Russia: Yet Another Caucasus Crises


October 8, 2020: Russia has had more problems with the Caucasus (between the Black and Caspian Seas) region than anywhere else in Post-Cold War Russia. During the 1990s Chechnya was a constant problem that was not really taken care of until 2010. Meanwhile Russia fought a brief war with Georgia in 2008. Since the 1990s the Caucasus has been the main source of Islamic terrorism in Russia; a problem that has been reduced but not eliminated. Finally, there have been several short wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Another round of violence broke out in late-September over who controls the long-disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Although Russia has a military assistance treaty with Armenia, Russian officials recently pointed out that the treaty does not cover the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area and Russia would not send troops to Nagorno-Karabakh to help the Armenians there. Russia has several defense related agreements with Armenia. The first is the 2002 CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) that included Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. All these nations were once components of the Soviet Union, which dissolved in 1991. The CSTO restored some of the economic and military relationships these nations had before 1991.

In 2016 Russia and Armenia agreed to a mutual defense pact that included a joint Russian-Armenian military force in Armenia. This joint force was for use against any military threat to either nation. This mainly benefits Armenia. The 2016 treaty allowed Russia to continue deliveries of weapons and ammo to Armenia in 2016 despite the fact that Armenian troops were fighting forces from neighboring Azerbaijan once more.

The violence has always been about Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over since 1992. Back then Armenia went to war with Azerbaijan to defend the independence of an Armenian majority district (Nagorno-Karabakh) that was separated from Armenia by a strip of Azerbaijan territory (populated largely by Azeris). Although Azerbaijan is larger than Armenia, and has oil, the Armenians are better fighters, and the conflict festers, despite several ceasefire agreements.

When Armenia and Azerbaijan were both part of the Soviet Union, and before that Tsarist Russia, the ethnicity and location of Nagorno-Karabakh was not an issue. But Nagorno-Karabakh was technically part of Azerbaijan and the 1991 Soviet Union dissolution agreement was straightforward about who owned what in the breakup. The borders of the 14 regions that left the Soviet Union were a matter of record. But there were several situations like Nagorno-Karabakh but none has generated so much violence.

Armenia has a population of about three million and a per-capita GDP of $4,500. Technically Nagorno-Karabakh is not part of Armenia but, since 1991, the Republic of Artsakh and survives only because Armenia provides military aid to defend it from Azerbaijan attacks. Artsakh has a population of 145,000 and per-capita GDP of $4,700. Azerbaijan has a population of 10.2 million and per-capita GDP of $4,500. Armenians are better educated and more entrepreneurial but Azerbaijan has oil and Armenia does not. About a third of the Azerbaijani GDP is due to oil exports. Since the 1990s Azerbaijan has sought to close the education and entrepreneurial gap with Armenia and has made a lot of progress. That has contributed to confidence that the next invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh would succeed. The current effort is doing better than previous ones but the Azerbaijani are still suffering higher losses and not making much progress, so far. The fighting continues and Turkey has offered to help Azerbaijan.

In 2016 Armenia defeated an Azerbaijani April “offensive” and Russian brokered a new ceasefire deal. Russia and Iran cooperated to maintain the ceasefire. Iran has more influence over Azerbaijan and did what it could to persuade the Azerbaijanis to stop violating the ceasefires. That worked for a while, mainly because the previous Azerbaijani attacks were not successful. After 2016 Azerbaijan continued to purchase new weapons and improve the performance of its troops. There was little doubt that there would be another war.

Both Azerbaijan and Armenia were formerly part of the Soviet Union and quite different even though they were neighbors. Azerbaijan is majority Moslem while Armenia is Christian. Along with the smaller Georgia, these two are the only two nations in the Caucasus that are majority Christian. For over a thousand years Armenians and Georgians resisted efforts by Moslem neighbors to make them Moslem. Russia played a key role in that and considers itself the “protector” of Armenia. Despite that Russia has managed to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan as well. In doing that Russia established one of the more successful peacekeeping operations since the Cold War ended in 1991 by getting Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree to a ceasefire in 1994 after another round of heavy fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia became a military ally of Armenia as part of that arrangement. Iran has tried, and not always succeeded, to be on good terms with Azerbaijan, if only because about a quarter of the Iranian population are Azeris. At the same time Iran and Russia, traditional enemies, have become allies and those links are being used to deal with latest round of violence.

