From Corcyra to Chechnya
Thucydides and Security Dilemmas of PostSoviet Conflicts:
From Corcyra to Chechnya
Pavel K. Baev
International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)
Paper for the Thucydides workshop, Columbia University, NY,
2526 February 2004.
I have no problem whatsoever if somebody would want to quote from this
Oslo – February 2005
Thucydides and Security Dilemmas of PostSoviet Conflicts:
From Corcyra to Chechnya
One of the sharpest recent anomalies on the gently declining curve of
the total number of armed conflicts in the world happened in the early
1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered a chain reaction
of localized hostilities. In retrospect, that geopolitical catastrophe
could be recognized as astonishingly peaceful, nevertheless, there was
more politically driven and organized violence that is registered in
major datasets.1 In most cases (Chechnya makes one significant
exception), hostilities were terminated in the middle of 1990s – but
very few solutions have been found in the relatively peaceful decade
since then. As some of these conflicts show dangerous signs of
reignition (for instance, South Ossetia in summer 2004) and new
sources of instability spring up, it appears necessary to reevaluate
the combination of deeper causes and immediate motivations that
determined their escalation.
Each of these conflicts has attracted its share of political analysis
and academic research but there has been surprisingly little effort at
examining systematically the whole field.2 A fresh look may be helpful
– and a useful lens for it may be discovered deep in the annals of
strategic thought: in the universally captivating work of Thucydides,
written, in his own words, ‘as a possession for all time’.3 The
relevance is by no means obvious but one common feature of the
conflicts separated by 2400 years is that they happened within
homogenous and integrated political space: ancient Greek citystates
shared the same language and culture, so in a sense the Peloponnesian
War was a civil war, much like the violent clashes inside and between
fragments of the USSR. Another similarity can be found in the complete
collapse of the established political order with its accepted norms
and rituals, as described so vividly by Thucydides in Book III
(8283).4 Yet another reason for seeking advice from an ancient Greek
is his particular talent for uncovering strategic rationale behind
personal ambitions and collective emotions and for in the chaotic
This paper has the dual aim of reexamining the key strategic
postulates advanced by Thucydides and applying the retooled analytic
instruments to the multiple conflicts that erupted across the former
Soviet space in 19912004. In the centre of my investigation is the
notion of ‘security dilemma’, which Thucydides in fact never used but
is credited for establishing with his focus on the ‘truest cause of
war’.5 I start with revisiting the classic ‘security dilemma’ of
bipolar confrontation and then move to its more particular variation
related to the strategies of ‘balancing’ and ‘conflict manipulation’.
The central part of the paper attempts to discover in Thucydides’ text
a special kind of ‘security dilemma’ typical for secessionist
conflicts and test this finding in the unprecedented variety of
conflicts of this type that continue to bedevil Azerbaijan and
Georgia, Moldova and, most significantly, Russia. Finally, I will
offer some observations on resolving ‘security dilemmas’ by abandoning
The basic ‘security dilemma’: Walls and pipelines
The logical construct known as ‘security dilemma’ constitutes one of
the key concepts in the academic discipline of international
relations, and particularly in the broad and influential school of
‘political realism’. The essence of this dilemma is that a state can
increase its security only at the expense of others, so every step in
building up security capabilities leads to decrease of relative
security of competitors.6 The link to Thucydides’ ‘truest cause of
war’ is unmistakable: the steady growth of Athens’ influence and
affluence threatened to undermine Sparta’s military hegemony so that a
minor crisis in the periphery triggered the chain of escalation
leading to a total war.7 Many sound reservations could be raised by a
more careful reading of the text: its is quite clear, for instance,
from the speeches in I, 6871 and I, 120124 that Sparta did not feel
threatened by Athens but was pulled into the war by Corinthians and
other cities who indeed had reasons to fear Athens’ expansionism.8
The ‘political realists’, nevertheless, remain true to the logic of
the dilemma and maintain that even slight shifts in the power balance
matter more than all the sophisticated deliberations about whether
those are threatening or not. The macrostrategic setting of the Cold
War was indeed uniquely fitting the parameters of the ‘security
dilemma’ (Jervis, 2001). Even in the last years of that protracted
confrontation, Mikhail Gorbachev’s emotional objections against Ronald
Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative followed the imperative of
threat assessments.9 It is quite remarkable in this context that
President Putin, while expressing only his ‘disappointment’ about the
US withdrawal from the AntiBallistic Missile Treaty in late 2001,
even in 2005 still bragged about new Russian missiles that could
penetrate any defensive ‘shields’ (Rutland, 2005). Apparently, by the
very fact of their existence, the strategic arsenals tend to reproduce
the mental framework of ‘security dilemma’.
