Russia's security priorities in the Greater Caucasus and the Sochi Winter Olympics

The Games of geopolitical importance

On 7 February 2014, the 22nd Winter Olympic Games will open in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. These games will be the first Olympics hosted by Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As such, the Sochi games will be more than a mere athletic competition; they possess a singular symbolic character, important to Russia and particularly to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian leader considers the event to be a demonstration of the country's post-Soviet potential and its growing role on the international stage, as well as visible proof of his success in overcoming the political chaos that followed the dissolution of the USSR. The Sochi Winter Olympics have also been interpreted by some as an integral part of Putin's return to the presidency – an attempt to secure domestic support and prestige. According to the Russian leader, if Russia "had failed to restore the territorial integrity of the country and stop the confrontation in the North Caucasus in the form in which it was five to seven years ago, and was unsuccessful in resolving a variety of social and economic issues" it would not have been possible to see an Olympic Games on Russian territory.[1] 

However Sochi faces a number of difficult challenges. It stands as the focal point of several thorny issues with geopolitical and security implications. Unlike previous host cities of the summer and winter Olympic Games (Vancouver, Turin, London and Beijing) Sochi lies in close proximity to a politically turbulent region: the North Caucasus. It remains a "hotspot" on the map of Russia due to ongoing terrorist activities. In 2012 armed violence in the North Caucasus caused 1,225 casualties and in the third quarter of 2013 it caused 223 casualties. The present-day instability of the region extends far beyond its administrative borders themselves. Jihadists from the North Caucasus or those who are connected with them have carried out attacks elsewhere. The two bloody terrorist attacks in Volgograd in December 2013 confirmed this tendency.

The situation in the region is also exacerbated by various ethnic tensions that date back to the Soviet and pre-Soviet period as well as disputed borders, and the politically volatile South Caucasus (Georgia and Azerbaijan) next door. As a result, any discussions on Sochi's planned economic modernization must take into account the stability of this territory.

Sochi is in the immediate vicinity of the border of Abkhazia, a de facto breakaway region of Georgia, which in turn is a major strategic partner of the United States, the European Union and NATO. Abkhazia's statehood and national independence have both been recognized by Russia, though it has not been supported by most UN members. Thus the Russian-Georgian relationship has also been considered in the Sochi 2014 context, making the athletic events a major geopolitical issue.

This is why Moscow is seriously concerned about the general situation in its North Caucasus as well as in the neighboring countries sharing common borders with Russia (Georgia and Azerbaijan) and in Armenia, which is considered the Russian strategic ally in the South Caucasus[2].

Searching for "stability": Russia's basic approaches to the Greater Caucasus region

Preparations to the upcoming Olympics have a clear connection to the broader Caucasus agenda. However the centrality of the Greater Caucasus for Moscow was not discovered by the Sochi Games. It was established long before 2013-2014.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has identified the South Caucasus as an area of crucial importance for its core strategic interests. The Russian Federation has claimed a special role in the geopolitics of the Caucasus, not only – and at the same time not much at all – due to its capacity and status as the successor of the USSR.

Unlike the Soviet Union, present-day Russia does not pretend to play a global political role. Rather, its ambitions in the international arena and its sources of influence are strictly dependent on, and limited by, its status as a nuclear power and position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.  Russia, alongside China and others, is in the midst of a long-running dispute with the West over the inviolability of state sovereignty in times of conflict and the justification for intervention in domestic political processes (although in practice, Moscow has not always been consistent on this point - take the case of the August 2008 war with Georgia and subsequent recognition of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for example). While the Kremlin has not issued any relevant official policy formulations regarding the South Caucasus (as well as its own North Caucasus), Russia's policy clearly suggests a desire to assert regional leadership.

