North Caucasus in Turmoil

31 May 2013, 15:50

President Vladimir Putin has tried to capitalize on the Boston attacks to justify his policy in the Caucasus and gain U.S. support for Moscow's pacification campaigns. And while Moscow and Washington discuss enhancing their cooperation in counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing, President Barack Obama must pay greater attention to the causes and consequences of the North Caucasian conflict if Western interests are to be defended.


The victory in Chechnya announced by the Russian government in the spring of 2009 turned out to be a pyrrhic triumph. In reality, the conflict has spilled over into several neighboring North Caucasian republics. Despite Moscow’s assertions, conditions throughout the region continue to deteriorate, as armed clashes, assassinations, ambushes, and bombings are now almost daily occurrences.

The escalation of guerrilla terrorism is a direct response to Russian state terrorism following the stifling of Chechen independence and the murder of tens of thousands of civilians by Russia’s military and security services. Chechen nationalism and separatism have been transformed into a pan-Caucasian insurrection in which religious and nationalist radicals from various ethnic groups engage in acts of terrorism across the region.

Moscow bears enormous responsibility for fanning radicalism and violence through its brutal counter-terrorism operations in which entire villages were targeted for repression and family members of suspected insurgents continue to be kidnapped, tortured, and killed. Collective punishment continues to be exacted on communities if security forces suspect that a village has harbored any gunmen.

In such conditions, militant jihadism has provided a mobilizing ideology across ethnic lines, where the systematic callousness of the state toward civilians has fueled vendettas and recruits for insurgency movements. In what has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, the more ruthlessly the Kremlin tries to stamp out separatism, the more likely that Russia will fracture and lose the North Caucasus altogether.

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Contributing to the growing mayhem, each of the North Caucasus republics is plagued by corrupt and abusive officialdom, high rates of unemployment, limited business investment, widespread poverty both in urban and rural areas, and the breakdown of social services. All of these factors exacerbate opposition both toward Moscow and the Kremlin appointed republican authorities that are not democratically accountable to the local populations.

Terrorist attacks, in combination with local conflicts over territory, political power, and Islamic religious authority, are escalating into regional insurrections. The growing insurgency is compounded by numerous territorial disputes between and within republics. Interethnic conflicts over land ownership, resources, and government representation have intensified since the beginning of the decade. They also place Moscow in a perilous position of either favoring one side in a dispute and alienating its rivals or avoiding involvement and thus further undercutting its influence in the region.

In addition to insurgencies in the republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia, Russia confronts a growing Circassian national movement in the western part of the region involving Abkhaz, Adygean, Kabardin, and Cherkess populations increasingly demanding self-determination. The Sochi region, the site of the February 2014 Winter Olympic Games, historically belonged to various Circassian groups before the genocide and expulsions perpetrated by Russian Tsarist forces in the 1860s.

Activists in Russia and abroad are seeking to reinstate Circassia on the map of the Caucasus and have called on all Circassians to declare a single identity and press for the reunification of three Circassian-populated republics: Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. This would entail the break-up of the latter two republics and a formation of a new autonomous unit as a potential first step toward Circassian independence.

Competing territorial and political claims will make the entire region increasingly ungovernable and Moscow’s attempts at “normalization” will prove prohibitively costly and ultimately unworkable. The escalation of inter-communal clashes and moves toward self-determination in the North Caucasus can also encourage revolts against Moscow in other parts of the Russian Federation, such as the heavily Muslim Middle Volga republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.


Paradoxically, the chief threat to the future of the Russian Federation and the inclusion of the North Caucasus within its over-extended borders may be Russian nationalism. The manipulation of Serbian nationalism in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s demonstrated how mobilization for the allegedly repressed rights of one ethnic group alienates other nationalities and mobilizes competing nationalisms. The slogan “Russia for the Russians” is becoming more commonplace, and if taken to its logical conclusion it will fracture the country. Russia simply cannot be a national state and a multi-national empire at the same time.

The Russian ethnic component in the North Caucasus has been steadily declining since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russians now form shrinking minorities in all seven republics. Between 1989 and 2002, the percentage of ethnic Russians in the overall population of the region decreased from 26% to 12–15%, or from 1.36 million in 1989 to about 940,000 in 2002. Meanwhile, the indigenous populations have grown from 66% to 80%, or from 3.5 million to 5.3 million. The exodus of Russians from the region continues to accelerate and some analysts estimate that the Russian ethnic component will fall to under 2% within the coming decade, while the Muslim birth rate continues to climb.

According to recent censuses, ethnic Russians constitute under a third of the population of the entire North Caucasus Federal District, although this also includes Stavropol krai where Russians form a substantial majority. As a result of negative demographics, Moscow will find it difficult to mobilize Russian nationals for purposes of self-defense and state preservation. However, it can manipulate inter-ethnic disputes in the region to pose as a benevolent mediator or an essential presence to prevent outright war. It may also play the role of Serbia within the defunct Yugoslav federation by pushing for border changes among the republics or territorial mergers with neighboring Russian regions on the pretext of defending Russian ethnics or local pro-Moscow ethnic populations.

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Even in the predominantly Russian region of Stavropol krai, the Muslim North Caucasian population is growing. This has provoked Islamophobia among ethnic Russians and resulted in several violent clashes.  It has also called into question Moscow’s policy of including Stavropol in the North Caucasus Federal District. As conflicts escalate an increasing number of Russians will have serious doubts whether trying to maintain control over the North Caucasus is worth the price in blood and treasure.


Russian counter-terrorism has created the very enemy that Moscow was supposedly seeking to eliminate. According to Jacob Kipp, a leading expert on the Russian military at the University of Kansas, the Russian army is more prone to commit war crimes than Western forces because they have a tradition in which every war is a “total war:” Hence, there are no limits in terms of casualties, reprisals, human rights violations, and the brutal treatment of prisoners. Russian forces are renowned for their use of torture, rape, looting, and gratuitous acts of violence that remain unpunished.

To defeat the insurgent threat in the North Caucasus, Kremlin strategy has combined outright force, economic assistance, and the installation of loyal regional leaders, such as the Chechen regime of Ramzan Kadyrov. However, this policy has only provided superficial stability and increased public disaffection as massive funds are pumped into Grozny and disappear into the coffers of an opaque government. Even Kadyrov’s forces are not fully subordinated to the federal government and their loyalty to Moscow will remain uncertain after the demise of Putin and Kadyrov. Indeed, they may become the spearhead for a new war of Chechen liberation against Russia.

Moscow itself established a significant precedent for separatism in the former Soviet republics in August 2008 by recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the breakaway territories of Georgia, as independent states after its invasion and conquest of these regions. This precedent can be used to justify and legitimize the partition of Russia itself, particularly throughout the North Caucasus.

A number of national groups can insist that the principle of statehood for Abkhazia and South Ossetia should now apply to them and this could stoke conflicts with neighbors, minorities, as well as the federal government. Moscow itself faces a potential conflict with Abkhazia regarding the extent of the region’s long-term political and economic dependence on Moscow and its drive for full sovereignty.


After the terrorist bombings in Boston, the Russian and U.S. presidents announced that they would intensify their cooperation in counter-terrorism. Unfortunately, there are two fundamental problems with such an agreement. First, Russian and American counter-terrorism operations are based on radically different principles, and second, President Putin’s regime itself engages in state terrorism against unarmed civilians.

U.S. law enforcement agencies avoided any bombings or shootings in the Boston neighborhood where one of the terrorist fugitives was hiding. The objective was not to harm unarmed civilians or to unnecessarily destroy property. Russia’s equivalent would have been a massive bombing operation to eradicate the location. A few hundred civilian casualties would have been dismissed as unavoidable upon declaration of victory.

Moscow’s reckless strategy was evident when Russian security forces stormed a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, in September 2004, where 380 children and teachers held by terrorists perished, as well as the gassing of 130 civilians in a Moscow theater by Russian special forces in October 2002 to eradicate terrorist hostage takers.

There are two principal reasons for the Kremlin’s counter-terrorism outreach to Washington. First, Putin is intent on using the camouflage created by the Boston attacks to try and suppress Islamic rebels in the North Caucasus with American approval and support. The Kremlin's objectives are served by depicting the two radicalized youths who perpetrated the Boston bombings, and with family connections to Chechnya and Dagestan, as the embodiment of “international terrorism” and a common threat to Russia and the U.S.