Besides the fundamental point of ‘I, 23, 6’, Thucydides provides
several other cases that fit the general setting of a ‘security
dilemma’, for instance, the construction of ‘long walls’ in Athens
soon after the victory over the Persians (479 B.C.). Athenians,
according to Thucydides, were in no doubt that their defensive measure
would be seen by Sparta as an undesirable and destabilizing
development, and so took care to cover it by diplomatic missions (I,
9091). It appears possible to draw an analogy with the deadlocked
conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan where the fragile ceasefire
could be tested by the completing in 2005 of the highcapacity oil
pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan in Turkey. Armenia, who won a decisive
victory on the battlefields around Nagorno Karabakh in 19921993 and
continues to occupy significant parts of Azeri territory, perceives
this project as a massive economic booster for its adversary, which
might allow it to invest heavily in rebuilding its armed forces and
then to attempt a military ‘rematch’.10
While the parameters of the ‘security dilemma’ are quite elementary
and thoroughly examined, this logical construct is still not as
straightforward as it may seem. One interesting variation occurs when
a security ‘bonus’ could be gained not by producing an extra asset
inside a state but by capturing an external ‘prize’. Since each of the
competing parties has reasons to assume that hesitation would grant an
opportunity to the competitor to move first, there is a strong
motivation for preemption while the stakes are effectively doubled.
It is exactly this kind of dilemma that the Athenians had to face on
the eve of the war when they considered the question of taking sides
in the dispute between Corinth and Corcyra. Presenting their case (I,
36), the Corcyraeans formulated the dilemma in no uncertain terms:
‘Remember that there are but three considerable naval powers in
Hellas, Athens, Corcyra and Corinth, and that if you allow two of
these three to become one, and Corinth to secure us for herself, you
will have to hold the sea against the united fleets of Corcyra and the
Peloponnesus. But if you receive us, you will have our ships to
reinforce you in the struggle.’ The argument proved to be unbeatable,
despite the natural reluctance to escalate a local war to the brink of
a general one.
In the Cold War era, perhaps the most dramatically misconstrued
security dilemma of this sort determined the Soviet invasion in
Afghanistan in late 1979, since the Politburo became convinced that
the Carter administration was planning to bring to power a USfriendly
regime there in order to compensate for ‘losing’ Iran.11 With the
dismantling of the system of bipolar confrontation, this
mistakeprone thinking refused to fade away, and Russia’s proactive
policy in presidential elections in Ukraine in November 2004 provides
a recent example. There were many considerations and calculations
behind Moscow’s heavyhanded support for the campaign of Prime
Minister Viktor Yanukovich (Moshes, 2004), but the fundamental dilemma
was perceived in ‘eitheror’ terms: either Russia makes sure that
Ukraine remains within its sphere of influence or the West asserts its
dominance over Ukraine which would inevitable bring ‘NATO tanks in
Kharkov’.12 Many sound arguments on the absence of any challenge to
Russia’s interests in the Ukrainian elections were missing the target
because the main subject in constructing the dilemma was not Ukraine
but Russia itself: Moscow saw the need to reconstitute its relations
with the EU on a new basis – as cooperation/competition between
‘equals’ – and a Ukraine was an essential element of that design
Contours of the same dilemma could be found in Russia’s stubborn
refusal to withdraw its military bases from Georgia despite their
minuscule strategic importance and earlier promises confirmed by the
OSCE. It was Georgia’s firmly declared proWestern orientation since
the collapse of Shevardnadze’s regime in November 2003 that made
Moscow worried that the withdrawal of troops might lead to the arrival
of US or Turkish forces to the vacated bases which would be turned
into ‘strategic bridgeheads’.13 Similar logic is visible behind
Russia’s insistence on establishing a new air base in Kant, just
outside Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan ( 2004). Starting the war
against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan in October 2001, the
US and its allies got access to the Manas air base near Bishkek.
