolitical Interests: Caucasus

In fomenting conflict in the breakaways, disturbing the border and territorial integrity of Georgia, or simply annexing one or both of the breakaways, Russia would succeed in once again inhibiting Georgian accession to NATO, as it did with its 2008 invasion. To accomplish the goal of once again setting back Georgia’s membership in the alliance, Russia could hypothetically annex South Ossetia (and possibly Abkhazia, though less likely), instigate another violent conflict between Tskhinvali and Tbilisi, or once again invade Georgia itself. An invasion of the South Caucasus country would theoretically accomplish two things:

  1. Create an unstable internal security environment.
  2. Exacerbate the territorial conflict(s) and border disputes.

All three courses of action would catalyze more conflict in Georgia. This is an important aspect of Russian strategy with regard to the South Caucasus; Moscow has been rigid in its opposition to any further enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance toward its borders, especially in Georgia. Unresolved conflicts and border disputes represent significant impediments for any prospective NATO member. The Membership Action Plan (MAP) is considered the unofficial pathway to NATO membership. It is essentially an advisory path. A Russian invasion would effectively reopen the healing wound and tear apart the scar, barring NATO from integrating Georgia. The only way forward in that regard for Georgia to accede to NATO would be to essentially agree to give up all claims to both breakaways and claim territorial continuity.

In Eastern Europe, Moldova is working to modernize its military to meet NATO MAP requirements as well. Georgia tried the military modernization and accession to NATO approach once, and they had a fireworks display in August 2008.

So what comes next? The possibilities include several courses of action, all of which appear to include military force and/or the fomenting of insurrection. One way in which Russia could stir up problems for Europe and the United states is through information operations (IO). South Ossetian secessionist sentiment runs high. It would be rather easy for the Kremlin to inspire both the governing authority in Tskhinvali and the population itself to move toward full secession from Tbilisi and accession to the Russian Federation. Simultaneously, IO targeting Transnistria could reinvigorate the dormant separatist campaign there and galvanize an insurrection.

Putin would probably conduct similar actions in Gagauzia as well. When it appears that the base in Vaziani will be on the road to becoming operational, any number of overt or covert Russian military and intelligence operations could commence. South Ossetia could be outright annexed and Transnistria could vote for secession. Or Moscow could increase its military forces inside Transnistria as a signal, then have votes in Transnistria and Gagauzia for more autonomy or secession. This could be done in conjunction with Russian action in the Caucasus or to augment it.

There are many signs pointing toward an intensification of conflict in Georgia, Moldova, and elsewhere in the post-Soviet space. The next few months will be an interesting sign of things to come, in the Caucasus, especially.