Russian Military Strategy on Iran's Border

By Johnson, Stuart E. | McNair Papers, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Russian Military Strategy on Iran's Border


Johnson, Stuart E., McNair Papers


While Russia has been steadily removing its remaining forces from Eastern Germany and, albeit haltingly, from the Baltic nations, its forces have increased sharply the pace of activity on the southern littoral. The largest deployments and most intense military activity has been in the Caucasus nations--all of whom are in a state of armed conflict.

At times, this activity has brought Russian combat forces within 100 kilometers of Iran's northeastern border. While this activity has not led to contact with Iranian troops, Russian forces did occupy northeastern Iran after World War II. The activities of the Russian military in the region bear reviewing to discern Russia's strategy toward the region with a particular focus on the threat, if any, that strategy poses to Iran.

The southern littoral, the area between the Caspian and Black Seas (the Don River Basin in particular), has throughout its history been a focus of concern for Russia. From the earliest centuries of Kievan Rus, the greatest threat to Russia came from this region. The grasslands north of the Caucasus provided support to Asiatic nomadic tribes such as the Kumens who occupied large parts of the Kievan state in the 12th century. It was against a kindred people, the Polovets, that Prince Igor mounted his ill-fated campaign in that century.

A century later, the Tartars swept up from the southeast to overrun Kiev and destroy the Russian state. The most popular celebration of the reconquest is the lay of Dmitry Donskoy who defeated the Tatar horde and drove them off the Don River basin.

Although Peter the Great is best remembered for his apertura to the West, during the first eight years of his reign, he spent as much time securing all advantageous southern border as he did campaigning in the west. Having secured this border, a declining Ottoman dynasty lacked the vitality to threaten the status quo and Peter was free to turn his full attention to the west.

In modern times, the incorporation of the three Caucasus Republics, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan into the Soviet Union provided a buffer in the south. A buffer primarily against Turkey though "also against Iran. After World War II, Soviet troops occupied northeastern Iran and Stalin at least considered extending the "buffer" further south of the Caucasus.

Recent events confirm that the southern littoral remains a focus of Russian security concerns. The Russian military has been active in three operations. First has been support for the Abkazian separatists. It is not clear whether the support for the Abkazian separatists was a deliberate policy decision orchestrated from Moscow or the result of Russian commanders in the region taking the initiative on their own. In any event, the aid was substantial. Modem tanks, artillery and ammunition were supplied to the rebels and if this was not at the direction of Moscow, there is no indication that Moscow tried to prevent it.

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