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Second, Moscow is signaling that any planned disruption of the February 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in the North Caucasus, on which Putin has staked his reputation, will be pre-emptively dealt with and the Games will proceed without incident. He wants to avoid boycotts and cancellations at all costs and needs to create the impression of stability and normalcy.

An even more ominous possibility revolving around Boston should also be considered: that the Kremlin wants to promote Islamist terrorism in the U.S. in order to move the spotlight away from its own internal wars. One of the Boston bombers spent several months in Russia during 2012 and may have received militant indoctrination. It also remains unclear whether he acted alone or was recruited by Islamist terrorists or by Russian secret services. The fact that Russian agencies did not share important intelligence data about the bomber with the FBI may indicate their passive or active encouragement of terrorist acts on U.S. soil.

Leaders of the main Islamic insurgency movement in the North Caucasus, the Caucasian Emirate, who do not shy away from claiming credit for terrorist attacks, deny that the Boston terrorists were linked with any North Caucasian guerrillas. Instead, they have pointed the finger at the Kremlin. Russia’s special services are not averse to recruiting alienated youths from the North Caucasus to serve their purposes in infiltration, assassination, and other special operations.


The likelihood of any involvement or intervention by outside powers or multi-national alliances in the North Caucasus remains negligible, unless the conflicts were to destabilize a broader region. Conflict and war within the North Caucacus is unlikely to draw in the U.S. or the Europeans in any international efforts at diplomatic mediation or peacekeeping. Such initiatives would be seen as challenging Russia’s territorial integrity and could precipitate a direct conflict with Moscow.

However, a spillover of armed clashes into the South Caucasus could impact more directly on Western interests, especially if the Georgian or Azerbaijani governments were to appeal for outside military assistance to protect their sovereignty and territorial integrity. This could place Washington on a collision course with Moscow.

The Kremlin has tried to isolate the North Caucasus and limit the influence of Georgia and Azerbaijan in the region. It also seeks to establish greater control over Tbilisi in order to undercut Georgian connections with Russia's southern republics. Local experts believe that Russia is ultimately unable to control the North Caucasus unless it also dominates the South Caucasus. Developments in Georgia since the election of the Bidzina Ivanishvili government in October 2012 have left the North Caucasians uncertain about future Georgian support. Paradoxically, this may further radicalize populations in the region, as insurgents are likely to seek greater help from Islamic countries and other Muslim insurgency movements.

The aspiring countries that can emerge in the North Caucasus in the coming years from a fracturing Russian Federation will become contested states. They are unlikely to be accepted into international institutions or gain recognition as independent countries. They would remain as “frozen states,” acknowledged by a handful of countries but with unresolved domestic disputes or ethnic and territorial conflicts with neighbors.

The process of fracture in the North Caucasus will have a direct impact on neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan. It could lead to a number of destabilizing scenarios, whether through spillovers of armed conflicts, refugee outflows, or Russian military attempts to use or even seize territory in the south Caucasus. Russia may exploit the opportunity of its own looming fracture to undermine the territorial integrity of its neighbors and divert attention from its own failings. Conversely, some of the fracturing federal units may gravitate toward Georgia and Azerbaijan and seek their support against Moscow.

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A spreading conflict will also affect a range of Western interests. An unstable Georgia would jeopardize energy supplies from the Caspian Basin to Europe, it could draw Turkey (a NATO member) into the conflict, it could provoke a new war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, and it could even draw Iran into the spreading unrest.

When Presidents Obama and Putin meet on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland on June 17-18, the U.S. President needs a more vigorous and creative approach toward the Caucasian region to avoid being seen as a cheerleader for Moscow’s repressive and regressive policies. Above all, he should demand that Putin open up the North Caucasus to Western reporters, analysts, human rights campaigners, humanitarian bodies, and government officials, so that Washington can better understand the extent of the regional threats. Following the Boston bombings, it has become clearer that instability in the North Caucasus and the predicted fracture of the Russian Federation directly affects Western interests.

Janusz Bugajski is a foreign policy analyst, author, lecturer, columnist, and television host based in the United States. He has published 18 books on Europe, Russia, and trans-Atlantic relations.

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