Vol. 2 (1) - Winter 2008
Three Colors of War: Russian, Turkish, and Iranian Military Threat to
the South Caucasus
Lasha Tchantouridze, PhD, is Research Associate & Adjunct
Professor at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, the
University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB, Canada. He specializes in
foreign policy, strategic studies, and politics of the former
Soviet Union. In the 1990s he worked for a number of Georgian
newspapers as a reporter, a columnist, and an editor-in-chief.
South Caucasus once again became a ground for major regional power
competition after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Russia, Iran, and
Turkey vie for power and influence, as well as for the access to
strategic resources and transportation routes. These three major
regional powers have used or threatened to use their armed forces
against the region. Russia has invaded and threatened Georgia, Turkey
has planned an invasion of Armenia and Georgia, and Iran has threatened
Azerbaijan. Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran will remain willing to use force
in the South Caucasus if they feel that their vital interests are at
stake. The governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have to rely
mainly on themselves, and strengthen the weakest areas of their national
defences. Georgia's Black Sea, and Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea coasts
remain examples of poorly defended lines, weaknesses of which could be
easily exploited by the main opponents of the states in question.
South Caucasus, Invasion, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Defence,
South Caucasus region, comprised by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, is
surrounded by three large regional powers, Iran, Turkey, and Russia,
which for the last 200 years have played influential roles in regional
politics and security arrangements. In the 19th century, all
three major powers invaded the Caucasus, with Russia managing to achieve
the most. The second half of the 19th century and most of the
20th saw Russians dominating the region, and Persians and
Ottomans playing the role of challengers. Things have changed
considerably since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After the
restoration of independence and sovereignty by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and
Georgia, they found themselves on a new playing field with the two other
major powers back in action and vying for more power and influence.
three dominant powers have the ability to influence things in the region
by employing economic and political means at their disposal. Even the
smallest and the most insignificant of international regions may become
of huge strategic significance, if the major powers involved in the
region decide to compete and vie for gains. The South Caucasus is no
exception, as the region has attracted attention of not only
historically major players, but also newcomers, such as the United
States and China. After 15 years of the restoration of sovereignty by
the South Caucasian states, Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran continue to play
decisive roles in regional politics.
Russia: An Old Country and the Sea
has been the most aggressive of the big three since the dissolution of
the USSR. Moscow has resorted to the use of force in the South Caucasus
many times, as it sees this region as vital to its national interests.
Of the highest importance for Russia is the energy corridor that runs
through the region as it represents the only alternative route for
Azerbaijani and Central Asian energy resources to be shipped to Western
markets. Moscow wants to have the final say on this issue, as Russia
funds its state defence and security enterprises, and basically, holds
the vast country together due to its easy access to crude oil and
natural gas. To further provide for survival and power of the Russian
state, the Kremlin will not hesitate to use its armed forces, as well as
its former KGB apparatus to gain as much influence in the region as it
obvious area Russia exercises huge dominance over in the states of the
South Caucasus is the Black Sea. Of the three South Caucasian states,
only Georgia has access to the Black Sea, and it is ill equipped to deal
with any military challenges that Moscow may throw its way in that area.
In October 2006, Russia's Black Sea fleet conducted live fire maneuvers
off Georgia's Black Sea coast. According to Georgian officials, Russian
ships were as close as 16 miles from the Georgia's coastline.
The live fire exercise disrupted civilian shipping in the area, as the
Russian military vessels blocked the Georgian ports Poti, Supsa, and
Batumi. The Russian government clearly intended this exercise as a
hostile act, as they declined to inform the Georgian counterparts of the
movements of their vessels, and deliberately misinformed the public of
the nature of the exercise. Defence Minister Ivanov labeled it part of
Black Sea Harmony (BSH), a joint exercise with Turkey that is supposed
to be conducted after advance planning. Ankara, however, rejected this
claim, and expressed its surprise at such claims.
