April 7, 1998

April 7, 1998 | Commentary on Russia

Moscow's Hunt in the Caucasus

At midnight on Monday, Feb. 9, a large group of assassins opened fire on Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's motorcade, using rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons. In a classic commando-style ambush, Shevardnadze's bulletproof Mercedes-Benz took three rocket hits and was demolished. Assassins expected the "target" to jump out of the car, only to be finished by gunfire. But the Georgian escaped unscathed.

The assassination attempt set alarm bells ringing at the U.S. National Security Council, State Department, and the corporate boardrooms of oil companies in Texas.

And no wonder: Coming in the wake of the ouster of moderate Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrossian and an assassination attempt against Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliev earlier this month, the burst of rocket and gun fire in Tbilisi was aimed not only at the Georgian leader, but at the development of strategic oil pipelines in the Caucasus. At stake is access to almost $1 trillion worth of oil and gas reserves landlocked in the Caspian Sea area. If successful, the assassination would have destabilized Georgia, the gateway from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea and world markets. It would have delivered a mortal blow to U.S. policy in the region and altered the balance of power in Moscow's favor.

The attempt on Shevardnadze's life was a well-organized, professional job involving tremendous firepower. Not a single attacker from among the 20-25 who participated was captured. The escape route was secure. Only one attacker was killed, and he held a Russian passport.

Michael Saakashvili, a close Shevardnadze associate and the chairman of Georgia's Parliamentary Justice Committee, blames the Russians: "We don't have groups like that in Georgia, capable of concentrating so much fire power against the president. Tbilisi is not a city where you can gather such a commando unit and then disappear without a trace. Shevardnadze himself blamed an outside power for the deed." Zurab Zhvania, the outspoken Speaker of the Parliament, is calling for an inspection of four Russian military bases in Georgia to look for the would-be assassins. State Department officials, speaking off the record, agree that Russia's handwriting is "all over" the attack, which comes only a few years after a 1995 assassination attempt in which Shevardnadze was wounded. That attack was led by Shavardnadze's own chief of security, Igor Georgadze, who escaped to Russia. Since that incident, Moscow has refused extradition requests from Georgia..

There are a host of reasons why Russia would want Shevardnadze dead. Since breaking with Moscow, with Shevardnadze at the helm, Georgia has pursued a fiercely independent foreign policy and its economic success has exceeded all expectations, especially in light of the chaos of the 1992-1993 civil war and the secession of Abkhazia, a mountainous enclave on the Black Sea coast. During this time, Russia has supported every ethnic separatist movement that has challenged Georgia, in a quest to destabilize the Caucasus and repay Shevardnadze, who in a "previous life" served as the Soviet Union's foreign minister. Russian nationalists blame Shevardnedze for the demise of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe, German reunification and the collapse of the USSR.

Most important of all, Georgia is a key player in the oil pipeline drama. The other is Azerbaijan. The two countries form a corridor between the Caspian Sea, where Azerbaijan has access to the oil, and the Black Sea, which Georgia borders. To the north is Russia, to the south, Russia's ally, Armenia. And herein lies the rub: One of the projected main pipeline routes leads from the Caspian Sea via Georgia to the Black Sea, Turkey, and world markets, never once passing through Russia or Armenia.

A decision by the Azerbaijan International Oil Consortium (AIOC), which includes AMOCO and a number of other multinationals, on whether the main Caspian Sea pipeline will take this projected route or a more northern route through southern Russia is scheduled for late March. If the pipeline goes to the Georgian Black Sea port of Supsa, or via Georgia to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, Russia will lose all hope of control of this lucrative oil route - and billions of dollars in revenue.

What bothers Moscow most is the chance that Georgia and oil-rich Azerbaijan will generate enough wealth and links with the West that the "imperial option" for Russia in the Caucasus will be foreclosed. Beyond that, Georgia has been getting cozier not only with the United States, but with Israel, which has become a leading investor in that country, and with Turkey. Russian hard-liners, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are horrified by the Turkish influence in the region, especially in Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan. Russian hardliners hate to see Georgia successfully introducing free-market legislation and growing its economy at an annual rate of 10 percent. Formerly in Russia's back yard, Georgia has pursued membership in the Council of Europe and is poised to become a Black Sea economic success story, if not a miracle.

The trump card Moscow is playing in the region is Armenia, its traditional ally, with borders on both Georgia and Azerbaijan. Armenia's moderate, democratically elected president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, was ousted in a bloodless coup by nationalists and hard-liners within his own parliamentary faction, Hanrapetutyun, on February 3. Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, the former leader of the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno Karabakh - a leader much more to Moscow's liking -- took over. Already, Kocharian has defiantly proclaimed that "not a single barrel of Azeri oil will reach the markets." Kocharian may be well on his way to implement his threat - with Russian support and encouragement.

On Feb. 4, the day after Ter-Petrossian was ousted, a bomb was defused in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku. The target was Azeri president Heydar Aliev. Several days later Azerbaijan intercepted several shipments of Russian weapons headed for Armenia. These were the latest shipment in a $1 billion arms pipeline that Russia has clandestinely built over the last two years to resupply its ally to the south.

If war resumes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Russia's approval, Armenia may try to capture the strategic crossroads at Yevlakh, located about 20 miles north of the present cease-fire lines. "Not only is this the pipeline route, but the most important railroad and highway junction, supplying Azerbaijan from Georgia," says a senior State Department official with many years of experience in the region. U.S. policy-makers shiver when Yevlakh is mentioned. An Armenian takeover there might mean the end of the "Western," or non-Russian route of the pipelines from the Caspian, at least for now. It would also send a second flood of refugees into Baku, already overwhelmed by refugees from the 1988-94 war.

Russia may further destabilize the Caucasus by unleashing ethnic strife among dozens of ethnic groups populating the area. The Abkhaz, Ajarians, and ethnic Armenians in Georgia, the Lezgins and Laks in Azerbaijan, may all be encouraged to seek autonomy and secession from Tbilisi and Baku. Such instability serves Russia in that it may delay the day the Caucasus region spins out of its control, says Enders Wimbush, a well-known area expert. Beyond that, Russia is being forced to come to terms with the fact that Chechnya and Dagestan, another North Caucasian province, may spin out of the Russian orbit by the end of the millennium.

In short, Moscow is groping with the ongoing collapse of the Russian Empire and taking desperate measures to save what it can. Those trying to preserve Russia's sphere of influence, especially in the military and security services and the Duma, are furious over the perceived strengthening of U.S. influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

But in Washington's near complete absorption in Iraq and the president's personal problems, Russian leaders see an opening . Anti-American rhetoric has reached fever pitch in Russia - complete with threats of World War III made twice by President Yeltsin (and quickly disavowed by his chief aide).

It is in this hysterical atmosphere that marching orders could have been given for actions in Tbilisi, Baku, and possibly Erevan.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy