With the Karabakh conflict hitting the headlines followed by resurging hostilities around Serbia, it’s time to look at how Moscow created fault-lines over decades, even centuries within and around Russia for imperial purposes. All empires did this, of course, but Moscow’s is the last to go and it isn’t going quietly. Most people forget or never knew where the geostrategic minefields were planted so when they erupt it looks like ancient enmities spontaneously combusting in dark remote regions. In fact, many of these regions were kept unstable and remote and dark very deliberately by Moscow. So when Russian peacekeepers came in, the world was happy to let it be.
Without going into the endlessly disputed details about who owns what territory in Nagorno-Karabakh that drive the Armenia-Azerbaijan enmity, you should know that Russia has controlled the region since 1813, constantly fueling tensions. The Czar-to-Soviet transfer in the 1920s made things worse. The Soviet break-up in the 1990s saw Russian forces actively fomenting and participating in the civil war there. And that’s just one part of the Caucasus. In nearby Georgia, Moscow built ethnic separatism into the borders so at the slightest sign of independence from Tbilisi, trouble could be stoked along the fault-lines. Suddenly you had the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (in the north) hating Georgia and wanting to secede, begging for and getting help from Russians to do so. This, in the early 1990s when post-Soviet Russia was supposed to be weak and helpless.
We’re not talking a Christian (Georgians) vs Muslim (Abkhaz) conflict. Especially because the Abkhaz eventually acceded to being totally reintegrated into the Russian Orthodox empire. In 2008, Russian tanks invaded Georgia in order to protect the South Ossetians – having incited violent attacks on Georgian villages and thereby inflamed hostilities. How was it that Tbilisi could be considered a worse option than the centuries-old oppression from Moscow? Sadly, that’s what divide-and-rule is all about. Meanwhile, the Chechens rose up twice and had to undergo yet another genocide – something like 100,000 killed in the capital alone – before being ruled by a Muslim fundamentalist puppet of Moscow, Ramzan Kadyrov. Yes, he who is now helping Moscow in Ukraine with his Chechen militia. Can you imagine? They had their relatives killed in droves by the very side they’re fighting for now in another country that’s fighting for independence. A level of cruelty-induced depravity the world has rarely seen since ancient times. And now Russia is drafting Ukrainians from occupied territories to fight against the Ukrainian army
Further east in Central Asia, of the numerous little civil wars that erupted, one saw the odd phenomenon of the Ahiska Turks, deported from their Georgian lands to Uzbekistan by Stalin, suddenly rioting and fighting their Uzbek neighbors. Or vice-versa. At the time it was reported that strange provocations had occurred to inflame the situation. Very odd, indeed, since the Uzbeks tend to be quite tolerant of diversity, not least of Turkic people. The Ahiskas had to leave again and got dispersed, some to Ukraine where the Russian invasions there displaced them again. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, in the no-mans-land regions where the Uzbek, Kazakh and Kyrgyz borders meet, the Russians fostered a militia of armed Islamists who, from 1999 onwards, attacked within Uzbekistan repeatedly. Yes the Russians. It is all recorded in the book by the highly respected Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid, entitled “Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam In Central Asia”. You didn’t think, did you, that the Russians had anything to do with fostering extreme Islam?
The immediate effect was that Uzbekistan shut down its borders, halted democratization, kept out the West, kept Russian soldiers along its borders, and allowed a classic post-Soviet autocrat to run the country for years. A man that Moscow could do business with. All of which is why, when any outsider writes about the Central Asian ‘Stans (as this column often does), it behooves them to be very savvy when loudly crying up human rights issues, important as that is. Moscow’s favored mode of destabilizing its ex-colonies begins with provoking strife, supposedly defending human rights, generating separatism and stepping in to ‘protect’ one group or another. That’s precisely what the Kremlin did in Ukraine repeatedly to ‘protect’ Russian speakers.
Seeing all this, the local authorities post-Soviet countries, spooked by the Kremlin’s threat, tend to handle things harshly and opaquely. Their bureaucracy and police force tend to operate in old Soviet ways. The combination is highly combustible and easy to criticize by Western observers and hidden Moscow shills. We do not yet know what exactly happened and why in Almaty, Kazakhstan, during the “Bloody January” riots of 2022 when over 200 people were killed. Why did the peaceful protests suddenly turn violent? We may never know. But we do know that Kazakh leader Tokayev had to call in Russia-controlled peacekeepers. He has since regretted doing so and now takes a very anti-Moscow stance. In Uzbekistan, equally, we don’t know what exactly happened in the Karakalpakstan riots of July 2022. An autonomous republic attached to Uzbekistan, a status inherited from the Soviet era, Karakalpakstan is a poor, landlocked region very much dependent on Tashkent economically. Its leaders seemed to want to integrate with Uzbekistan but, when legislation to that effect was tabled in Tashkent, Karakalpak riots broke out and turned bloody. The progression was eerily similar to what happened in Almaty.
And then there are the farther-flung arms of Moscow like Serbia and, until recently, Bulgaria. Having thrown off the Ottoman ‘yoke’ with Czarist intervention, such countries persist in their sympathy for Russia as savior. Seeing events in Ukraine, the Bulgarians have finally repented of their delusions and tend to favor European ties of late. But the Serbians still see themselves as persecuted Slavs, blind to their own Balkan war atrocities and those of Russia today, and seem ready to cause provocations in Kosovo to give Moscow leverage against Nato. Ivana Stradner, a distinguished commentator on the region, now at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, often writes about the Kremlin’s predations. Herself being of Serbian extraction, she gets it: she warned about incitements against Kosovo for months.
Now she’s being proved right. It’s past time for the West to understand the Kremlin’s global tactics, their history and future, and the geostrategic scope of the threat.