It has demonstrated its readiness to amend borders (in the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), prevent outside penetration in the region (in the case of its opposition to NATO, the U.S. and European Union) and to maintain a central role in managing the resolution of the Nagornyy Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

In this way, Moscow follows a policy of "selective revisionism." While it has recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Kremlin has chosen not to support the aspirations of Nagornyy Karabakh Republic and even does not recognize elections held there by de facto authorities. Strengthening its position as a regional leader, Russia actively cooperates with the West within the framework of the OSCE Minsk group. Unlike Georgia, the positions of Moscow and Washington on this issue have seen much more common ground. Moreover, Russia's mediating role, undertaken in the context of the Minsk group, is strongly backed by the United States and France (an EU-member). Although Armenia remains a strategic partner of Russia (due to its membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organizatoin (CSTO) and seeks to join the Customs Union and then the planned Eurasian Union) Russia is interested in having a constructive relationship with Azerbaijan, as well as normalization of the bilateral relationship with Georgia while not crossing declared "red lines" like the status of the two breakaway republics.

However, Russia's geopolitical ambitions in the South Caucasus are not intended to produce an "imperial resurgence". Ensuring stability in the former Soviet Republics of "Transcaucasia" is a prerequisite for Russia's peaceful domestic development and for the preservation of its territorial integrity. Although this may sound exaggerated, Russia is a Caucasian state. Seven constituencies of the Russian Federation (Adygeya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, North Ossetia and Chechnya) are immediately situated in the territory of the North Caucasus and four other subjects (the Krasnodar and Stavropol territories, the Rostov region and Kalmykia) are situated in the steppe foothills of the Caucasus. Additionally, the Black Sea shore of the Krasnodar Territory and the region of the Caucasian Mineral Waters of the Stavropol territory are also part of the Caucasus region. The territory of the Russian North Caucasus is bigger than the three South Caucasus independent states put together. Furthermore, as a practical matter, the ethno-political tensions that have arisen in Russia's regions have been closely connected with conflicts under way in the South Caucasus.  

The dynamics of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict have had a serious impact on the Ossetian-Ingush conflict in Russia's North Ossetia and the Georgian-Abkhaz situation has exerted influence on the development of the Circassian population within Russia. The security environment in Chechnya and Dagestan has also been connected with the developments in Georgia's ethnic Chechen-populated Pankisi Gorge. As they share a common border, Russia and Azerbaijan have faced the issue of divided ethnic groups (Lezgins and Avars). It is important to understand that it is in Russia's interests to have positive relationship on Baku regardless of its strategic military partnership with Armenia. Thus, ensuring stability in the Russian Caucasus is indivisible from the achievement of stability in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

However Russia has been unable to offer any attractive modernization project to the South Caucasus states and has thus been forced to confine itself to a "stabilizing" role. In the "hotspots," such a role could have been justified; however, Moscow made a serious strategic mistake by concentrating only on seeking the "freezing" of these conflicts and leaving the socio-economic and socio-cultural spheres, as well as the problems of modernization, unaddressed. In reality, the Kremlin's policy focused entirely on the consolidation of the political regime through support for the ruling powers in the South Caucasus. It is worth noting that Moscow has realized practically the same approaches in its domestic policy in the North Caucasus. 

Russia-Georgia: normalization without high expectations

On the eve of Sochi Olympics Russo-Georgian relations look rather controversial. On the one side they are at lower ebb than Russia's bilateral relations with any other former Soviet republic. Diplomatic relations have been broken and any compromises on the Abkhazia and South Ossetia status look impossible (at least problematic). So during the Russia-NATO Council meeting in December 2013, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, once again called on NATO to acknowledge the changing realities in the South Caucasus, in spite of the fact that the maintenance of Georgian territorial integrity continues to be supported by all political camps within Georgia.

On the other side there is a mutual desire to overcome hostilities and engage in pragmatic cooperation. After the parliamentary election victory of the Georgian Dream coalition in October 2012, and later, in November 2013, the replacement of the stridently anti-Russian Mikheil Saakashvili with Giorgi Margvelashvili as president, some significant steps towards normalization have been taken. The first direct diplomatic dialogue between Russia and Georgia, following a long-break, took place on 14 December 2012, when Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigoriy Karasin and the special representative of the Georgian prime minister, Zurab Abashidze, met in Geneva. Since then their meetings have become regular. This was followed by a meeting between the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his Georgian then-counterpart, Bidzina Ivanishvili at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 24 January 2013. This was the first time that the Russian and Georgian heads of government had talked since the August 2008 war. Georgian wines and mineral beverages returned to the Russian market. The inter-state rhetoric has been seriously changed. Furthermore, the Georgian prime minister and minister of defence in 2013 and early 2014 publicly spoke in favour of collaboration towards ensuring the security for the forthcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, despite the dire legacy of the 2008 armed conflict while Russia's President Vladimir Putin for his traditional annual press conference (19 December 2013) spoke of the possible abolition of the visa-regime for Georgian citizens' entry into Russia. The idea of boycotting the Sochi Games has lost steam in Georgia and four Georgian athletes are set to compete.