Moscow saw in that a direct security threat of ‘encirclement’ and
decided to check Kyrgyzstan’s drift towards the hostile coalition by
counterbalancing one airbase with another. The most bizarre case of
this dilemma can be found in the socalled ‘Tuzla incident’ of spring
2004, when Russia’s decision to build a dam towards a tiny island in
the Azov Sea provoked a disproportional reaction in Ukraine, which
rushed to deploy naval units ( 2004). The irony was in the fact that
while neither side had any strategic interest in that island, both at
that moment in time wanted to develop cordial relations – but the iron
logic of security dilemma prevailed.
The ‘security dilemma’ of balancing: As Alcibiades advised
Besides the ‘basic security dilemma’, Thucydides introduced a
variation which involves an external actor who defines its position
visàvis the already going bilateral confrontation. In Book VIII
(46), Alcibiades convinced the Persian king to reduce his support to
Sparta. His argument focused on the threat that any party that would
come out as the victor would pose to Persia, so he ‘further advised
Tissaphernes not to be in too great hurry to end the war… but to leave
each of the contending parties in possession of one element, thus
enabling the King when he found one party troublesome to call in the
other… The cheapest plan was to let the Hellenes wear each other out,
at a small share of expense and without risk to himself.’
A more recent example of this line of reasoning
Senator Truman in summer 1941: ‘If we see that Germany is winning we
ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help
Germany, and that may let them kill as many as possible.’ Mersheimer,
2001, p. 155
Interpreting this balancing in bellum as ‘security dilemma’ involves
the risk of conceptstretching; law of unintended consequences, trap
of selffulfilling ‘worstcase’ expectations.
Supporting the losing side – against conventional political common
sense (bandwagoning) and them switching sides to rescue another
Fear of the future shifts in power balances
Predatory incentives and security fears combination
Benign balancing: Georgia between Armenia and Azerbaijan: offering a
corridor out of a blockade but contributing to the BTC pipeline
Malignant conflict manipulation Russian ‘peacekeeping’
To decide the outcome of the conflict by taking side with one of the
parties and to determine the outcome of the ‘means that one Russian
army is keeping a peace that another has broken.’ (‘Imperfect Peace’,
The security dilemma of secessionism: It all started at Epidamnus
Going through the layers of analysis in the densely packed Thucydides’
text, it appears possible to identify the settings that could
constitute a particular type of security dilemma in secessionist
conflicts. The term ‘secessionism’ was certainly unfamiliar to Greek
politicians but they were well aware of the phenomenon. The most
common behavior of this type was certainly defection from alliances,
but it would be not entirely correct to treat is as secessionism.
While Athenians ruled their empire with iron hand, they had no doubt
in the nature of that rule; as Pericles asserted (II, 64): ‘For what
you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps
was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe.’14 Attempts to escape from this
‘tyranny’ were, therefore, only natural and Thucydides simply
clarified (I, 99): ‘Of all the causes of defection, that connected
with arrears of tribute and vessels, and with failure of service, was
the chief; for the Athenians were very severe and exacting, and made
themselves offensive by applying the screw of necessity to men who
were not used to and in fact not disposed for any continuous labor’.
