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Chechnya and Nagorno Karabakh: the Caucasus, crossroads of the Russian world

Stefano Caprio

(ZENIT News – Asia News / Rome, 09.26.2023).- This past week, two seemingly minor circumstances overlapped with the tragedy of the war in Ukraine that occupied the interests of all politicians and the media during the UN General Assembly.

These are Caucasian issues, the illness of the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the war against the Armenians of the Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliev, thus relating to a ‘middle ground’ between Europe and Asia whose boundaries, geographical and spiritual, have always been rather haphazard, as can generally be said for all dimensions of confrontation between the two continents, of which only Russia is an equivalent part.

Two wars broke out in the Caucasus immediately after the end of the USSR now more than thirty years ago, the Chechen civil war and the war between Azeris and Armenians, and their consequences continue to be felt against the backdrop of the invasion of Ukraine.

The main one, and the most terrible, was the one between the Russians and Chechens, which lasted a very long time and had devastating consequences, and which marked Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in Moscow most of all.

The obscure head of the FSB (KGB) was called in precisely to solve the intricate problem of Groznyj, the capital of Chechnya razed to the ground by Russian troops, who also intended to lead neighbouring Ingushetia into a new state formation, that of independent Ičkeria.

Putin managed to find the solution after years of massacres, together with one of the most valiant Chechen commanders, Grand Mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, whom he put in charge of the republic of Chechnya within the Russian Federation, and who was then blown up with the entire authorities’ tribune in Groznyj’s Sultan Bilimčanov stadium during the Victory Parade on 9 May 2004.

The perpetrators of the attack were independence and radical Islamic terrorists, led by Šamil Basaev, who was long hunted in the Chechen mountains by Kadyrov’s son Ramzan, who had become prime minister regent and then president of Groznyj.

Basaev died in rather mysterious circumstances on 10 July 2006, in what appeared to be a pre-emptive operation by the Russian army during the G8 summit in St Petersburg, perhaps one of Russia’s last attempts to find its place among the greats of the Earth.

Kadyrov-father was solemnly buried in the cathedral mosque in Groznyj, and streets and monuments are named after him as the great father of the Russian and Chechen homeland together; Kadyrov-son, whom Akhmad wanted to keep out of power because of his violent and uncontrollable tendencies, has ruled Chechnya unchallenged ever since, in total harmony with the Kremlin leader.

And it is precisely in the most critical phase of the war in Ukraine, after a summer tormented by the uprising and finally by the death of Evgenij Prigožin, the ‘friendly cook’ who was undermining Putin’s authority, that Ramzan Kadyrov’s health has deteriorated to the point that some people believe he is already dead, while he is reportedly in a pharmacological coma in a Moscow clinic.

Kadyrov, too, criticised the Russian defence leadership for weaknesses and caving in to the Ukrainians, against whom he had deployed his fierce Kadyrovtsy from the very beginning, who together with the ‘musicians’ of the Wagner company constituted the ‘alternative army’ that allowed Putin to play both the cards of fierce aggression and the long positional war.

The mystery of Kadyrov’s condition thus enters the long and colourful narrative of Putin’s many enemies or former friends (or even friends still in office) who for various reasons create inconveniences for the Kremlin’s godfather and are eliminated, or at least sidelined, with manoeuvres that are difficult to decipher.

In some cases, this involves sensational actions such as the explosion of Prigožin’s plane (assuming it was not a set-up), in many other cases, more malicious means are used such as the various poisons developed by the FSB specialists, as in the case of Aleksej Naval’nyj and many others, and as it seems also in the case of Ramzan Kadyrov.

The Chechen leader has been suffering from serious kidney problems since last April, and it seems he has also been operated on in Abu Dhabi; rumours about the doctors who are supposedly treating him, along with those brutally eliminated as inept or traitors, are circulating.

Kadyrov and Putin make videos in which they laugh behind everyone’s back, but the authenticity of these images seems equal to that of Prigožin’s charred corpse, and perhaps the whole truth will never be known in both cases.

Surely, two figures like the ‘Petersburg cook’ and the ‘Chechen butcher’ had to be out of the picture before 2024, when Putin’s re-election is to celebrate the Tsar victorious over all enemies of the depraved West, and voices critical of the effectiveness of his wars will not be tolerated in the slightest.

Putin’s internal enemies are in fact not the pacifists, who are on the verge of extinction in Russia, but the real warmongers, who are not interested in the ‘metaphysical victories’ incensed by Patriarch Kirill, but in the conquests of productive territories for business, and domination over vast areas at all latitudes.

And here now is another ‘friend’ of Soviet heritage that could undermine Putin’s glorification, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev (son of the first President Gejdar), who has decided after long tugs and pulls with Russians and Armenians (but also with Americans and French) to finally settle the Nagorno Karabakh issue, another conflict dating back to the end of the Soviet Union.

In the South Caucasus, which is not part of the Russian Federation, geographical, cultural, religious and political confusion is the main feature, even more so than in the northern half of the region; and in the case of the war between Azeris and Armenians, it also takes on epochal dimensions, those of the centuries-old clash between Christians and Muslims.

As with other tensions in the ex-Soviet areas, those of Central Asia or of the minor peoples of the Russian Federation itself, the war in Ukraine has rekindled the ambitions of one or the other, and Putin’s Russia is relinquishing much of its authority and control, being unable to sustain all open fronts and condition all political developments.

Azerbaijan is a product of the many overlaps of history between Europe and Asia, heir to the Seljuks and ruled by the Savafids until modern times, then divided into many extremely unstable and relatively autonomous Khanates, which controlled many international trade routes between Asia and the West.

Incorporated into the Soviet Union after the revolution and the civil war in the 1920s, as soon as the Soviet empire collapsed, it found itself reckoning with internal divisions, the most serious of which was precisely the proclamation of independence of Nagorno Karabakh, which seems to have been brought to an end in these days.

The war that broke out in 1994, and was never resolved by any treaty, was resumed at the end of 2020, with the ‘war of the forty days’ (from 27 September to 10 November) that allowed the Azeris to retake five cities, four minor centres and about 240 villages, in the seven districts of what Armenians continue to call Artsakh, Karabakh in their language.

With the actions of the past few days, the entire area has been brought under Baku’s control, including the capital Stepanakert, although it will take time to fully resolve the ‘reintegration’ of the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh into the state of Azerbaijan.

The consequences for Russia are unpredictable, due to the many variables at play in this area. The Armenians are traditionally very close to the Russians, who rescued them at the time of the Turkish genocide, constituting with the Soviet republic of Yerevan a safe haven from the total destruction and dispersion of the ancient Monophysite people, the first to create a Christian state even before the emperor Constantine.

The Azeris are Shia Turanians, who contend with Iran for a good part of the territory where their countrymen live, called ‘Southern Azerbaijan’, and rely heavily on Turkey, another nation historically affected by Caucasian affairs.

Not to mention that Baku is now replacing Moscow for a good slice of the gas market to export to Europe, and several other trade routes from East to West and vice versa could pass through the Caucasus, with the watchful eye of China in the background.

The Kremlin is in fact covering up Aliev’s actions, accusing Armenians of flirting too much with Westerners, at least trying to get Armenia to submit to Russia as well as Azerbaijan. The Russian ‘interdiction forces’ have not interdicted anything, not only in the last few days, but in all the two years they have been positioned along the borders of Nagorno Karabakh.

Having now lost Ukraine, its ‘European side’, forever, Russia is now trying not to lose the Caucasus, its ‘Middle Eastern side’. But above all, Putin does not want to lose face in front of the whole world.