The text was originally published at Russia Direct
In early December 2014, Chechnya was again the focus of attention of politicians, journalists and experts. In Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic, an armed clash resulted in the deaths of ten members of Russia’s security forces and nine militants. During the incident, the Grozny Printing House was also damaged.
Although terrorism and sabotage in the North Caucasus are nothing new, the events in Grozny on Dec. 4 were nevertheless out of the ordinary. There are several reasons for that.
First, the December incident occurred on the eve of the annual address of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose popularity is largely due to the pacification of the North Caucasus.
Second, the firefight in Grozny came a week before another landmark anniversary. Twenty years ago, on Dec. 11, 1994, Russia launched an anti-separatist campaign in Chechnya.
In this context it is worth remembering that Chechnya is the only region of the Russian Federation to have existed outside Russia’s jurisdiction as a de facto state with its own domestic, foreign and defense policy. This occurred for six years, from 1991-1994 and then from 1996-1999.
Threats to political stability in Chechnya from radical Islam
At the same time, Chechnya is the only one of the so-called post-Soviet breakaway republics to have returned to the orbit of central government. What is more, it did not simply return, but became a showcase of loyalty to Moscow. The head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has publicly described himself as “Putin’s foot soldier.”
Under Kadyrov the Chechen Republic has become an important political symbol for the head of the Russian state. The authorities there support not only the Kremlin’s domestic political undertakings, but Russian foreign policy, too. This applies equally to Ukraine, Georgia and the Middle East. Kadyrov is known for his tough style of management. However, even his opponents admit that he is genuinely liked in Chechnya and happens to be the only leader in the North Caucasus to publicly call for the head of the region to be elected by the people.
What does Kadyrov bring to the table? Political stability. In 2009 counter-terrorist operations of “national significance” were wound up in Chechnya. The separatists had either been physically eliminated (Aslan Maskhadov, Shamil Basayev), were in exile (Akhmed Zakayev) or had switched sides (Magomed Khambiev). The number of terror attacks, despite being an ever-present threat, declined steadily from year to year.
During the first 11 months of this year, 51 people fell victim to terror (24 killed). For comparison, in 2013 armed violence claimed 101 victims (39 killed), while in 2012 and 2011 the figures were 174 (82 killed) and 186 (92 killed), respectively. The December attack in Grozny was the third largest incident in Chechnya since April. Meanwhile, the debate surrounding a suicide attack in October that killed five law enforcement officers is still raw.
But like any model that offers certain advantages, Kadyrov’s “military field management” creates its fair share of problems and challenges. Chechnya has a strong personality with weak governmental institutions. In this regard, it is worth noting that the rise in Islamist sentiment in the republic is mainly due not to the efforts of religious leaders, but to the problems of the secular systems regulating different aspects of life. Hence the appeal to mosques, sheikhs, Salafis and radical jihadi groups as potential arbiters. As a result, this “competition of jurisdictions” is leading to conflict and violence, since problems arise when only one religious authority is recognized as legitimate.
In the meantime, attacks and acts of sabotage in Chechnya and the North Caucasus are being carried out not to promote independence from the Russian Federation and create a nation state, but in the name of “pure Islam” — at a time when secular nationalists are generally loyal to the authorities.
Judging by the agitation and propaganda materials distributed by North Caucasian jihadists, they describe themselves not as champions of the Chechen nation state, but as “mujahidins.” They see their struggle as a campaign against the “kafirs” (infidels) and “munafiqs” (false Muslims).
The scent of ISIS in Chechnya?
The situation makes the region a potential breeding ground for well-known international jihadist groups. In September of this year, members of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) circulated a video containing threats against President Vladimir Putin (promising his “fall from the throne”) and statements about the desire to “liberate Chechnya and the entire Caucasus.”
And although the Russian president’s support for his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad was the primary motivation for this virtual attack, the “message” had a clear North Caucasus context. That was no coincidence.
One of the core reasons behind Russia’s position on Syria (in the form that it has consistently advocated from the very beginning of civil strife in this Middle Eastern country) is the thought of the possible negative consequences that could ensue from victory for the radical jihadists there and in neighboring countries, as well as the collapse of statehood as such in the Middle East.
Not only Russian special services, but also analysts and journalists from Europe and the United States note the involvement of radicals from the North Caucasus (as well as natives from Georgia’s Pankisi region and Azerbaijan’s neighboring territory, Dagestan) in the Middle East “jihad.”
Although ISIS has been mentioned in the context of the December incident in Grozny, it is not possible to draw any solid conclusions about its involvement. The most likely militant group to have been complicit is Riyadh al-Saliheen (formed back in 2001), since its members share the idea of fighting for “pure Islam” and could potentially become allies of like-minded terrorist networks in the Middle East.
Those who see the weakening of Russia as a geopolitical advantage in the “struggle for Ukraine” should not delude themselves. In the eyes of the perpetrators of the December incident in Grozny (and similar actions across the North Caucasus), Russia belongs to the West; the United States, Europe and other defenders of the “European choice” are no less the enemy than the “infidels” in Moscow, Makhachkala and Grozny.
In this connection, the hypothetical collapse of Russian security in this turbulent part of the world would bring Europe neither stability nor prosperity. On the contrary, it would promote the emergence of a “second Afghanistan” in the immediate vicinity of EU partner countries and the borders of the EU itself.
Moscow should not be complacent. Yes, the decline in armed violence in Russia’s troubled regions is apparent (in 2012 there were 1,225 victims, in 2013 there were only 986, and in the first 11 months of this year, 434). However, anti-terrorism measures based on hard power and PR without effecting major changes in the social realities produce only tactical results.
Basayev and other field commanders of lower rank are no more, but the conditions in which they garnered popular support remain. Thus, hard power should be supplemented (not supplanted or replaced) by a broad arsenal of soft power.
The conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh was one of the first of its kind in the former USSR. Over the past quarter of a century, it has transformed from an intercommunal and inter-republic conflict within a single state (the USSR) into a protracted confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan with the prospects for resolution being unclear.
Since Russia’s key possibilities for development lie within the country, its main foreign policy goal is to block external negative influences and avoid being drawn into confrontation with opponents. Today Russia becomes a strategic balancer which should be interested in remaining independent in pursuing its own policy and assessing international events.
Negotiations on the fate of the Russian humanitarian convoy of nearly 300 trucks, which has already been on the Russo-Ukrainian border for nearly a week, are drawing to a close. The sides have agreed on all issues related to customs clearances, and observers have not found any weaponry at all in the trucks.
At present, the shape and structure of the military presence that will remain in 2014 is still unknown, but the vacuum left by the withdrawal will pose a challenge to the security environment in both Afghanistan and the surrounding region, including the three neighboring Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.