An entirely different set of rules and norms guided the relations
between Greek citystates and their colonies, who traditionally and
legally were seen as belonging together irrespective of power
balances, so it is here that the notion of ‘secession’ appears most
applicable. Indeed, the conflict that triggered the hugely devastated
Peloponnesian War occurred in the isolated northwestern city
Epidamnus, which is not mentioned once by Thucydides after the start
of Book I. Facing internal strife and threatened by barbarians,
Epidamnus, as a colony of Corcyra, duly appealed to it for protection
– but the Corcyaeans refused to help. This was clearly an unusual and
unexpected rebuff, so before turning to Corinth, the Epidamneans felt
obliged to consult the Delphi oracle. The Corintheans, according to
Thucydides, ‘felt it to be a kind of duty’ (I, 25) to provide help –
but their interference enraged the Corcyraeans to such a degree that
they took the risk of launching a war against a much stronger
opponent. They managed to achieve victory in the first naval battle
but then had to make a plea to Athens for an alliance. It is in the
debates in the Athenian assembly that a new twist in the secessionist
dilemma emerged. The Corintheans portrayed Corcyra as an ‘outcast’ or
even ‘outlaw’, since this city had been in fact a colony of Corinth
but had opted for a policy of ‘estrangement’, not paying due respect
to the motherstate, while ‘our other colonies honor us, and we are
very much beloved by our colonists’ (I, 38). Corcyraeans tried to
preemptively deflect this denigrating accusation (I, 34): ‘…every
colony that is well treated honors its parent state, but becomes
estranged from it by injustice. For colonists are not sent forth on
the understanding that they are to be the slaves of those that remain
behind, but that they are to be their equals.’ This line of reasoning,
however, was clearly undermining their own case with Epidamnus, so
they shifted the argument towards the material benefits of accepting
them into the alliance. It is even possible to assume that prior to
the crisis, Epidamnus, being ‘great and populous’ (I, 24), had shown
insufficient respect to the mother city and the Corcyraeans wanted to
punish it by refusing support (Kagan, 1969, pp. 208209).
The security dilemma that emerges from these debates determines that a
citystate could firmly control a colony by keeping it weak and
dependent, but it has then to pay the costs of supplying and
protecting it. This burden can be reduced by encouraging the colony to
develop its own potential; however, becoming selfsufficient it may
turn reluctant to pay tribute and respect to the mothercity and opt
for independence. The security of control, therefore, can be
guaranteed only by reducing the security of the colony, while the
latter can increase its own security only by making the mothercity
insecure in its control. There is a possibility that a weak colony may
try to secede out of desperation and in that situation the deliberate
neglect shown by the mothercity could be perceived by its peers as a
sufficient justification for severing the ‘family’ ties. Secession
from a ‘position of power’, however, while easier to accomplish, is
generally perceived as illegitimate.
There are quite a few variations of this dilemma in Thucydides’
history, for instance, when Athens put pressure on Potidea, suspecting
that its main allegiance was to mothercity Corinth and seeking to
prevent its defection from the alliance (I, 56), or Athens expelling
the population of Aegina and turning this island into its colony (II,
27). This flexible setting makes it easier to apply this dilemma to
presentday secessionist conflicts, with one significant reservation:
a statecity and its colonies were united by close familytype ties,
while contemporary secessionism is nearly always fuelled by ethnic
tensions.15 The applicability of the basic security dilemma to civil
wars (Snyder & Jervis) and to ethnic conflicts (Posen) has been
examined and broadly established but its particular variation at play
in secessionist situations still needs to be tested.
There were five violent secessionist conflicts triggered by the
collapse of the USSR: Nagorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Abkhazia and
South Ossetia in Georgia, Transdniestria in Moldova, and Chechnya in
Russia. Historically, the success rate of secessionist attempts has
been rather low, however, four conflicts in our sample resulted in a
military victory of separatists, while the fifth (in Chechnya) is
still ongoing. Besides, there were also several political conflicts
of this nature that threatened to escalate to armed hostilities, for
instance in Adjaria, Georgia in spring 2004. In all these conflicts,
calculations and risk assessments of political entrepreneurs were
strongly influenced by the shockingly easy arrival of the unthinkable:
the collapse of the USSR. One of the triggers for that implosion was
the secessionist drive of the three Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia
and Lithuania – that Moscow had been unable to check even by
experimenting with limited scale violence.16 That conflict showed
clear contours of the security dilemma since the federal center
definitely sought to increase the amount of its control by reducing
security of these ‘colonies’ but they felt sufficiently confident in
their selfsufficiency to defy orders and threats.
