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Analysis From Washington: When Moscow Looks Beyond The CIS

Washington, 28 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's projection of military forces in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States may have less to do with the member states of that organization than with larger Russian policies toward countries and alliances further afield.

That possibility, seldom considered in the West, was raised last weekend by Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev during his meeting with representatives of the North Atlantic Parliamentary Committee's Committee on NATO Expansion and Assistance to the Newly Independent States who were visiting Baku.

Speaking to this group on Saturday, Aliyev said that various Russians had told him that Moscow was providing large-scale military assistance to Armenia both to help Yerevan in its conflict with Baku over Nagorno-Karabakh and to put pressure on Turkey and NATO's southern flank.

On the one hand, Aliev's remarks were most immediately intended to try to involve more West European countries in achieving a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

By suggesting that Russia's de facto military alliance with Armenia meant that Moscow could no longer play the role of a neutral arbiter as co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group charged with resolving the Karabakh dispute, Aliyev clearly hoped to convince the West Europeans to play a new and larger role in securing peace in the region.

Aliyev said that his government was prepared to "grant a high degree of self-rule to Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan" but suggested that "we can give nothing more than that." And he appealed to the West Europeans to "indicate strongly to Armenia that its additional demands are unfounded and will never be accepted."

And the Azerbaijani leader responded to European concerns about human rights by noting that some international organizations that had focused on the violation of an individual's human rights in Baku had done little or nothing about what he called the "mass violation" of the rights of more than one million Azerbaijanis who have been forced from their homes as the result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

But on the other, Aliev's comments inevitably call attention to a broader issue that so far has received relatively little attention either in the countries of the region or in the West: the possibility that Russian actions in what many in Moscow still call the "near abroad" in fact are directed at countries in the "far abroad."

With the exception of discussions of so-called flank modifications in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, most analysts in Russia's neighbors and the West have considered Russia's military involvement in former Soviet republics almost exclusively in terms of Moscow's interest in maintaining its influence there.

Thus, Russian military assistance to Armenia and its establishment of bases there have generally been considered only in terms of Moscow's desire to play a major role in the Caucasus. And Russian involvementin the Transdniester region of Moldova or in Tajikistan has been discussed only in terms of Russian interests in these countries or in their respective regions more broadly.

While such attention to Russian actions is entirely understandable both in these countries and in the West, it has three consequences that may prove more important for international security.

First, such attention distracts analysts from considering whether Russian moves in this area do in fact have a broader impact. Sometimes they will. Sometimes they won't. But Aliev's observation may help to sensitize people to this possibility.

Second, such attention inevitably increases the concerns many non-Russians feel about Moscow's intentions. To the extent they see themselves as the target, they may draw one set of conclusions. To the extent they see Moscow's aims as broader, they may draw another very different one, something that could lead them to seek different solutions.

And third, such attention inevitably decreases Western attention to Russian moves in this region. To the extent that what Moscow does is seen only through the prism of the CIS or the concept of "newly independent states," many Western governments may be inclined to play down the implications of what Russia intends.

To the extent that they view Moscow's goals more broadly as Aliyev suggests they should, Western governments may conclude that they have a greater stake in dealing with Russia's involvement in the former Soviet republics than they had assumed.

Clearly, Aliyev hopes that Western countries will reach that conclusion about Russian involvement in Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But his analytic point equally clearly applies across the board in this all too unstable region.