Over the course of 2013 Georgian presidential electoral campaign, Moscow remained a fairly passive player, deciding not to throw its support behind a "preferred" candidate. A similar approach was realized for the Tbilisi's preparations to initial an Association Agreement with the European Union in late November. This is perhaps explained by Russia's attempts to move away from its principled position on the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. Moreover, Russia understands that it lacks the kind of resources to influence Georgia that it has on Armenia and cannot offer to Georgia anything more attractive than the West can do.

Happily for the Russian leadership, the third Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who called for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics, has left his post. However inter-state relations are not, solely based on the interpersonal relationships between leaders. Many of the problems between Moscow and Tbilisi date back to the 1990s, with the Saakashvili government simply providing a new impetus to them following the 2003 Rose Revolution.

At the same time, the difficult and tense situation in the North Caucasus, suggests a need for a greater cooperation between Russia and Georgia in security affairs. Judging from recent events, such as the arrest of Mikhail Kadiyev and Rizvan Omarov on suspicion of the murder of Alimsultan Alkhamatov, the head of the administration of Khasavyurt District in Dagestan, and of Yusup Lakayev, accused of the murder of the Russia vice-consul to Abkhazia, Dmitry Vishernev and his wife, there would seem to be a possible avenue for cooperation.      

Nonetheless, such cooperation remains very piecemeal. On the surface, it seems that both sides have developed a more pragmatic attitude to their relations without obvious complications. It is likely that in the near future, both sides will seek to normalize their bilateral relationship in spite of their ongoing diplomatic rift. Healing their diplomatic ties, however, is likely to remain highly problematic for the future.

Russia-Armenia: strategic cooperation with troubles

In stark contrast to Georgia, Armenia has always been seen as Russia's closest ally, not only in the South Caucasus, but in the whole of the post-Soviet Space. As of October 2013 around 40% of all direct foreign investment into Armenia came from Russian investors, and a quarter of all businesses with foreign capital also come from Russia. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and it hosts the 102nd Russian military base in Gyumri (Russia's only other military presence in the South Caucasus being in Abkhazia and South Ossetia). Moreover, Russian border guards patrol Armenia's borders.

However 2013 become one of the most difficult years in the bilateral relationship between Russia and Armenia. Over the course of a few months, Moscow worked to prevent Yerevan from initializing an Association Agreement with the EU and in September President Serzh Sargsyan make the announcement that Armenia would join the Customs Union and later the Eurasian Union, rather than following the European integration vector. This is in spite of the fact that over the course of the year high-level officials in Armenia, including the Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan and the Deputy Foreign Minister Shavarsh Kocharyan, adopted a sceptical position with regard to Armenia joining the Customs Union, citing in particular the lack of a border with Russia and the need to diversify Yerevan's foreign relations activities.

Unlike its integration in security forums (i.e., the CSTO), Armenia prior to September 2013 did not show particular interest in participating in the Customs Union, instead seeking to diversify its course and strengthen economic cooperation with the European Union through the mechanisms of the Association Agreement. Moscow, being extremely jealous about any penetration into the post-Soviet space by European and American interests, showed concern about any links between Brussels and Yerevan. It is no secret that Moscow has used leverage to exert pressure on its ally. However it would be wrong to explain the current compliance of Sargsyan solely by the "manoeuvres" of Moscow.

Yerevan understands as well as anyone else that the European vector, with all its visual appeal today, does not compensate the role that Russia plays in ensuring the security of the country and the status quo in the Nagornyy Karabakh peace process. The EU also has a serious lack of "hard power." In addition, the European strategic partnership with a long-time rival of Armenia — Baku — in the field of energy does not incline Brussels to accept only the "truth" of Yerevan.