Iran has long harbored an intense interest in Azerbaijan. This is because most of the Turkic and Moslem Azeris live in Iran. Up until 1813, modern Azerbaijan was part of Iran. Then the Russians showed up. Armenia and Azerbaijan were the last Russian conquests as the tsar’s soldiers and Cossacks advanced through the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Russians stopped when they ran into the Turkish and Iranian empires, but not before taking a chunk of Azerbaijan from Iran. The Iranians have not forgotten. In effect, most of "Azerbaijan" is in Iran, which has long hoped to reunite all Azeris under their rule. Many Iranian Azeris have risen to senior positions in the government. Despite that, most Azeris would like all Azeris united in a single Azerbaijan. This is not a popular idea within Iran. The Russians, on the other hand, have come to accept the 1991 loss of Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The Economy

There is no agreement on exactly how much damage the covid19 recession did to Russia. Most estimates have Russian GDP declining four percent in 2020, with 2021 growth about four percent. The U.S. took a bigger hit with nearly six percent GDP decline in 2020 and about five percent growth in 2021. West Europe was down about seven percent in 2020 and expects 4-5 percent growth in 2021. The developing economies only took about a one percent decline and expect about six percent growth in 2021.

The Russian GDP has been declining since 2014 as a result of declining oil prices and economic sanctions because of Russian aggression against Ukraine.


Russia wants Turkey to withdraw its troops from Syria and the Turks refuse to leave. Russia also wants the Americans out of eastern Syria and the Americans won’t leave. In the south Russia wants the Iranians out of Syria. The Iranians won’t leave. All these Russian eviction notices are in support of the Assad family and their continued rule over Syria. The Assads want the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province eliminated and the surviving Islamic terrorist rebels pushed out of the country.

Too many of these Russian, Turkish, Iranian, American and Syrian goals contradict each other. There are other parties that must be paid attention to, like ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Israel. ISIL is still a violent presence in eastern Syria and Israel continues carry out airstrikes on Iranian forces as long as the Iranians are in Syria and demanding that Israel be destroyed.

Turkey is already fighting Russia in Libya and does not want to open another front in Syria, especially since Turkey has promised to send troops to Azerbaijan to assist in the current war with Armenia. Turkey orders its forces in Syria to defend and not attack Russian forces. Turkey has an advantage here because the Turkish army is nearly (265,000 troops) as large as the 350,000-man Russian army. The Turks are better equipped and nearly all are available for any Syrian conflict. Russia has limited forces in Syria with the rest spread all over Russia. Turkey also has far more combat aircraft and modern warships in the area than Russia. Threatening to use nuclear weapons is not practical either, at least as long as Turkey still belongs to NATO, which has three nuclear armed members (the U.S., Britain and France). Russia and Turkey have a “de-escalation” effort that has Turkish and Russian patrols and outposts along the border in northern and northwest Syria. The Turks want the Russians to give up those patrols and outposts and the Russians refuse.

Russia has other troublesome agreements. In 2018 Russia made a deal with Israel, Syria and Iran to remove Iranian forces (including foreign mercenaries) from the Israeli and Jordanian borders. Iran complied but then recruited Syrians who lived along the Israeli and Jordanian border. These Syrians were armed and paid by Iran to try and gain control of the Syrian side of the borders with Israel and Jordan. This resulted in more Israeli artillery and airstrikes. The Iranian mercenaries paid more attention to tormenting fellow Syrians than going after the Israelis.

Turkish and Iranian meddling is prolonging the fighting. Iran is obsessed with destroying Israel and is not having much success at all. Turkey wants to eliminate Kurdish separatists (both Turkish and Syrian) in Syria and that is not going well. The Americans want to keep ISIL down and support their Kurdish allies while Russia wants to prop up the Assad government in order to keep the airbase and port facilities arrangements they have obtained from the Assads.

Which is the most dangerous faction in Syria? Probably Iran, which is becoming increasingly aggressive and desperate. Iran needs a win against Israel and all it is getting in Syria is an endless string of defeats. Because of the “death to Israel” obsession Iran is destroying its alliance with Turkey and Russia. Yet Iran is not the only one with an Israel obsession. Turkey is also obsessed, but not to the point of cutting all commercial ties with Israel.


In Libya the locals see Turkey as an invader, while Russian forces, which have been supporting the LNA for over three years, are seen as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Russia and Turkey are allies in Syria but are actually fighting each other in Libya. Well, not exactly fighting anymore but maintaining armed forces and confronting each other in anticipation of a peaceful settlement. In addition to Russia the LNA was backed by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In Syria Russian airstrikes have killed Turkish troops while the Turks have killed Syrian troops. That has also stopped, for the moment. The Libya fighting resulted in NATO countries openly backing Greece in the maritime dispute with Turkey that led to the Libya invasion.

In Syria Turkey, Russia and Iran continue to pretend they are all friends and allies of Syria, but the reality is different and becoming more visible and violent. Syrians fear Russia and Turkey will join forces to extract what they can from Syrian. Many Libyans fear that Russia and Turkey are planning to grab the Libyan oil and keep it for themselves. There’s nothing like that to be grabbed in Syria. Russia may also be seeking use of a Libyan port as a naval base. That has already been obtained in Syria. At the moment Russian and Turkish forces in Libya are observing a ceasefire and an effort to settle the civil war there peacefully. That remains to be seen.

October 7, 2020: Outside Moscow an army munitions storage site caught fire, leading to a lot of munitions detonating before firefighters could bring the blaze under control. This site holds about 75,000 tons of munitions, some of it elderly Cold-War era stuff awaiting disposal. Some 2,000 civilians living within five kilometers of the fire were temporarily evacuated. Russia continues to remove aging Cold War era munitions from storage facilities so the stuff can be safely disposed of.

October 6, 2020: A thousand Russian combat troops in Belarus for long-planned joint exercises have not left Belarus even though the exercises were over on September 15th. President Putin views two months of larger and larger pro-democracy demonstration in neighboring Belarus as a threat to Russia. For 26 years president-for-life Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus as a loyal ally of Russia. That has not revived the Belarussian economy or improved the lives of Belarus voters. A new post-Soviet Union generation of voters has seen how life is better in democracies, especially other former victims of Russian rule like neighboring Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine. They blame Lukashenko for the poverty and mismanaged economy in Belarus.

The current crisis right after August 9th when Lukashenko was elected to another term. Unlike past rigged elections, this time there were major and sustained public protests against his decades of rigged elections, corrupt rule and inability to rule effectively. Since the late 1990s Lukashenko has won reelection with 80-90 percent of the vote in visibly fraudulent voting. Lukashenko has been in charge since 1994, when he consolidated power in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the creation of Belarus. Lukashenko is a Soviet era official, who runs Belarus like the Soviet Union still existed. Belarus is a police state, where elections, and everything else, is manipulated to keep the politicians in power. It's a tricky business, but so far Lukashenko has kept the security forces up to snuff, and on his side. He bribes or bullies key officials to keep the country running. Lukashenko has maintained good relations with Russia, getting him cheap fuel supplies and other aid. Belarus is small (9.5 million people) compared to neighbors Russia (146 million) and Ukraine (42 million) and Russia wants to absorb Belarus and Ukraine to rebuild the centuries old Russian empire that the czars built and the communists lost.

