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Greater Caucasus at the Great Chessboard

AXIOMS OF GEOPOLITICAL EXPERIENCE. Part I. Greater Caucasus at the Great Chessboard

Greater Caucasus has never been a politically-geographical line, but rather a "courtyard" of nations and cultures. Border of the Russian Federation that was established in 1991 and came through the main range of Greater Caucasus cannot be stable, which the events to follow have surely proved.

Border in the Greater Caucasus was defined during the Soviet era, after the Civil War. Nations, populating the northern slopes of the Greater Caucasus, automatically fetched itself within the RSFSR, those, dwelling at the southern slopes — among the Transcaucasian republics (Transcaucasian Socialist Republic until 1936). As a result, Ossetians, Lezghins, nations of Abkhazian-Adyghe group and many others were separated by the politically-administrative borders of the federative republics. Events of 1992 made Russia include Abkhazia and South Ossetia, fighting back Georgian attempts to annex them, into its sphere of influence. Thus, the millennium-old geopolitical axiom was proved once again: the Greater Caucasus is nothing but a natural border.

Two ways roundabout Greater Caucasus have been intensively used since the primordial times: 1) Along the shores of the Black Sea 2) Along the Caspian shores (later this path was dubbed the Derbent Gates) There are also some easily passable crossings in the middle of Greater Caucasus, two of which held the greater historical importance as the migration and military paths: 1) Krestovy (Cross) passing — along the Terek upper reaches, through the Darial Gorge, where Russian built the Georgian Military Road in our time (actually — in the 19th century); 2) Mamison Pass, where the Ossetian Military Road was built in approximately the same time.

Greater Caucasian ridge has never been an obstacle for snail-paced migrations. The above-mentioned nations along with Chechens, Georgians, Azerbaijanians and others have dwelled astride the Greater Caucasus. Let alone the fact that Caucasus has always remained open for the naval invasions from the west and east.

Neither Caucasus was a protection from the military conquests coming from north to south and from south to north. As far back as in the 7th century B. C. Scythians came through it (it is believed that they’ve made their way along Caspian shores) from the Northern Black Sea region to Transcaucasia and Western Asia — they were believed to reach the Jerusalem walls those days. In the 1st-2nd centuries A. D. Alans (Ossetian forerunners) have repeatedly invaded Transcaucasia through Darial Pass. Their settlement at the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus started as far back as then. Georgian kings were creating alliances with Alans, letting them to the south, and sometimes fought them. Their position was conditioned by the intestine struggle and the material incentives: Georgian kings served Armenia as the paid "guards of Caucasian passes". From time to time they’ve instigated Alans for raiding (and even participated in them themselves) Armenia through Caucasus in order to demonstrate its dependence upon Georgian service and beat some "bonuses" out of Armenian kings.

Since the 3rd century A. D. regular invasions of Turkic nations (Huns, Avars, Khazars, and Tatars etc.) through the Derbent Gates started and were on for almost a millennium, until the 13th century. States to the south from the Greater Caucasus rarely could rebuff them. Eastern Transcaucasia was gradually Turkicized. From the other hand, when in the 8th-9th centuries Transcaucasia gradually fell under the rule of Arab Caliphate, Arabs have repeatedly crossed the Greater Caucasus south to north, fighting with the Khazarian caganate.

Actually, Transcaucasia — or the South Caucasus (its contemporary name) — has permanently been an arena for the struggle of great empires: Rome (since the 4th century — Byzantine) and Iran. Submission of this territory to a united Arab Caliphate was merely episodic. Iran soon recovered and since the 14th century the Ottoman Empire inherited the power of Byzantine. At that, both Turkey and Iran spread their influence to the north from the Greater Caucasus. Transcaucasian states tack in this fight, supporting both sides by turns and striving to retain at least a shadow of independence.

Since the 15th century Russia entered Caucasus as a geopolitical player. In the end of this century (in 1586) Georgian King Alexander humbly asked Russian Tsar Feodor Ioannovich to accept his country under the higher protection of Moscow, which it failed to do due to the remoteness of its borders. In the 1590s one of the contenders for the Iranian Shah throne attempted to secure Russian support. This meant the emergence of a third-power factor embodied by Russia.