Considerable risks are also associated with possible Western intervention in Syria and, in particular, with the potential willingness of Turkey to intervene in the civil conflict in the country. No one can guarantee that Ankara will not act tougher against Yerevan, leaving the latter without Russian support. These factors contributed to Sargsyan's pragmatic decision to join the Customs Union.

Nevertheless Moscow should not be celebrating a triumph. In the face of the development of this new status quo in the Greater Caucasus, the Russian leadership must be more realistic in its assessments of the motives of its strategic partners and more pragmatic. Moscow should shun high expectations. In response of Sargsyan's decision, the Armenian opposition made their reservations about Russian influence in the country known, as seen with the local protests against Putin's visit to Gyumri and Yerevan. While the scale of those protests does not compare with those which have been taking place in Ukraine in recent weeks, the protests against an official visit by a Vladimir Putin in December 2013 were unprecedented. The Kremlin's enduring support for the incumbent authorities, a lack of interest in understanding the motives underlying the opposition movement (i.e. their desire to see the emergence of constructive relations with the EU), and a disinterest in building relations with opposition groups, has resulted in the emergence of forces within Armenia itself that are critical of the relationship with Russia. Although these groups are splintered, they all agree that Russia's monopolizing influence on Armenia is undesirable.   

Russian-Azerbaijani relationship: cautious balancing

Today, Azerbaijan has a special place in Russia's foreign policy in the South Caucasus. It does not occupy the same clear-cut position of close ally or difficult neighbour as is the case with Armenia and Georgia, respectively. Unlike in the case of Georgia, Baku does not force the question of its membership of NATO into its relations with Russia, and is interested in some form of cooperation with Moscow in areas of security, particularly as the two actors share a 284-km border, which runs along the Russian Republic of Dagestan. Concerned by the spillover of radical Islamism from neighbouring regions of the Russian Federation, Baku seems eager to collaborate with Moscow in security issues.

At the same time, Azerbaijan is itself faced with an unresolved ethno-political conflict with Armenia over Nagornyy Karabakh and is extremely concerned about the ongoing and extensive military-industrial cooperation between Moscow and Yerevan. For its part, Moscow has expressed its concerns and fears over Azerbaijan's energy cooperation with the United States and the EU, which it sees as a challenge to Russia's dominance in Eurasia.

The Russian leadership has been unfailing in its support for the incumbent Azerbaijani government. It lent its support in the course of parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2010, during the 2008 presidential election and the 2009 constitutional referendum which effectively granted the incumbent president the right to run for the presidential office for more than two consecutive terms. The 2013 presidential election was no exception, and President Putin's August visit to the Azerbaijani capital, too, was viewed in this context.

However, the Biryulevo incident in Moscow in October 2013, following the highly publicized arrest of an ethnic Azeri, Orkhan Zeynalov, for the murder of a Russian, seems to have perhaps put the increasingly positive developments in Russo-Azeri relations on ice. The subsequent virulent media campaign against migrants from the Caucasus, together with Zeynalov's alleged mistreatment in custody provoked a very stern response from the Azerbaijani ambassador to Russia and the Azerbaijani Ministry for Foreign Affairs. No leadership in the South Caucasus can ignore nationalist and anti-migrant discourses against their co-nationals. Although closer to the end of 2013 Moscow and Baku managed to overcome those unpleasant and irritating consequences of those events, the issue of xenophobia (especially Caucasian-phobia) still remains a serious challenge in the bilateral relationship.

Russian North Caucasus: threat to the leading regional positions

Russia's North Caucasus policy is considered to be an interesting geopolitical paradox. Identifying itself as a guarantor of Caucasus stability and security, Russia itself faces serious challenges inside its own country in the North Caucasus area. The situation in the North Caucasus no longer resembles the dynamics of the Chechen conflict. Contrary to the sloppy mainstream media narrative, the insurgency in the region is not centred in Chechnya. Rather, in each year since 2005, the recorded incidence of violence in Chechnya has been less than or equal to the levels of violence observed in the neighbouring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan. And although the situation in Chechnya can by no means be described as secure or resolved, the vast majority of violent incidents in recent years have taken place outside the Chechen Republic itself.

