History of Wars Near Sochi: Wars and Conflicts in the Caucasus Region Since World War One
As the world turns its attention to the Olympic Games in Sochi, worries of terrorism dominate the news. Why exactly is the terrorism threat at the Sochi games in southern Russia of such concern compared to other major world sporting events in recent history?
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, every major event in the Western world has taken place under increasingly sophisticated security umbrellas. The games in Sochi are no exception; in fact, the location of these games in the southern Russian region called “The Caucasus,” is greater cause for concern than usual.
The Caucasus region is one of the most violent places in Europe. While the games in Sochi are in territory that has been under Russian control for the past 150 years or so due to a series of Russian-Turkish wars, the region is filled with non-Russian ethnic groups who have been fighting each other and the Russians for generations.
The region, named for the Caucasus Mountains, is currently home to the independent (and formerly Russian-ruled) nations of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, the semi-independent (but dependent on Russia) nation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and several non-Russian ethnic groups, including the Chechens, Dagestanis, Circassians, Inguish, Kurds, and others. Some of these groups are Muslim, such as the Chechens and Dagestanis, while others are Christian, such as the Georgians and Armenians. The region is also bordered by Turkey and Iran.
The number of wars and conflicts in this region just since World War One (which began 100 years ago), are staggering. Here is a look at those wars, conflicts, and ethnic cleansings in the Caucasus region near Sochi:
World War One-The First World War, originally called The Great War, began in the summer of 1914 and involved, among others, the Russian Empire and the adjacent Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. Russia and the Turks had a long history of wars going back several hundred years. The Caucasus region had been conquered by the Russians in wars with the Turks in the 1800s, but the two hostile empires still had a lot of hate left in them. While Russian armies battled the Germans and Austrians in Eastern Europe, and the Turks fought the British in Palestine and Gallipoli, the Russians and Turks also fought a see-saw war along their Caucasus borderlands (and spilling into neutral Persia/Iran) for four bloody years.
In 1917, the Russian Revolution knocked Russia out of the war, and created a chaotic situation as the Russian army in the Caucasus literally fell apart. Out of this chaos sprang independence movements among the Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis, Chechens and others, all of whom had lived under Russian rule for generations.
In February, 1918, leaders of the Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani regions of the old Russian Empire gathered to proclaim independence from Russia as the new Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. The Turks, who had been awarded these territories in the peace treaty that the new communist government of Russia signed with the Germans (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk), invaded the new Transcaucasian Republic. Even without the threat of war and invasion had not existed, this new union of three very different Caucasian ethnic groups would never have worked. All three groups have their own languages, their own culture, and while Armenia and Georgia are primarily populated by Christians, the Azerbaijanis are mostly Muslim. Thus, in the midst of this new Turkish war, In the midst of all this foreign invasion and intervention, in April and May of 1918, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan declared themselves independent of and the short-lived Transcaucasian Republic died. Meanwhile, the Turkish forces continued their advance on the Caucasian Republics.
Throughout 1918 and 1919, a confused jumble of conflicts, battles, invasions, and massacres embroiled the Caucasus. In January, 1918, British forces move north from Iraq and Iran to keep the Azerbaijani oilfields out of Turkish hands, while in June, 1918, a small German military force landed at the Georgian port of Poti on the Black Sea (and just south of Sochi), and moved inland toward the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. The British occupied the Azerbaijan capital of Baku, but had to retreat in the face of Turkish attacks. Also, in the mountains north of these three new countries, the Chechens, Dagestanis, and Inguish peoples had declared the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus as an independent nation in March of 1917. These independent Caucasus nations were to be short lived, and had a violent life and violent death.
The Armenians, Georgians, and Azerbaijanis all fought to drive out the Turks, but once they were gone, the squabbled among themselves over disputed borders and territory.
Georgian forces attempted to occupy Sochi in early 1918, fighting the local Russian forces there. Also, in addition to the wars of independence in the Caucasus, the region was also a battleground in the bloody Russian Civil War, as the Russians were divided between the newly formed Bolshevik (communist) government of Vladimir Lenin, and anti-Bolshevik forces led by various Russian generals. The communist Bolsheviks were referred to as “Reds,” while the anti-Bolsheviks were called “Whites.” Sochi was involved in this Russian civil war as the Reds and Whites battled for control. A local peasant militia formed in the Sochi area and called themselves “Greens,” and battled against the White military forces. When the Red Army entered the area, the local Greens worked with the Red Army to defeat the White forces. At this point, Sochi came under official Bolshevik rule.