Lukashenko initially won clean elections as a reformer and clean-government candidate. But he soon went bad. Lukashenko is openly nostalgic for the Soviet Union days, and he complained of the poor treatment given to fellow dictators in Iraq and Yugoslavia. Lukashenko is widely considered the last dictator in Europe, presiding over a corrupt, neo-Soviet government in Belarus. Such sentiment survives throughout the former Soviet Union. In Russia, opinion surveys indicate people more concerned with "strong leadership" (Stalin is often mentioned) than democracy (which is associated with chaos and corruption.) Belarus is, like Ukraine, one of the two ethnic Slav portions of ancient “Russia” that preferred to regain independence from Russia. Ukraine managed to establish a working, if corrupt, democracy. Belarus became a compliant ally of Russia but continued to resist Russian suggestions that Belarus again become part of Russia. The current unrest has Russia offering to send troops to help restore order. No one, including Lukashenko, wants that because it would risk pushing Belarus into civil war. There are fears Russia will give Lukashenko an offer he can’t refuse and obtain more direct control of Belarus, with an option to annex. EU nations have condemned Lukashenko and enacted economic sanctions and now warned Russia than another annexation effort would bring more sanction and reluctance to do business with Russia.

Rigged elections were a standard feature of communist rule from the 1920s to 1991 and voter resentment was one of many reasons the Soviet Union collapsed. Now those phony elections are returning in Russia and survive in some other former members of the Soviet Union, especially those in Central Asia. While the Soviet Union eventually collapsed the culture of corrupt and dictatorial rule survived and made a comeback. That’s not unusual, all functioning democracies have work at keeping the corruption under control, because too much of it destroys democracies and much else.

September 30, 2020: In the east (Siberia) another veteran Russian scientist, Alexander Lukanin, has been arrested and accused of spying for China. After retiring from his job in Russia Lukanin accepted a research post at a Chinese university. Russia accuses Lukanin of supplying his new Chinese employers with classified Russian military technology.

September 29, 2020: In eastern Syria (Hasaka province) a Russian armored vehicle convoy broke through an American roadblock to use an American controlled road to reach a Russian base. There have been a growing number of such confrontations usually involving American troops blocking Russian efforts to move into Kurdish controlled parts of Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces. Russian and American forces interact regularly in Hasaka and most of the time there are no problems. American-backed Kurdish forces control most of Hasaka province, where the local population is largely Kurdish. Russian, Turkish and Syrian forces are trying to move troops into Hasaka and gradually displace the Kurdish forces. In some cases, the Syrians, Russians or Turks are, via negotiation with the Kurds, are allowed to base troops or patrol certain areas. The Americans have more surveillance capabilities than the Kurds and more frequently spot Russian troops moving into areas they are supposed to stay away from.

September 28, 2020: North Korea is believed to have smuggled in between half a million and 1.6 million barrels of oil from Russia and China during the first five months of 2020. Most of it is done by transferring the oil at sea.

September 27, 2020: In the south (Armenia) there has been another flareup of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkey promptly promised to send some of its Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan to assist in the fighting. This could be a big help for Azerbaijan because the Armenian troops have always been more effective. Russia protested this proposed Turkish use of Arab mercenaries.

September 25, 2020: At the UN China and Russia blocked the release of a UN report detailing violations of the UN embargo on shipping military supplies to Libya. Russia has long been a major supplier of weapons and other equipment to pro-Russia factions in Libya.

September 24, 2020: Russia has not withdrawn a thousand of its soldiers from neighboring Belarus. The Russian troops arrived a week ago for joint military exercises and usually return to their Russian bases as soon as these exercises are over. There have been major protests against the pro-Russian Belarus government.

September 20, 2020: The government revealed that the army had further reduced its tank force to 2,685 vehicles. About 45 percent of these tanks were manufactured or refurbished after 2000. In 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, the Cold War era “Red Army” had about 50,000 tanks.

September 19, 2020: In eastern Syria (Hasaka province) Russian military convoys were blocked from using roads leading to Kurdish controlled oilfields. There were three of these incidents in the last week.

September 18, 2020: The U.S. has flown in some M2A3 IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) to Syria. These are from an American armored brigade stationed in Kuwait and are to be used for increased convoy protection against Russian efforts to block American use of roads in Deir Ezzor province. Also sent were some short-range air defense radars. There have been increased jet fighter patrols and more use of AH-64 helicopter gunships to escort American convoys.

September 17, 2020: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) Syrian troops fired over a hundred rockets at two rebel held villages. The level of bombardment usually precedes a ground attack. Russian air strikes have also been more frequent and intense in southern Idlib. Since March there has been a lot less Russian airstrikes, a pause which appears to have ended.




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