Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Russia’s Achilles heel

The escalating conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh coupled with Monday’s suicide bombings in the nearby Northern Caucasus region bode ill for the Kremlin, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Russia is increasingly embroiled in regional conflicts in the volatile Caucasus region and further afield in the Middle East. Furthermore, trouble seems to be brewing in the Russian Federation’s own southernmost reaches.

As winter draws to a close, it is hard for Kremlin decision-makers to find many reasons for optimism. But in spite of global oil prices plummeting, the resource-rich Russian economy is certainly not in worryingly poor shape.

Yet, it would be a grave mistake for the Kremlin to be sanguine about the conflicts erupting in the Caucasus. What many observers of Russian affairs tend to overlook is that there are some 20 million Russian Muslims, many from the Caucasus region, and these tend to be the most militant of its Muslim population. 

Ethnic Russians living in the Muslim-majority North Caucasus region tend to be the most vulnerable to Islamist terrorism, as Monday’s suicide bombing in the Novoselitsky district demonstrated.

Three suicide bombers attacked a police station in Novoselitsk, a village near the city of Stavropol in southern Russia not far from the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Five explosions and automatic gunfire rocked the provincial backwater, and the bitter aftertaste will be such that it is almost bound to fuel feelings of Islamophobia in Russia.

 Can Russia respond better to such attacks by militant Islamists than it has so far?

The danger is of a domino effect. In 2004, there was a terrorist attack on a school in Beslan leading to the deaths of 250 people, including children. Two female Chechen suicide bombers struck the Moscow metro in 2010. The rhetoric of the Cold War may now rear its ugly head again, this time with religious overtones.

The Novoselitsky district’s geographical proximity to Nagorno-Karabakh is disturbing for Russian decision-makers. Russia does not want to be seen as an exclusively Christian nation, especially not in the post-Communist era. Yet, the demise of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s has opened up a Pandora’s Box.

Nagorno-Karabakh is one such hornet’s nest. It was the former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin who handed over the predominantly Christian Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to overwhelmingly Muslim Azerbaijan.

Such deals did not matter during the days of the Communist and atheist Soviet Union. After all, religion didn’t count, or so the Soviet leaders imagined. Yet, religion was in the Soviet era the snake in the grass.

While the Tatar Muslims of Kazan are integrated into Russian society and not really prone to militant Islamist tendencies, the Muslims of the Caucasus are more likely to be agents provocateurs in Russian eyes.

The ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, Artsakh in Armenian, are caught in the middle of this Soviet-created mess. In spite of the 5 April ceasefire agreement reached in Moscow to halt the fighting in the enclave, the conflict continues unabated.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made sure that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was on the agenda of the 13th Summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) currently convened in Istanbul. Azerbaijan is a member state of the OIC, while Armenia is not. 

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is presented in Turkey as a struggle between Christian Armenia and its Christian Russian backers against Muslim Azeris. This is precisely the viewpoint that the Kremlin wants to avoid.

However, it may prevail, derailing the peace process to the consternation of the Kremlin. There are some who will likely manipulate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in order to navigate the larger crisis between Turkey and Russia.

Then there is the relationship between Iran and the West. The Turkic-speaking Azeris constitute the largest ethnic minority in Iran and most reside in the vicinity of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is keen to maintain Russia’s unruly hegemony over the strategically crucial Caucasus. And both Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Serge Sargsyan seem willing to comply, even though reluctantly.

The Kremlin will no doubt try to curtail Ankara’s regional agenda, and the current Russian-brokered agreement might temporarily end the fighting. The question is whether it will do so in the long run.

The two-decade Islamic insurgency in the Northern Caucasus has been Russia’s Achilles heel, and the Northern Caucasus is also Russia’s gateway to the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has been slugging its way to peace in the Caucasus. The intervention of the OSCE Minsk Group has helped, and Russian “shuttle diplomacy” has been of critical importance.

Armenia never officially annexed Artsakh. The political available to choices to Armenia are far from easy. The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is an independent polity. An incorporation of the landlocked enclave would risk alienating Armenia’s international allies and sympathizers and cannot take place without unlocking the logjam.

The Russians give tacit support to Armenia, but cannot be viewed as one-sided or partisan. Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev visited both Armenia and Azerbaijan last weekend.  

Azerbaijan is not the only country in the Caucasus to experience a regional political realignment as a result of plummeting global oil prices. “I invited Medvedev to visit Azerbaijan and I know that he was planning to pay this visit. But the fact that this visit was paid today is considered by us as another proof of friendly and partner attitude towards Azerbaijan,” Azeri President Aliyev extrapolated.

It is against this backdrop that the bodies of 18 servicemen of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defence Army due to the ferociousness of the conflict in the Caucasus were returned to Nagorno-Karabakh in an exchange of the bodies of fallen soldiers.

Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Nagorno-Karabakh State Commission on Prisoners of War, Hostages and Missing Persons registered that all bodies of the deceased transferred by the Azerbaijani side had signs of torture and mutilation.

The Italian website drew the conclusion that there were grizzly similarities between the atrocities committed by Azeri troops against Nagorno-Karabakh and the savage outrages of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. The Italian website reported the beheading of both civilians and military men.

Israeli military strategist, Alexander Murinson from the Strategic Research Department of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies within Bar-Ilan University of Israel, however, reported that Israel supplied Azerbaijan with laser anti-tank missiles on 31 March, a day before Azerbaijan launched an all-out attack against the self-styled Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. “Azerbaijan is the first country to acquire these missiles, and this certainly has given an advantage to its military capabilities. Even though Israel does not officially support any side in the conflict, it obviously has close ties with Baku,” Murinson expounded.

Conflicts in the global context can often linger on for decades. The Korean war ended in 1953 with an armistice, for example, and no peace treaty ever marked the end of the fighting.

The same incendiary, never-ending suspension of hostilities may also come about in the Caucasus.

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