Russia And The Caucasus: How Threats Can Be ‘Securitized’ – Analysis


Both the North and South Caucasus are perceived in Russia as a threat to the survival of the state and the population. What exactly has been going on and how has Russia been approaching both lately?

For centuries the Caucasus has been known as an extremely violent region. Not only were the inhabitants subjected to foreign powers after several occupational wars, such as the Ottoman empire, the Mongols lead by Genghis Khan and the Russian empire; but also multiple violent conflicts between the different tribes/ethnic groups that inhabit the region occurred on a regular bases. Up till this day the Caucasus – both the Russian North and the independent South consisting of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – is being regarded as a volatile region where terrorist activities, separatist regions and inter state conflicts seem to be considered as the major security related issues; the Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004, the armed conflict between Georgia and Russia in August 2008 and the Moscow metro bombings of March 2010 serve as primary examples of violent and deadly events. However, one should wonder what the actual security threats are.

Political map of South Caucasus
Political map of South Caucasus

In the following article, Russia’s security policy regarding the North Caucasus situation pre- and post the 9/11 terrorist bombings in the United States, and Russia’s security policy regarding its neighbor Georgia pre- and post the August conflict in 2008 will be examined to understand the ambiguous situation regarding security issues in the Caucasus and how the approach from Russia influences the situation on the ground.

Taking the Russian security policies regarding on one hand the North Caucasus and on the other Georgia, will enable to expose how one state (as actor) deals with security threats and how the population (the audience) has accepted in both cases the perceived threat as proposed by the state. Moreover, by analyzing both cases, it will become clear when taking into account reports by well respected human rights organizations and media reporting, that in the case of the North Caucasus a shift indeed has taken place in the nature of the threats, whereas in the case of Georgia this is hard to defend.

The particular nature of both cases, the North Caucasus being a part of the Russian Federation and having fought two separatists wars in the 1990s, and Georgia gaining independence of the Soviet union in the early 1990s and having Russia intervening in a domestic violent separatist conflict in August 2008 provide both the differences and the similarities necessary to assess the differences in outcome. (This article will not talk about the Georgian Russian armed conflict as such, but will use it as reference point for a change in security policy)

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, multiple regions seceded and became independent states. One of those regions which also called for independence was Chechnya, the main region in in the 1990s which had to struggle major violence in the North Caucasus. Immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new elected president of Chechnya – Dudaev – declared the ‘pursuit of freedom from the colonial oppressor’. The Kremlin did not accept Dudaev’s declaration and sent in troops, but their attempt failed and Russian forces were beaten backing the First Chechen War. In some ways, then Russian President Yeltsin’s actions gave credence to the push for Chechnya’s independence, including the passage of the State of Emergency Degree in Chechnya to delegitimize the ruling authorities. Furthermore, Yeltsin tried to replace President Dudaev. In the passing years since then, several wars have taken place on Chechen territory, which continue in some form even today. A few years after Chechnya gained de-facto independence, Putin decided in 1999 to re-invade the territory and to restore Russian control once and for all.

The Kremlin narrative on Chechnya is changing yet again. After years of declaring victory through a feudal relationship with local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov backed by overwhelming force and reconstruction money, trouble is again on the rise. Russia states that the North Caucasus has become a free haven for terrorism, such as Chechnya, but also Dagestan and Ingushetia. Where in chechnya, for example, recently as of April 2009 Russia had its special operations security regime declared a final success, only for it to be reinstated weeks later.

To illustrate the manner in which the Russian government has been approaching the issue, it is interesting to look at their reaction to the Moscow 2010 metro bombing, where several security analysts agree it is most likely the attacks have been perpetrated by the via the Kremlin securitized ‘Black Widows’; Viktor Ilyukhin, Duma deputy, told RFE/RL he believes the attacks were a retaliation for the recent reported killings of militant leaders in the North Caucasus: “I think there is a direct link between the explosions in Moscow and events in the North Caucasus, for several reasons,” he said. “The FSB, together with Interior Ministry forces, have carried out a series of successful operations in the North Caucasus recently, during which several top [militant] leaders have been killed.” Thus, immediately after the attack, even before it was claimed by a group, the government was quick in identifying rebels in the North Caucasus as responsible.