then Russian Black Sea fleet vessels entered Georgia’s territorial
waters a number of times, more recently during the November 2007 rallies
in Tbilisi. Such incursions take place without advance notice of
warning, as the Russians feel secure from any credible response by the
Georgians. Moscow will try to maintain its dominance in the Black Sea,
as without proper defences Georgia will not be able to exercise its full
sovereignty, and Azerbaijan and Armenia will lose as their access to the
outside world will be limited to Russian and Iranian controlled
October 2006 live fire exercise followed the Tbilisi-Moscow spy row, and
signaled sharp deterioration of Russo-Georgian relations. After imposing
comprehensive economic embargo on Georgia, and organizing mass
deportations of ethnic Georgians from Russia, the Kremlin sharply
highlighted vulnerabilities in Georgia's defences – its Black Sea coast
has been virtually undefended from a potential sea invasion since the
breakup of the Soviet Union. The small Georgian navy and coast guard
cannot do much to deter such hostile acts let alone repel a full scale
should assert its sovereignty and independence by establishing a
noticeable military presence in the Black Sea. It needs a deterrent for
potential invasion and intimidation by a hostile power. With the Black
Sea coast exposed, Georgian territorial waters poorly defended, and its
exclusive economic zone poorly monitored, Tbilisi's chances of
re-uniting the country and establishing itself as a viable political
entity remain small. Even if the country's current problems could be
solved, without a strong naval presence Georgia would remain very
vulnerable for future encroachments on its sovereignty.
has funded the breakaway Abkhazia, and supplied it with armed warships.
Georgia’s separatist province is now claiming control over its
'territorial waters' in the Black Sea. Abkhazia is a major piece in
Russia's Black Sea regional calculations, as it could serve a number of
useful purposes. Small, but well armed and supplied Abkhaz military
could be used as an intimidating factor against Caucasian states’
ambitions to exercise independent foreign and defence policies. The
Abkhaz forces could also disrupt energy routes in the region not
favoured by Moscow. Further, Abkhazia could be used by Moscow to
re-assert its control over Georgia as this separatist province remains
de jure part of Georgia, and theoretically the country's
re-unifications could be initiated from both ends. Control of Georgia is
crucial for Russia's new great power game, as Moscow sees energy as the
key for its comeback on the world stage, and Georgia remains its chief
rival in securing the access to energy resources of the South Caucasus
and Central Asia from the west.
Georgia's Black Sea coast is virtually undefended from a sea invasion –
currently this can be easily undertaken by Russia, and potentially even
by Abkhazia. It is hard to imagine that the General Staff of the
Russia's armed forces does not have a plan for a potential full-scale
invasion of Georgia. Given its historical legacy (the Soviet army had
offensive and defensive plans for almost every contingency), and current
tense relations between Moscow and Tbilisi that are not likely to better
anytime soon, this would be a very natural assumption. In such a plan,
an invasion from the sea would figure as the most prominent option, as
the sea side remains undefended. Plus, the Russians have both training
and military experience of sea invasion of Georgia.
Soviet navy, marines, and the army regularly practiced seaborne
invasions in Georgia (mostly Soviet Black Sea fleet).
Russians have assailed Georgia's Black Sea coast in combat formations a
number of times since the collapse of the USSR. The Russian Black Sea
fleet and army supported the Abkhaz separatists during the 1992-1993
war, and have continued providing military assistance since the end of
military conflict. Further, in 1993, combat-ready Russian forces landed
in the Poti area to 'help' the Georgian government, which was struggling
with a pro-Gamsakhurdia uprising in western Georgia.
Georgia's land border with Russia is naturally protected by the Caucasus
Mountains. In fact, Georgia historically has not experienced a large
scale invasion from the north as hostile parties mostly came from
southern and eastern directions. On the other hand, geography of
Azerbaijan’s border with Russia adjacent to the Caspian Sea is more
‘welcoming’ to a potential Russian invasion. In 1920-1921, when Russia
re-occupied the three South Caucasus republics, the Bolshevik-
controlled 11th Army invaded Azerbaijan first, and then it
advanced to Armenia and Georgia.