A Georgian-Armenian War took place in 1918 over land occupied by Georgia but inhabited mostly by Armenians.
Also, the first Armenian-Azerbaijan War took place in 1919 and 1920. The borders of the two neighbors were undefined, and both claimed large portions of the other, based on the mixed ethnic populations of the region. This conflict would resume again in the 1980s and 1990s, as Armenia and Azerbaijan regained independence again.
In February of 1920, the Treaty of Sevres was signed, ending the war (World War One) between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire. While this treaty specifically called for an independent Armenia (made up largely of Armenian-populated territory in Turkey), the Turks never actually accepted an independent Armenia, and in the Turkish-Armenian War of 1920, the Turks defeated Armenia, and reclaimed over 50% of the new Armenia’s territory.
The Soviet Invasion of the Caucasus: To add insult to injury, as Armenian war with Turkey was concluding, the Bolshevik (now Soviet) Red Army invaded Armenia in November and December of 1920, effectively ending Armenian independence.
While the Azerbaijanis were fighting the Armenians, on April 28, 1920, the Soviet invaded Azerbaijan and conquered the country after a brief but bloody war.
In February, 1921, the Soviet Red Army (which had won the bloody Russian Civil War), invaded Georgia and ended the dreams of an independent state.
Also, in 1921, the Soviets occupied the Chechen areas of the Mountain Republic of the Caucasus.
While under Soviet rule, the region erupted in several anti-Soviet uprisings, in part due to the very repressive rule by the Soviets, and specifically the rule of Joseph Stalin. While Stalin was a native of the Caucasus region (Stalin was a Georgian), he believed in the unity of the Soviet Union and he literally killed millions of people throughout the Soviet Union to keep control firmly under his authority and the authority of the Soviet government in Moscow.
Georgian Uprising of 1924: A short-lived but bloody uprising against the Soviets aimed to restore Georgian independence. Stalin’ s forces crushed the rebels, killing thousands in the short war, deporting thousands more to Siberia, and executing many more as a lesson to the survivors to not challenge Moscow again.
The Chechen Insurgency: In late 1939, inspired by Soviet defeats in the Soviet Invasion of Finland, a Chechen guerrilla movement began with the establishment of a hidden guerrilla base in the mountains. By 1943, this insurgency had grown to the point where the rebels held large swaths of territory. The German army, which had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, sent several dozen agents into the Caucasus region to aid the Chechens against the Soviets. However, as the German forces suffered defeats in other parts of the Soviet Union, the Moscow government was able to apply more force to suppress the rebellion. After crushing the rebels by 1944, the Stalin regime then deported over 700,000 local Chechens and other rebellious ethnic groups to Soviet Central Asia. Many died on the trek to exile, in no small part due to the harshness of their treatment by the communists.
With much of their base of sympathetic civilians gone, the remaining Chechen rebels struggled on, keeping up a smaller-scale resistance throughout the late 1940s, with the last traces of fighting ending only in the mid-1950s.
Georgian Student Demonstrations of 1956: Over 100 Georgian students were killed in anti-government demonstrations.
The Fall of the Soviet Union:
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a boon for the ethnic groups of the Caucasus, with Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Chechens all declaring independence from Moscow. However, the aftermath of the fall of the Soviets resulted in several wars, terrorist campaigns, and the direct threat of terrorist action against the Sochi Olympic games.
In February, 1988, before the Soviet Union actually fell apart, violence in the Caucasus became a leading example of the weakness of the Soviet system. Long-time hostility between the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh resulted in a rebellion of the local Armenian population against rule by the Azerbaijani government in Baku in an attempt to join their region with Armenia. Keep in mind, at this point in time, both Armenia and Azerbaijan were still under Soviet rule. This was a local ethnic conflict at this point, not an anti-Soviet rebellion as such. The fighting between local Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh led to anti-Armenian riots in Baku and other parts of Azerbaijan.
The Soviet authorities attempted to restore order, but were unable to do so. Hundreds died in the violence, and thousands fled the Nagorno-Karabakh region and became refugees.