However, more than a century passed before Russia actually managed to join the fight for Caucasian spheres of influence. In 1722-1723 Russia conquered a number of Caspian territories of Iran (seaside Dagestan and Azerbaijan) and held them until 1735. It’s quite indicative that Russia first appeared south of the Greater Caucasus as a naval, rather than ground power! Still, it’s hardly surprising if we remember that as far back as in 914 Rus dwellers attacked the Arab domains in the Eastern Transcaucasia (there are, however, some doubts that they belonged to the Kiev Rus). It’s unclear how Russian expansion in Transcaucasia might have gone, had Russia paid more attention to this direction after the rule of Peter the Great. Be as it may, further Russian expansion to the Transcaucasia was an overland one.

In 1774 Ossetians adopt Russian citizenship — at that this was applied to Ossetian astride the Greater Caucasus. Thus, Russia crossed the Greater Caucasus for the second time. In 1783 Georgia became a part of Russian protectorate and in 1801 it was included into the Russian Empire. Russia went straight to consolidating its influence in the South Caucasus without lingering for pacifying the Northern Caucasus. At that, Russian borders were defined not by the geographic borders, but rather by the degree of resistance of two other great powers — Turkey and Iran.

That’s how Russia expanded south from the Greater Caucasus until the beginning of the 20th century. In the WWI Russian goal, apart from seizing the Straits, was to conquer Armenia. Yet, even had Russian Empire won that war, it would have still failed to gain a Caucasian exit to the Mediterranean Sea. According to the secret agreements of 1915-1916 Cilicia (the ancient Armenian area, belonging to the Mediterranean Sea) fell under the French influence and Russia recognized that. However, France also failed to lay its hands upon this territory: the Independence War (the way Turkey dubbed it) in 1920-1923, headed by Kemal Ataturk, Cilicia (along with the Western Armenia and the Straits) remained a part of Turkey.

Meanwhile, it’s obvious that any power may only possess Northern Caucasus if it also owns the substantial and solid territory (not just separate enclaves) south from the Greater Caucasus. The Greater Caucasus itself may only be geopolitically stable, being a deep rearguard, rather than a border. Any power, acting in the Caucasus automatically strives to consolidate its grip astride the Greater Caucasus. This key axis-like ridge of the highest mountain range on the border of Europe and Asia is by no means a natural geographic borderline for flora, fauna and human communities.

At the same time, the number of geopolitical subject struggling to possess Caucasus is potentially unlimited. The fact that the United States of America joined this struggle after the collapse of the Soviet Union proves that. The USA strives to wedge into this traditional borderland between Iran, the Roman-Byzantine-Turkish historically-geopolitical subject and the receding Northern Empire (Khazarian Empire-Golden Horde-Russia). Given the Caucasian openness for the naval invasions and the U. S. ability to infiltrate the Black Sea basin through its new European satellites (Bulgaria, Romania and soon Ukraine) and the Caspian Sea basin from Middle Asia, this plan cannot be disregarded as an impossible one.

Frankly speaking, American actions of the last twenty years may be neatly describing as "wedging" into the traditional border areas of greater empires. Apart from Caucasus, these areas include Iraq (Mesopotamia was yet another primordial border point between Iran and Rome-Byzantine-Turkey), Northern Afghanistan and Middle Asia (Bactria and Sogdiana between Iran, China and the Kushan-Mongolian Afghani-India), Libya (Barbary between the states of Eastern and Western Mediterranean and the inner African world; Arabs traditionally consider it to be the borderland between the Arab West and Arab East — Maghreb and Mashriq, referring it to one or another). A certain pattern of using the ancient geopolitical contradictions (peculiar of certain regions of the planet) may be clearly seen in the "instability arc" strategy, which the U. S. actions are dedicated to, according to various experts. In the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, Middle Asia and Libya (situated at the outskirts of several local civilizations) these contradictions are the historically-geopolitical constants.

Consolidation of any power at the South Caucasus will be spread north from the Main Caucasian Range. If Russia leaves its positions south of it, it will drastically increase the probability of North Caucasus disruption. Russia needs an interconnected system of loyal territories and allied states to the south from the Greater Caucasus. Meanwhile, current regional configuration doesn’t fit that requirement. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are bound to each other only through the North Caucasus, while Armenia borders neither Russia, not the new states of South Caucasus. We also have to consider that the traditional Caucasian power centers — Turkey and Iran — are not interested in the emergence of a fourth power there (the USA), but in its absence they may once again become the main rivals of Russia.

We might have thought that having gained a foothold in Trans-Caucasia, the USA put the traditional regional rivalry to an end and secure Russia from the competition of the great Oriental empires. Yet, the previously voiced argument prevents this. The U. S. sphere of influence won’t be confined with the South Caucasus alone. As we’ve just proved, due to a geographical fickleness of this border, stability of the Great Caucasian border cannot last long.

By Yaroslav Butakov




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