That lesson was not lost on the leaders of the newly and
suddenlyindependent states, so Azerbaijan and Georgia were in no
doubt that they would be able to keep control over their poor but
runawayinclined provinces of Nagorno Karabakh and South Ossetia only
by pressing them further down. What proved that strategy to be
counterproductive was the existence of extensive crossborder ties,
respectively with Armenia and North Ossetia. The availability of
external help exacerbated the longcherished grievances and
perceptions of institutionalized injustice that sustained the
determination of the separatists to advance their cause.17 The
conflict in Transdniestria could be seen as an extension of Moscow’s
efforts to block Moldavia’s drift towards Romania by accentuating its
vulnerability, but the sudden death of the USSR turned this strategy
irrelevant, so the hostilities were effectively frozen in summer 1992.18
The leadership of newlyborn Moldova refused to accept the secession
as fait accompli and sought to undo it by proving that the slice of
territory along the left bank of Dniestr did not constitute a livable
entity. This plan – based on a ‘restorative’ version of the security
dilemma (to restore the integrity of the state by convincing the
secessionists to rejoin as their project becomes too fragile) – was
undermined by a protracted economic decline. In fact, such
secessionist quasistates as Abkhazia, Transdniestria and even Nagorno
Karabakh in the first decade of their independent ‘journey’ were doing
no worse that their abandoned motherstates, so there were few
incentives to reconsider the choice (King, 2001).
A particularly clearcut case of the security dilemma at work can be
found in the relations between Russia and Chechnya after the end of
the first war in autumn 1996. Accepting the military defeat, even if
grudgingly, Moscow had a choice: either to help Chechnya to rebuild
its destroyed infrastructure or to cut the problem out and reduce the
contacts to the minimum.19 The former would bring the bonus of
stabilization of a disaster area but involve the risk of Chechnya
opting for full independence; the latter would doom Chechnya to
slipping down the spiral of selfdestruction and involve the need to
forcefully stabilize it and thus bring back under Russia’s control.
The trap of security dilemma snapped without fail, and Moscow choosing
control over stability has ended up with ‘owning’ a basically
uncontrollable war zone. Since the rebel attack on Nazran, Ingushetia
on 22 June 2004, clashes and terrorist attacks have been spreading
across the North Caucasus like a brushfire.20 Moscow, nevertheless,
stubbornly persists in its reading of the security dilemma, seeking to
make sure that the republics like Dagestan remain thoroughly dependent
on financial transfers from the federal center.
A different and, fortunately, nonviolent political game driven by the
security dilemma is centered on Kaliningrad, the westernmost Russian
region separated from the rest of its huge territory by Lithuania.
Since the postWWII ethnic cleansing, it is populated almost entirely
by Russians but Moscow nevertheless is uncertain in its ability to
maintain control. Kaliningrad has been struggling to recover from a
prolonged economic depression and the most natural way out would have
been through engaging in various Baltic Sea networks and connecting to
European tradeandinvestment flows. Moscow, however, is extremely
worried that the EU gravitation field would pull Kaliningrad away from
its control and so is quite reluctant to grant the regional
authorities extra opportunities for building crossborder ties.21 The
‘wisdom’ of keeping a potential breakaway ‘colony’ weak and dependent
connects with the lingering suspicions that the West seeks to cut
Russia down to size and so encourages separatism in Kaliningrad. The
security dilemmas of secessionism and bilateral confrontation are,
therefore, at work here in a mutually reinforcing way, so that
geopolitics rules firmly over the common economic sense.