Azerbaijan is also vulnerable by the Caspian Sea, as the Russian navy
maintains superiority is this land-locked body. Making Azerbaijan’s
defences more credible in the Caspian is more complicated as other
littoral states may not necessarily support strengthening of Baku’s
sovereignty. Iran has been especially aggressive toward Azerbaijan, as
it challenges the legal status of the Caspian, as well as Baku’s
ownership of certain off-shore Azeri oil fields. Turkmenistan has been
traditionally leaning toward Russia, and it will not complicate
relations with the big brother for the sake of Azerbaijan.
Georgian-Russian border in Caucasian Mountains, there are only a handful
of passable roads that potential northern invaders could use, and even
they could be easily blocked or destroyed. In a scenario of Tbilisi
asserting its control over the Tskhinvali region, the only thing the
Georgian army would have to do to cut Russia's military support routes
with the local separatists is to block or disable the Roki Pass. All
other roads linking the separatist Tskhinvali region with the Russian
Federation will be impassable from late fall to early spring. However,
Georgia would still be wide open to retaliation from the sea.
Similarly, military options for Azerbaijan in addressing the Karabakh
question do not look bright, as the country remains virtually undefended
from a potential attack from the Caspian Sea. Both Russia and Iran would
very likely support Armenian and Karabakh forces if hostilities were to
resume between the sides. Moscow and Tehran may, under favourable
circumstances, form an alliance against Azerbaijan, and try to divide
its rich crude oil reserves in the process.
of the above, both Azerbaijan and Georgia need to restore their
sovereignty over territorial waters, deter potential aggression from
Russia, and check military ambitions of other hostile parties. It would
be naÔve to expect Moscow to just hand over control of Abkhazia to
Tbilisi after extending so much effort and resources there. Georgia is
the only alternative to Russia for South Caucasus and Central Asian
energy shipment routes and transportation corridors destined to Western
markets. By eliminating this alternative, Moscow would make a major step
toward re-establishing itself as a world power, and extending influence
over its southern and western neighbors.
has more chances at enhancing its defences, and warding off a potential
invasion from the sea. Tbilisi could utilize good will of friendly
littoral states and deploy diesel submarines. According to Canadian
Commodore Denis Rouleau, submarines are "a phenomenon tool for
Modern submarines are fitted with newest intelligence collecting
capabilities that allow them to collect a variety of information about
the surface vessels. A submarine can 'sit' very quietly, and collect
intelligence, complete with imagery, etc, without being detected by the
opposition. For any surface vessel and/or fleet commanding officer "to
know that there's a sub somewhere, but not to know where it is exactly,
is the scariest thing out there."
Boats carry at a minimum 12 torpedoes each (most carry more, and some
may carry missiles in addition to torpedoes). Any enemy considering
invasion would be certain to reckon the submarine while performing a
cost/benefit analysis. Most modern diesel-electric (and AIP) submarines
have an endurance of few weeks. A small fleet of subs can do much damage to a larger fleet of surface
vessels, and check naval supremacy of larger sea powers.
will use vast foreign intelligence experience and apparatus to prevent
Georgia from acquiring submarines or otherwise strengthening its
defences on the Black Sea. Kremlin’s best bet is to manipulate Georgian
government and the country’s political class, both of which it has been
doing quite well recently. Moscow benefits from keeping Georgia and
Azerbaijan weak as it seeks to secure the regions energy reserves and
pipeline networks for itself.
seems to be the least likely source of invasion of the South Caucasus;
however, apparently Ankara came very close in 1993 to sending its troops
to Karabakh and Georgia. Ambassador Chrysanthopoulos of Greece tells an
interesting story linking the October 1993 failed coup in Moscow, with
Turkish designs for the South Caucasus.
On October 5 1993, then President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrossian told
Ambassador Chrysanthopoulos, who was posted in Armenia at that time,
that he had armed forces of Armenia on maximum readiness because he
expected Turkey to attack Armenia: there was a possibility that about
ten thousand Russian soldiers "guarding the border between Armenia and
Turkey" would be ordered to return to Russia.
Apparently, Ter-Petrossian was convinced that Turkey would take
advantage of serious unrests in Russia, and occupy Armenia using a
pretext of either the Kurdish question or the protection of Nakhichevan.
