Rob Ferguson


Russia’s return to the Great Game

(December 1999)

Socialist Review 236, December 1999
Downloaded from the Socialist Review Archive
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.

At stake here are the vital routes in the Caspian oil pipeline

How quickly does the cup of humanitarian concern run dry? A small nation, struggling to assert its right to independence, faces a military onslaught from a powerful neighbour. Thousands of civilians are dead and 200,000 refugees flee across the border. A third of the population is displaced and a humanitarian catastrophe looms as winter approaches. All this seems horrifically familiar. Except that the western response to Russia’s savage onslaught on Chechnya, when compared to the call to arms over Kosovo, has been strangely muted. Strobe Talbott, the US deputy secretary of state, declared at the end of October that Russia had “a right and a duty” to eradicate “terrorism”, echoing Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, who has insisted that Chechnya is “a bandit republic” that has to be “eliminated”.

The facts of human suffering in Chechnya are stark. In a carbon copy of Nato’s strategy in the Balkans, the military has refrained from engaging ground troops, resorting instead to massive air and rocket bombardments. Villages across the northern plain, where support for the rebels is often low, have been obliterated. The capital, Grozny, still in ruins from the last war, and the second town, Gudermes, have been subjected to devastating assault.

The immediate pretext for the invasion was the bombing of working class tower blocks in Moscow and a minor escapade by some rebel Chechen leaders in the neighbouring republic of Daghestan. Over 300 died in the explosions, which the authorities immediately blamed on Chechen rebels. Whilst there are good reasons to doubt this, the bombings cemented support for the military offensive in Chechnya. But the underlying motives for the invasion are bound up with the desire of Russia’s ruling class to reassert its regional dominance and to re-establish itself as a major world player. The Caucasus – which spans the region between the Caspian, with its untapped oil reserves, and the Black Sea – is an area of vital interest to Russia. Russia is intervening in conflicts across the region, attempting to destabilise states such as Georgia and Azerbaijan that Nato is tying to pull into its orbit. At stake here are the vital routes for the Caspian oil and gas pipelines which both Russia and the western powers wish to command. At the end of this century we are witnessing a return of “the Great Game”, the inter-power rivalry that marked the end of the last. In addition, the generals and their supporters in the Russian government wish to restore the authority of the military and reverse the humiliation they have suffered in Afghanistan and Chechnya.

This is a high risk strategy, however. Aerial and rocket bombardment is one thing – long term occupation of the territory another. While popular opinion supports the war, that support is fragile. If Russia finds itself bogged down in a long conflict with body bags returning, then the mass opposition that occurred during the last war could re-emerge this time.


Last updated on 22.12.2001