The pattern of relations between Georgia and Adjaria is remarkably
similar: Georgia has every reason to suspect Russia in cherishing
ideas about reestablishing its dominance. These ideas do not form any
positive program but translate into crude power play centered at
exacerbating vulnerability of its smaller neighbors by supporting
separatists. From its side, Tbilisi used every available means short
of launching a war in order to restore its control over Adjaria in
spring 2004, including economic blockade and military pressure, and
has treated economic links between this province and Russia, including
tourism, as channels of hostile influence. Security dilemmas
invariably lead to political decisions that prioritize central control
at the expense of local development, thus generating resentment and
helping recruitment for the secessionist cause.
Security dilemma – political and strategic reality, not a figment of
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1 On the pronounced declining trend in the number of conflicts, see
Erikson & Wallensteen (2004) and Dwan (2005). I have examined the
dynamics of postSoviet conflicts in Baev (2005a).
2 For a comparative security analysis, see Arbatov et al (1997); solid
ethnopolitical perspective is developed in Tishkov (1997);
fascinating sociological picture is presented by Derluguian (2005).
3 My reading of Thucydides was dependent on excellent Russian
translation by Stratanovsky (1981). I also used the English
translations edited by Blanco (1998) and Strassler (1996); the
quotations through the text are following the latter edition.
4 It reads indeed like a thoughtful reflection on the turmoil in the
Caucasus in 19911993: ‘The sufferings which revolution entailed upon
the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always
will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same, though
in a severe or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according
to the variety of particular cases.’
5 Often referred to simply as ‘I, 23, 6’, this famous passage from
Chapter 23, Book I reads: ‘The real cause, however, I consider to be
the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of power
of Athens and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made the war
inevitable’. For identifying the parameters of the ‘security dilemma’
in Thucydides’ analysis, see Doyle (1997).
6 While it is impossible to establish the authorship, one of the first
examinations is Hertz (1950). An important further elaboration is
7 My Google search on ’Thucydides Security Dilemma’ produced 4590
hits. One of the most interesting works here is Crane (1998).
8 These contradictions and logical twists are carefully examined in
9 Raymong Garthoff (1994, p. 765), one of the keenest observers of
strategic tradeoffs, clarified: ’Thus while the Soviet leaders in the
mid1980s were genuinely worried about a situation arising in which
they would have to increase spending to offset an American strategic
antiballistic missile defense, that prospect and that concern
10 On the security profile of the BakuTbiliciCeyhan (BTC) pipeline,
see Olsen (2004) and Roberts (2004); balanced and penetrating analysis
of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict is in De Wall (2003).
11 Zbig claims credit for setting this trap; Westad (1997).
12 Turning the ‘battle for Ukraine’ into a decisive political contest,
the Putin regime has put its survival in jeopardy, since, as Yegor
Gaidar noted: ‘The emergence of a functioning democracy on our borders
– not in Finland or Estonia but in Ukraine – in a historic perspective
means a death sentence to the model of closed democracy in Russia’
13 In tense negotiations with Georgia in early 2005, Russia insisted
on inserting a special clause in the ‘goodneighborhood’ treaty that
would prohibit Georgia from hosting foreign bases on its territory as
a precondition for withdrawing its own (2005).
14 It is slightly disconcerting for presentday reflections that a
‘model democracy’ of ancient Greece was not able to rely on its unique
‘soft power’ for building a stable alliance but had to enforce strict
discipline by the threat of severe punishment; for concise analysis,
see Lebow (2003, pp. 122123).
15 For a sound conceptual framework see (2004); my attempt at
systematizing the European experiences is in Baev (1999).
17 Systematic analysis of causes and driving forces in these
conflicts, as well as the war in Abkhazia, can be found in Zuercher,
Baev & Koehler (2005).
19 Evangelista (2002) thoroughly examined the issue of a possible
‘domino effect’ triggered by Chechnya’s secession and concluded that
by the end of 1990s no other Russian region was remotely interested in
following this example.
20 The corroding impact of this failure to stabilize the North
Caucasus on the credibility of Putin’s regime is analyzed in Latynina
21 A good example of current Russian political thinking on Kaliningrad
is Kortunov (2004); the EU perspectives are presented in Baxendale,
Dewar & Gowan (2000).