Political Islam's influence has steadily increased across the North Caucasus since the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially in comparison to ethnic nationalism. Despite its overall decline, ethnic nationalism still remains an important force in the region. Unlike the aspirations for independence from the Russian Federation evinced by the Chechen separatists in the 1990s, none of today's political violence is driven by an explicitly secessionist agenda. The nationalists of the present day remain well within the Russian political and legal space and their activities are driven more by current realities than by the injustices of the Soviet past. Like the multifaceted political Islam in the North Caucasus, the ethno-nationalism in the region has also appeared in various forms.

The North Caucasus is likely to continue to be a part of Russia for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, there is very little evidence of an effective strategy in Moscow for integrating the region with the rest of the country. Two glaring examples: the continuing inability to leverage military conscription as a means of introducing young men from the North Caucasus into the broader stream of Russian life; and a lack of viable labour migration programmes to create employment opportunities for young people outside the overpopulated North Caucasus, which faces the challenges of high unemployment and land deficit.

To avert the most dangerous scenarios around the Sochi Games of 2014 the Russian authorities have implemented unprecedented measures. As of June 2013 around $2.5 billion has been spent on security at Olympic venues in and around Sochi. A so-called "security cordon" was established extending 100 km along the Black Sea coast. However the two Volgograd attacks clearly demonstrated that those measures are insufficient because for the Caucasus jihadists not only the area around Sochi but the whole of Russia is seen as a "target". At the same time even the most effective special operations are not sufficient without serious social changes in the Caucasus, first and foremost without full-scale integration of the region in Russia-wide processes. Preparation and security ahead of the Sochi Games should be considered as an initial step and important precondition for the development of a comprehensive strategy for the Caucasus region. 

Concluding remarks

Russian policy in the Greater Caucasus in the context of upcoming Olympics has achieved some successes in recent years. Moscow has been able to minimize the risk of a possible boycott from the Georgian side and retained the loyalty of the political and business circles in Western countries. The criticism of Moscow for the Abkhazia and South Ossetia recognition has been replaced by other critical topics (human rights abuses and discriminatory legislation against sexual minorities). Some new steps towards the normalization of ties with Georgia have been taken.

Russia has managed to reach its goal in Armenia by involving this country in the Customs Union while the positions of the other members on this issue like Kazakhstan seem to be rather ambivalent. In 2013 Moscow managed to overcome some tensions with Azerbaijan provoked by differences over Russia's use of the Qabala radar station in Azerbaijan in 2012. Even in the North Caucasus Moscow managed to decrease the number of terrorist attacks while the soft power approaches (attempted adaptation of former rebels in Dagestan and Ingushetia) are considered to have had little effect.    

However Moscow is still far from solving all the critical problems facing the Greater Caucasus. Moreover, while it has achieved some success on the international arena, Russia has set itself up for potentially serious social and economic problems in the future, ranging from issues of ecology and tourism in the greater Sochi area to transportation and budgetary issues. The demands of the security environment are likely to strengthen the control of administrative, bureaucratic, police and security structures. It is possible that after the Games have ended, those conditions will be used by law-enforcement and security forces to gain corporate advantages that strengthen their political influence. Once approved, the experience of restricting civil rights can be put forward as an effective means to resolve other internal problems. Be that as it may, holding a secure Olympics is the highest priority.

Staging the first Winter Olympic Games in a subtropical climate will require not only high quality public relations. Without proper attention to the complex ethno-political side of the Games, the Kremlin will not reap the PR benefits from Sochi that it desires. Russia's return to the major leagues of international politics will be dictated in part by its success or failure in addressing the complicated issues surrounding the Sochi Olympics, such as preventing terrorism, managing interactions with neighbouring states — of both the recognized and de facto variety —and, of course, elaboration of a comprehensive strategy of its presence in this strategically important region.

[1] Cited in: "Desyat' podvigov Vladimira Putina [Ten feats of Vladimir Putin]," 7 October 2012,

[2] Speaking about the Russian-Georgian border we mean not only disputed parts of them like Abkhazia and South Ossetia but also the Georgian-controlled frontiers with Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabarda-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan.