Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Russia’s Iran war games: responding to threats, or making them?

There’s been some interesting reporting on Russia’s annual ‘Kavkaz’ war games and their connection with the situation in Iran. Unlike previous years, the exercises – scheduled for the autumn – are explicitly designed with events ‘in the Persian Gulf’ (i.e. Iran) in mind. Specifically, they revolve around the scenario that a US-Israeli attack on Iran creates ‘spillover’, that old buzzword of the armchair general, in the Caucasus.

Significantly, this year’s exercises will probably not be confined to Russian soil: they will include components in the Georgia’s breakaway, Russian-backed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and maybe in Armenia too.

At Eurasianet, Joshua Kucera’s article picks up an interesting point. The exercises involve a pipeline battalion, tasked with delivering fuel supplies through temporary pipelines to Russian forces. This seems to be specifically linked with attempts to provide logistical support to Russian forces in Gyumri in Armenia; the base is currently cut off from Russian soil by the cold war between Russia and Georgia and by the Turkish-Azerbaijani blockades against Armenia.

The implication seems to be that in the event of a war in Iran the land route between Iran and Armenia would close, making it even more difficult for Russia to resupply forces at Gyumri and necessitating drastic measures. Would this mean a forcible move across Georgia? The participation of Abkhaz and South Ossetian forces would seem to suggest that the focus is on Tbilisi as much as Tehran, a fact which Josh notes the Georgian government is also making.

This seems like a pretty unlikely scenario, but given Russia’s firm interest in avoiding any military action in Iran, it would be in Moscow’s interest to play up the dangers which a war would cause across the whole region.

Thus in Baku, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that a war would cause huge flows of refugees into Azerbaijan and onto Russia. There have also been warnings from at least one Russian analyst that a war with Iran could potentially destabilise the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. But – as with much talk of ‘spillover’ in conflict zones – it’s not clear what the mechanism is; there is no identified process by which Israeli airstrikes would lead to Azerbaijani artillery opening up on Stepanakert. Or indeed that tens of thousands would flee from northwestern Iran into Azerbaijan, let alone Russia.

So this all sounds a bit like disinformation, or even a subtle threat. Bomb Iran, Moscow seems to be saying, and there will be chaos in the Caucasus as far afield as Georgia. An outlandish scenario, maybe - but another major factor for military planners in Washington and Tel Aviv to take into account. The Kavkaz 2012 exercises might therefore not be the testing of Russia’s shield but the rattling of its sabre.

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