Is Russia `Trying To Recapture Lost Lands'?

One night last July, Russian soldiers patrolling Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan ran into an ambush by Afghan mujahedeen. Some 25 Russians died in a hail of machine gun and rocket fire. The troops were on patrol at the request of the Tajik government, which many believe Russia covertly helped to power last December. So serious was the border incident that Russian President Boris Yeltsin immediately dispatched Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev to the scene and fired Viktor P. Barannikov, his Security Minister.

For many Russians, the news brought back chilling memories of the Afghan war. It also served as a startling sign of how deeply Russia is becoming involved in the nominally independent southern states of the former Soviet empire--despite Yeltsin's vows to respect their independence. He is under pressure from the increasingly influential hard-liners in Moscow to protect Russian expatriates and other interests in these regions. He is also trying to block attempts by Turkey and other neighboring countries to assert themselves in the Islamic republics at Russia's expense. "There's a feeling that Russia is trying to recapture lost lands," says an Asian diplomat in Moscow.

FREE HAND. Indeed, Russian troops--some of them mercenaries--are active all along a 2,000-mile swath from Tajikistan to the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia. Several Russian army divisions are garrisoned in Armenia, which for five years has been battling neighboring Azerbaijan for control of the province of Nagorno-Karabakh. This summer, Geidar Aliyev, a former Soviet Politburo member and KGB honcho, seized power in oil-rich, war-weakened Azerbaijan. Baku's new leader wants to turn away from Turkey in favor of Moscow.

One could argue that Yeltsin had no choice but to intervene along the borders. Nagorno-Karabakh is only one of several bloody ethnic conflicts along Russia's southern flank. Abkhazia, once a popular Black Sea resort, has been trashed in a yearlong battle with Georgia. Clan wars have created chaos in

Tajikistan. Moscow worries that the raging battles could jeopardize the 4 million to 5 million ethnic Russians living in Central Asia. It also fears that the conflicts could exacerbate nationalist struggles within Russia itself, notably in the Caucasus regions of Ingush and North Ossetia, where Yeltsin's handpicked military governor was recently assassinated.

Yeltsin may also be finding intervention in the former Soviet republics a useful distraction from domestic troubles. Russia's increasing aggressiveness in the border regions is popular with the hard-liners, who have been giving Yeltsin a rough time over economic reform.

Yeltsin's moves are making the Clinton Administration nervous. That's why it's offering to try to mediate these disputes. But Central Asia is pretty far away, and there seems to be an informal understanding that Yeltsin can have a relatively free hand there and in the Caucasus but should keep his mitts off Ukraine and the Baltic states. U.S. officials rule out withholding aid to prod Yeltsin to back off. They don't want to undermine his reform.

On balance, having Yeltsin impose order is probably better than having chaos in these regions. But allowing Russia to expand its influence again carries risks. It would give Russia considerable say over how the vast oil wealth in the former republics is to be developed--complicating the work of U.S. oil companies already involved there. And over time, reestablishing Moscow's hegemony in the area could fuel Russian nationalism--not exactly a benign force in the past.

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