Another Failing Counter-Insurgency Effort


The identification this week of a Daghestani suspect for the Domodedovo Airport bombing in Moscow has highlighted Russia’s difficulties in dealing with North Caucasus insurgency. Russian officials have now also arrested the brother and sister of the suspected suicide bomber.

On 25 January Domodedovo airport was rocked by an explosion which killed 35 people. This came hard on the heels of the double bombing on the Moscow Metro in March of 2010 which killed 40 people, an attack on the Chechen parliament in October 2010 and the bomb blast on the Nevsky Express in November 2009 which killed 27.

The most recent bombing confirmed the ineffective nature of Russia’s counter-insurgency efforts in the North Caucasus. The magnitude and complexity of the problems Russia faces in the Caucasus shouldn’t be underestimated. Russia is dealing now with a potent cocktail of historical grievances, current economic stagnation and the spread of wahhabism in the Caucasus republics. It has a crisis on its hands in one of the most troubled regions of the world.

Chechnya is only one of seven Caucasian republics, others including Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkassia, Adygea and Daghestan. Each republic is multi-ethnic and has a unique set of characteristics — which makes formulating a North Caucasus policy that much more complex for the Russian government. It has in part been the inability of Russian policy makers to adapt policy to that complexity that has exacerbated the tensions in the Caucasus and made Russia vulnerable to Caucasus-born terrorism. (See here and here for more.)

Russia’s difficulties in the Caucasus have a long history.

From 1817 the Russian Empire attempted to subdue the Khanates of the Caucasus but met with fierce resistance from the Caucasian peoples. Throughout the first half of the 19th century Russia deployed hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the Caucasus without significant effect. It was only in 1859 with the capture of Imam Shamil, the political and religious leader of the tribes of the North Caucasus, that the Russian conquest was brought to its completion.

As Charles King and Rajan Menon have pointed out in a recent Foreign Affairs article, meeting the internal threats posed by a restless North Caucasus has been a recurring theme in Russian history and culture. Pushkin even dramatised this perceived threat in poetry: "Cossack, do not sleep! In the gloomy dark the Chechen roams beyond the river." And in the 1920s, the Bolsheviks conducted widespread campaigns of ethnic cleansing against Chechens and Circassians, deporting nearly half a million people from the North Caucasus. Since the early 19th century then, relations between the peoples of the Caucasus and their Russian overlords have been characterised by mutual distrust which today translates into simmering racist prejudices.

The terrorism that has plagued Russia in recent years has been a symptom of deep social exclusion. The wars in the Caucasus throughout the 1990s not only created a generation of Chechens and Daghestanis with every reason to hate Russia, they also reinforced the historical alienation between Russians and the Caucasus republics.

The unrest in the North Caucasus is extremely difficult to manage and Russian policy has so far proved inadequate.

The Russian government has relied on force paired with budget subsidies to punish insurgents and to reward allies. This is almost exactly the same strategy that Imperial Russia employed during the Caucasian War Imam Shamil from 1824-1859. Today Russia’s strategy in the Caucasus has been cast by Russian authorities as a counter-terrorism operation, focused on rooting out insurgents and eliminating them. And in this regard the Russian government has been relatively successful: in 2006, Shamil Basayev, the architect of the Beslan school siege was killed and in 2009, Said Buryatsky, the man alleged to have coordinated the 2009 train-bombing was also killed in Ingushetia.

But as NATO commanders have learnt in Afghanistan, this kind of approach to combating insurgency is almost certain to meet with failure as it does not address root causes. Sure enough, the Russian Interior Ministry reported that in 2009, "terrorist crime" in the Caucasus had risen by 60 per cent compared with 2008.

Russian strategy has been ineffective because it fails to address the underlying economic problems which create resentment and a feeling of exclusion from the economic revival that has occurred in Russian since the late 1990s. Furthermore, it does not recognise the social complexities that have arisen in the Caucasus republics since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. (See here for more.)  

One of the trends that has emerged, in Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnya in particular, has been the rise of the Wahhabist Islam which has begun to eclipse local Islamic practices. With the advent of perestroika and the collapse of state affiliated institutions and sources of authority, cultural, clan and ethnic social structures were revived in the Caucasus. 

This has included a re-Islamisation of society with the re-emergence of sufism or tariqatist Islam. This brand of Islam is open to ijtihad (an interpretative reading of Koranic text) and understands jihad as a process of spiritual self-perfection; it has been rooted in traditional cultural practices and organisation.

However, in parallel with this re-emergence of tariqatist Islam, since the 1980s the Caucasus has accommodated the rise of Islamic fundamentalism which emphasises a broader Islamic identity as well as the necessity of violence to advance Islam. In the Caucasus, and particularly Chechnya, this brand of Islam has become tied up with socio-economic grievances and lent people who have suffered over the last two decades a potent ideological basis for violence.

Herein lies the paradox of Russian policy not only in Chechnya, but in all the Caucasus republics — it aims to strengthen local allies and strongmen (such as Ramzan Kadyrov), while simultaneously, and unwittingly, eroding their support base and strengthening fundamentalists.

It is this failure to adopt a more comprehensive counter-insurgency policy, including building the capacity and economic vitality of Caucasian communities, that fosters ongoing grievance against Russia. As long as Russia approaches the Caucasus with the same policies as Tsarist Empire pursued, it stands little chance of ending terrorist attacks such as the one of recent memory.


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