With regards to Russia’s approach to the idea of a threat to Russia’s security and the independent country Georgia located in the South Caucasus, the dissolution of the Soviet Union is also the starting point of analysis, as many important events that occurred in the wake of the dissolution have contributed to today’s security strategy toward Georgia by the Kremlin.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are territories within the sovereign borders of the Republic of Georgia which declared independence in the early ninety’s; however, it has only recently been recognized as an independent state by Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. During the times of the Soviet Union, South Ossetia (3,900 km2) belonged, as an oblast, to Georgia. During both separatist wars, Russia’s influence was present, however, in media reporting and their national security policy Georgia was not seen as a security threat to Russia itself – the president of Georgia Shevernadze was in essence even appointed by Russia after the country had a military coup in the early 1990s.

However, their strategy changed after the rose revolution that brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power, who had as one of his main strategies to regain control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia again, who had regained de facto independence in 1993. On 7 August 2008, after days of shelling from South-Ossetian militia on ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia, the Georgian government decided to bombard the capital Tskhinvali. The Kremlin did not hesitate and send in its militaries. The informational warfare from both sides that followed after, is well known. Currently, the Kremlin sees Georgia as a threat to their territorial sovereignty and independent state, Medvedev stated on May 18

At the same time we were able to protect ourselves and today we can defend ourselves, defend our independence, our sovereign approaches. I mean the most difficult events, including events of 2008.

In order to discus wether or not there are objective measurable measure in either of these cases to support the Kremlin’s policy that they constitute threats to the survival of state and its population, Barry Buzan’s Security framework will be applied, and thus the following issues have to be defined:

Security from what?
Security by whom?
Security how?

In both cases, it is fair to say that the state and the population are the referent objects – “things that are seen to be existentially threatened and that have a legitimate claim to survival”. The securitizing actors, are to be identified as the kremlin and duma, both analyzed through media statements and the national security policy of 2007 which replaced the National Security Concepts of 1997 by Yeltsin and 2000 by Putin.

In addition, we can also already determine the functional actors – “actors who affect the dynamics of a sector” – as in both cases this is the population of the Russian federation, as they are to decide wether or not the proposed threat is being perceived as an actual threat. Hence, the Russian citizens will be our analytical object in examining the scope of the perception of the threat. This will be done through the – limited amount of – analysis on this field.

Hence, what leaves us is the political spectrum, the manner in which the Kremlin and Duma have attempted to securitize both issues, and wether the population has accepted both as threats to their and the states security.

With regards to the North Caucasus, the 1990s should be identified as a political threat, as both wars fought in Chechnya were the result of a separatist movement wishing to break free from the main state. According to Buzan, this falls within the political spectrum in essence; however, can also constitute a threat on the military spectrum if it involves armed violence, which was the case in both Chechen wars. Despite Chechnya is doing relatively well currently, the extremist violence is still active from the North Caucasus, however, has now evolved from a separatist war to an islamic jihadist war in order to create a North Caucasus wide Islamic emirate.

In essence, Russia’s approach seems to have had a turning point after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in United States, mainly after George Bush Jr. declared the war on terrorism. According to the pro-rebel Chechen website, KavkazCenter “[i]t is not difficult to understand that Moscow plans to give the role of the leader of “the good bandit formations” to Maskhadov and the role of the leader of “the bad terrorists” to Shamil Basayev.’

Russia might be using a reference to Al Quada after 2001 in order to gain support from its population – by referring to the violent groups in the North (and South) caucasus as ‘bad’ terrorists, which he defines as a form of soft power (see for example Graeme P. Herd, ‘The Russo-Chechen information warfare and 9/11: Al-Qaeda through the South Caucasus looking glass?’, European Security, 2002, 11: 4, 110 – 130). The positive results of this tactic is being supported by several papers assessing the stance of the Russian population toward the chaotic North Caucasus region ( PDF).

Although with regards to the South Caucasus it is interesting to note the change in density of attention by Russia’s government for Georgia as a security threat in the 1990s; both countries had some struggles over technicalities regarding the approach to Abkazia and South Ossetia – where Georgia wished to regain control, but the Russian federation refused to let them. Moreover, Georgia was accused of hosting Chechen terrorists in Georgian region the Pankisi Gorge.

However, the main struggles visible to the Russian population via media and official statements had a strong uprise from the early 2000s:

“Many Russian politicians have been trying to turn the issue of Pankisi into an instrument of exerting pressure on Georgia in order to undermine Georgia’s international reputation. I have said at many meetings here that current propaganda is aimed at creating the impression that it is Pankisi that has caused the Chechen conflict, rather than the other way round. The Americans see this issue in this way: first, Georgia must make sure that it does not become a haven for fighters and terrorists of Chechen or any other nationality; second, this issue cannot be turned into an instrument of blackmailing Georgia; third, the resolution of this issue is essential for more active steps to be taken to create a more stable situation in our region. That is their approach. (Zurab Zhvania, former parliament speaker of Georgia, 2002 – Rustavi 2)

Nevertheless, the August war in 2008 was the peak of portraying Georgia as a threat to the survival of the Russian state and its population, exemplified in the earlier mentioned quote by Medvedev. In addition, the Russian media has been trying hard to pin the terrorist activities of the North Caucasus on Georgia, a good example is the documentary Pirvij Kanal aired on May 29, 2011 where Georgia is also being accused of funding terrorist activities in the North Caucasus as a tactic to destabilize the Russian regime.

However, it is of course not only media or official statements that enable a security threat to actually be considered as one by a population (in this case the Russian population), as argued before, the functional actor has to accept the proposed threat as a real threat. Although this is obviously hard to assess without actual data, a quick assessment of the fact that the Russian people are not demonstrating the accusations en masse and were supporting their government in 2008 makes me confident enough to argue that the threat of Georgia is a threat that is being accepted by the functional actors.

However, after determine that in both cases the threats as proposed by the securitizing actors have been established as security threats in the idea of Buzan’s security framework, does not answer the question whether in some cases threats can be objectively measured.

In the case of Georgia the ‘objective’ threat is difficult to assess, the alleged funding of terrorist groups is hard to proof or refute; however, one could quickly examine official UN documents and the report by the European Union Fact Finding mission ( PDF) that with regards to the war Georgia’s aggression was directed to South Ossetia and not toward the sovereign borders of Russia, as Medvedev claimed in a statement recently, moreover, when taking into account the size of Georgia’s military and that of Russia, it should be obvious that an actual attempt by Georgia to overtake Russia will be extremely ambitious. Nevertheless, the fact that it has been accepted as security threat, makes it a real security threat for the Russian state.

However, when we take a look at the perceived threat that derives from Russia’s own North Caucasus, then we should be able to ‘objectively’ measure that the threat seems very real. If we assess the amount of murders in the North Caucasus (by both Extremist militants and the Russian security forces) in for example Ingushetia than we can argue that the unrest leads to a threat which can be securitized without a securitizing actor, but mainly by events that occur and are being witnessed by the population. The fact that several terrorist attacks have taken place in Moscow and in the train to St. Petersburg also creates an atmosphere in which the securitizing actor has little work to do in order for terrorism to be perceived as threat.

To come to a conclusion, it seems to be that with regards to the North Caucasus, as mentioned above, the shift from the two separatist’ wars to a a terrorist insurgency is perhaps not the result of perception securitized by the Russian ruling elites, it might even be an accurate assumption. However, whether or not the threat ‘exists’, the result of the securitization is that the government is legitimized to “mobilize, or to take special powers, to handle existential threats.”. The same could apply on the case of Georgia, where Russia’s attention toward Georgia as a potential security threat was already an existing policy in the 1990s but had an uprise after the 2008 armed conflict between Russia and Georgia.

Therefore, when taking both cases into account, it can be argued that Russia has successfully securitized both cases, as the perception of the population seems to suggest they perceive the different situations – terrorism in one and military inter state aggression – as security threats to the Russian state’s and its population survival.

Inge Snip

International law advocate Inge Snip has been living in and out of Georgia for three years, researching post-Soviet politics and issues of self-determination. A former policy advisor to Dutch MEP J. Maaten, Snip is now a consultant for the Tbilisi-based IDP advocacy group Coalition for Justice and a graduate student at Uppsala University in Sweden and writes for Evolutsia.Net.

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