President of Armenia had intelligence reports that Ankara was
considering such a course of action, and his suspicions were further
confirmed by Turkish armed forces penetration on October 5 into Iraq in
hot pursuit of PKK guerillas.
October 11 of the same year, Ambassador of France to Armenia, Madam
France de Hartingh,
whom Ambassador Chrysanthopoulos describes as "a dynamic woman who spoke
fluent Russian and knew very well the problems of the region,"
informed the Greek ambassador that according to French intelligence
sources, there had been an agreement on Armenia between a leader of the
Russian coup, Chairman of Russia's Supreme Soviet, Ruslan Khasbulatov,
and Ankara. Reportedly, Khasbulatov promised Turkish leaders that he
would allow Turkish incursions of limited nature into Armenia, to round
up PKK guerillas, and "into Georgia to secure Abkhazia." According to
the same source, Khasbulatov had also planned withdrawal of Russian
troops from Armenia. Chrysanthopoulos adds that the same information was
later confirmed by his "United States colleague."
October 12, Chrysanthopoulos had a conversation with Vazgen Sargsian,
Defence Minister of Armenia. Sargsian also linked the events in Moscow
with Turkish military build-up at the Armenian border. Sargsian also
remembered the September 22 visit to Armenia by a Turkish military
delegation under General Hayrettin Uzun in the framework of CSCE
verification missions. The Turkish delegation reportedly asked to visit
Armenia's border with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Quite predictably, the
Armenian military authorities did not allow the Turkish officials to
inspect the frontiers by land, but did so from a high-flying plane
instead. On October 2 and 3, when the Moscow unrest was in full swing,
Armenian authorities panicked that the Russian troops would be withdrawn
from the country, and a Turkish invasion was imminent. Defence Minister
was in constant communication with his Russian counterpart, who assured
him a number of times that there was no question of recalling the
Russian troops from the Turkish-Armenian border.
Ambassador Chrysanthopoulos believes that the above mentioned scenario
was quite credible,
and such an agreement did exist between Ruslan Khasbulatov and Turkish
Prime Minister Tansu «iller. He does indicate that the increase of
Turkish armed forces at the border could be "attributed to the
occupation of Fizuli by the Karabagh armed forces." Further,
Chrysanthopoulos provides only Khasbulatov's ethnic background, "Chechen
Moslem," as his motivation to surrender Armenia to Turkey; however, this
does not seem to be a very credible reason for such a major concession.
1993, one could imagine Turkey helping Azerbaijan, and preventing its
collapse under joint Armenian, Russian, and Iranian pressure. However,
one could also imagine Azerbaijan managing its own problem with Karabakh
had the Russians not supported the Armenian-Kharabakh troops in the
first place, with weapons, ammunition, fuel, and expertise. Therefore,
for Azerbaijan to win or at least to be better positioned for the
post-war settlement they needed to convince Moscow to quit supporting
the Armenians. The Karabakh question, in theory, could have been settled
without Turkish or Azeri invasion of Armenia.
more difficult to imagine Turkey invading Georgia “to secure Abkhazia,”
although poor coastal defences would make that a possibility even today.
Such an invasion would have been perceived as a hostile act as in 1993,
neither Georgia nor the Abkhaz rebels had invited Ankara to become an
occupying or peacemaking power in Abkhazia or elsewhere in Georgia.
quite possible that Ankara indeed had an agreement with Khasbulatov. It
is difficult to judge what was the nature of the Turkish game plan for
the invasion, but it was likely influenced by perceptions that the
former Soviet space was falling apart – civil and inter-state wars were
raging in the Caucasus, rebellion was taking place in Moscow, and
violence (Moldova, Tajikistan) elsewhere. Turkey could not dare advance
its troops against the Russians, but with the Russians weakened or gone
from the region, Turkish invasion of Armenia is not a very unlikely
scenario. Ambiguities of 1993 eventually contributed to the Armenian
victory in the Karabakh war, and the inability or unwillingness by the
Europeans and others to stop the ethnic cleansing of almost one million
Azerbaijanis and others from the Armenian occupied territories.
counter-intuitive, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran has
exhibited more balanced and less aggressive behaviour toward the South
Caucasus than the other two major powers. Tehran assisted Armenia in its
war against Azerbaijan, but only came close to blows with Azerbaijan
once – disputed oil field in the Caspian Sea in 2001-2002 generated much
hot air both in Baku and Tehran.