In 1989, pro-independence demonstrations in Georgia were put down by Soviet authorities, resulting in several dozen deaths. This event helped radicalize many Georgians against continued Soviet rule. About the same time, violence in the Georgian-controlled region of Abkhazia (which is adjacent to Sochi), erupted between ethnic Abkhaz and Georgians.
In January, 1990, protests in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku led to the outbreak of open rebellion. Soviet troops re-took the city from the protesters, but the violence of the re-occupation of the city resulted in hundreds of dead and wounded civilians.
In August, 1991, a coup attempt took place in Moscow against Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader. The coup failed, but led to the end of communist rule in Russia and the rest of the Soviet lands. By the end of 1991, Georgia, Armenia, Chechnya, and Azerbaijan declared independence.
The wars after independence took a toll on all of these newly reborn nations.
Georgia fell into civil war, including rebellions in Abkahzia and South Ossetia, two regions that broke away with Russian aid, and are still outside of Georgian control.
The wars of the Caucasus region since the fall of the Soviet Union include:
Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988-1994) This war actually predates the fall of the Soviet Union, as previously mentioned, this conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan for control of Nagorno-Karabakh is a continuation of their war in the early 1920s, and, while the major fighting halted in 1994, the tensions remain and the threat of renewed war is constant. Armenia is currently in possession of the disputed area.
South Ossetia-Georgia War (1991-1992). Ethnic Ossetians fought to separate their region from Georgian rule. Georgia lost control of this area and the continued border clashes resulted in the Georgia-Russia War of 2008. Russia is a significant ally and supporter of South Ossetia.
Coup Attempt in Georgia (1991)-An attempted military coup led to a lot of violence
Abkhazian War of Independence (1992-1993), in which Georgia lost the coastal region in northwestern Georgia. This area is near Sochi (which is still part of Russia).
Georgian Civil War (1993) The political violence in Georgia escalated to a full civil war, ending in a government victory.
First Chechen War (1994-1996) After proclaiming independence from Moscow in 1991, the Chechens established a republic. In 1994, Russian troops invade the breakaway Chechen republic. In this 20-month war, Russian forces suffer several major defeats, though it is estimated that at least 100,000 Chechen civilians die before the Russians and Chechens sign a peace agreement in 1996, ending the war and leaving Chechnya
Georgian Uprising in Abkhazia (1998), in which ethnic Georgians rebelled against the Abkhaz government, but were defeated. Again, Abkhazia is very clsoe
Second Chechen War (1999-Present) Fighting broke out in August, 1999 in the Russian area of Dagestan as guerrilla forces infiltrated from neighboring Chechnya. After driving the Islamic rebels from Dagestan, Russian forces pursued the rebels into Chechnya with the intent of ending the separatist republic’s existence. To this end, a ruthless military push toward the Chechen capital of Grozny began. Learning from their failed 1994-1996 war against the Chechens, the Russians made extensive and heavy use of long-distance weaponry.
While able to capture Grozny in this war, the Chechens took to the hills and mountains, as their ancestors did in the long Caucasus War of 1817-1858, to conduct a guerrilla campaign against Russian forces. While the Russians have several times claimed to have subdued the rebels, occasional but spectacular Chechen terrorist attacks into the heart of Russia has kept their cause in the public eye. These are the guerrillas/terrorists that are causing Russian security services in and near the Sochi games on the alert.
Georgia-Abkhaz Border Clashes continued between the two sides culminating in the Georgia-Russia War of 2008.
Georgia-Russia War of 2008-When Georgian forces launched an attack on breakaway South Ossetia, Russia came to the defense of Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian forces invaded Georgia and the war ended with a Georgian defeat.
As even a quick look at the many wars, conflicts, ethnic cleansings and invasions of the past 100 years in the Caucasus neighborhood of Sochi shows, the region is a very violent place, and the likelihood of further violence is high. To keep all of this in perspective, most of the wars listed here have occurred within 300 to 400 miles of Sochi, if not closer. Most of the Caucasus region would fit inside of the American state of Texas in comparison. Several of these conflicts have a high chance of erupting again at any time. The Chechen situation is bad and could get worse. The animosity between Armenia and Azerbaijan is still there, and both sides are preparing for possible future conflict. And the Georgian situation is still tense, as the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still not recognized by Georgia as gone.