2001, Iran threatened the use of force unless Azeri oil exploration
vessels left the area in the Caspian Sea that Tehran regards as its own.
After the dissolution of the USSR, Iran effectively laid a claim over 20
per cent of the Caspian, which translates into many billions of barrels
of crude oil reserves.
Tehran constantly violates Azerbaijani airspace and territorial waters,
most recently such violations occurred in February, and again in
November of 2007.
the early 1990s, Tehran’s major objective in the Caucasus has been to
build bridge-ways to Russia and Europe. At least, that was Iranians’
initial claim, and most of their activities afterward have supported it. Despite its
stand-off with the US and disagreements with Europeans, Iran has managed
to cultivate friendly relations with Western leaning Caucasian states.
Tehran has especially warm relations with Yerevan – leaders and social
groups from the two countries proclaim eternal brotherhood, and
historical continuity of their common evolution. Armenia has managed to
run very successful foreign relations in the 1990s gaining much help
from Iran, as well as from the United States, and most importantly, from
the Russian Federation – from 1993 to 1995 Moscow shipped over US $1
billion of arms to Armenia,
and provided most of its fuel as well.
Volunteers from Iran helped Armenians fight in the Karabakh war.
Tehran’s general goal in the South Caucasus has been to check ambitions
of those in Azerbaijan who desire to see two Azerbaijans, one sovereign
state, and the other a province in Iran re-united.
Iran has also tried to promote a form of irredentism in Azerbaijan. In
1993, one Alikram Humbatov led an ill-conceived rebellion in
Azerbaijan’s southern area populated by the Talysh, and declared himself
head of ‘the Talysh-Mughan Republic.’ The rebellion was stopped in a
couple of days, but it is widely believed that ever since Tehran has
exercised wide influence over the Talysh, a Persian dialect speaking
In 2003, Iran held large scale military maneuvers in its Azerbaijan
province to send a clear message of threat to Baku.
Violations of Azerbaijani airspace by Iran are very similar to Russia’s
violations of Georgian airspace. The two countries, Iran and Russia,
even plan a joint naval task force in the Caspian Sea, which is going to
be established after a successful resolution of the status of the
Moscow has already started beefing up its military presence in the
Caspian Sea by providing its Caspian Flotilla with new vessels, and
repairing older ones.
Since 2002, Iran has been rebuilding its naval forces as well – Tehran
has initiated major vessel building works in the country, and has
purchased boats and equipment abroad, specifically in China.
Azerbaijan remains to be the prime target of Iranian and Russian
build-ups in the Caspian.
Caucasus as a modern international region has been shaped by
interactions among the three dominant powers that surround it.
Currently, the region occupies a crucial strategic point in long-term
calculations by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, as well by the US and other
powers with a global reach. Small countries frequently get traded in
international diplomatic games and gambles, and for that reason they
need to depend mostly on their own strengths. Of the three Caucasian
states, only Armenia, a landlocked country, can effectively defend
itself from a potential invasion. Azerbaijan and Georgia have recently
developed and invested into land forces, but have ignored the needs for
naval and coastal defences. If the lessons given by Russia and Iran
during the last fifteen years are worth anything, Baku and Tbilisi have
to acknowledge that they are in charge of maritime countries that need
adequate naval defences to be credible international players.
as Armenia is concerned, in the immediate future it faces no real threat
of invasion from outside the region. Azerbaijan might try to re-take its
lost land by military force, but most likely Ankara will not support it
if the Russians remain militarily committed to Armenia. However, with
time, and eventual weakening of Russia’s military presence in the
region, Turkey might present a serious threat to Armenia’s security and
defences. The South Caucasus has seen many empires over centuries, none
of them managing to stick around forever, and there is no reason why
Russia, which has been in the South Caucasus for about 200 years, should
be an exception.