Moscow's heavy-handed approach to neutralizing the Islamic resistance in the North Caucasus is fundamentally flawed and, ultimately, counterproductive.
The Russian armed forces and Interior Ministry troops have for the past five-six years sought to combat that low-level insurgency by launching localized counterterrorism operations against suspected militants. In many cases, the targets prove, too late, to be innocent civilians.
Indeed, the single-minded recourse by Defense and Interior Ministry forces to arbitrary and disproportionate violence against civilians, in particular devout and nonviolent young Muslims, was the single most weighty factor behind the emergence of new jamaats (militant groups) in Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Stavropol Krai, and southern Daghestan.
Opposition politicians in the North Caucasus have long argued that Moscow's strategy only serves to compound the problem it is intended to solve, insofar as "violence breeds violence." Discussing the situation in Ingushetia in a May 10 interview
with the radio station Ekho Moskvy, Ingush oppositionist Magomed Khazbiyev warned that "as long as security services and death squads continue to force their way into private homes and detain lads who then disappear without trace, as long as they continue gunning down young men on the street in broad daylight, this violence will not end. There will be counterstrikes, explosions, acts of terrorism, [young people] will head for the forest [to join the resistance]. In this region no one will succeed in restoring order by brandishing his sword -- a different approach is needed."
Similarly, Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev has repeatedly argued that "religious extremism" cannot be eradicated by force; that more sophisticated propaganda campaign is needed to demonstrate the flaws in extremist "Wahhabi" ideology; and that the police should use violence only as a last resort.
In a June 25 interview
with RFE/RL's Russian Service, former Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev, who was awarded the Hero of Russia medal for his service as a general with the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s, compared Moscow's current approach to the North Caucasus with the Soviet strategy that led to the emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Aushev said he cannot comprehend why Russian leaders continually stress their commitment to bringing peace to the Caucasus, and at the same time act in such a way as to make the situation worse.Mounting Violence
Developments over the past six weeks risk exacerbating the situation in the North Caucasus even further. Following a suicide bombing in Grozny on May 15, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov travelled to the Ingushetian capital, Magas, where after talks with Ingushetian President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov he announced that the Interior Ministries of the two republics would coordinate activities aimed at locating and killing a group of Islamic militants believed to be hiding out in the mountainous wooded country that straddles the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia.
Those coordinated efforts did not, however, result in the hoped-for breakthrough. In late May, Ingushetian police arrested a group of 15 men they branded armed militants, only to release them days later after admitting they had not violated the law in any way. Announcements that resistance commander Doku Umarov could have been killed or seriously injured in a clash on May 28 proved premature. As of mid-June, at least 19 members of the various Chechen law enforcement and security bodies had been killed in sporadic attacks, and 26 wounded.
Kadyrov on June 10 put resistance losses at 28 dead, and issued orders to senior Chechen government personnel not to take any vacation until the campaign is successfully completed. One week later, on June 17, Kadyrov ordered police to wipe out all resistance fighters on the territory of the two republics within two weeks. Then on June 27, he told
Rossia television that after talks with the Russian Interior Ministry he has issued orders to wipe out all remaining resistance leaders on Chechen soil within one month.
Setting such arbitrary (and mutually contradictory) deadlines is, of course, ludicrous, all the more so in light of the difficult terrain and the ease with which the militants move from one clandestine underground bunker to another. One Chechen Interior Ministry special forces (spetsnaz) officer explained to kavkaz-uzel.ru on June 3 that those bunkers are deep underground, with roofs consisting of several layers of timber thick enough to withstand a direct artillery hit. They are covered on the surface with turf, so that it is possible to walk over one without ever suspecting it is there. Moreover, those bunkers have several entrances, and the approaches to them are mined.
Some of the resistance bases are almost luxurious. One militant told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service recently that he had spent time in one that had its own generators and steam baths, and that the fighters kept sheep and goats to provide food. This would represent a quantum leap forward from the situation in 2006, when Umarov told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that he had to reject all but the most physically resilient volunteers to join the resistance ranks, as the weaker ones would be unable to survive the punishing conditions in the mountains, in particular the cold.
The Chechen spetsnaz officer told kavkaz-uzel.ru that the pro-Moscow Chechen forces are trying simply to cordon off forested areas to prevent the militants from obtaining supplies. He admitted that such attempts are futile, given the impossibility of blocking every single access path.No Threat To Insurgents
The lack of success in the joint operation to date reflects not just the difficulties of locating the enemy, but also a marked lack of enthusiasm and commitment on the part of the military and police. Since the formal announcement in mid-April of the end of the so-called counterterrorism operation in Chechnya, police and Interior Ministry forces deployed there from elsewhere in the Russian Federation no longer receive the special bonuses to which participation in such operations entitles them, even though the physical conditions in which they are fighting have not changed.
The news agency kavkaz-uzel.ru on June 19 quoted a resident of Chechnya's southern Shatoi district as describing how the pro-Moscow forces arrive in convoy, pitch their tents, and then simply wait until they are recalled to base. He confirmed that there is a group of militants in the area, but said that to the best of his knowledge there had been no "serious clashes" between insurgents and the military since the joint operation began five weeks earlier.
Kavkaz-uzel.ru also quoted on June 18 a local NGO activist who claimed to have been informed by several Chechen law enforcement officials directly involved in the ongoing operation that the situation is not as propitious as the republic's officials would have people believe. He said the military do little more than surround patches of terrain, but do not risk advancing deep into the hills where the militants' bases are located for fear of land mines and ambushes. Consequently, the militants feel in total control.
The very fact that the ongoing crackdown in Chechnya and Ingushetia is localized undercuts its effectiveness, as long as fighters can move freely from Chechnya to Daghestan, and from Ingushetia to Kabardino-Balkaria. Announcing the joint operation on May 17, Kadyrov proposed that Daghestan's police and security forces too should coordinate their activities with those of the other two republics.
Daghestan's leaders initially ignored that call for three-way cooperation. Then on May 20, Interior Ministry spokesman Colonel Mark Tolchinsky told kavkaz-uzel.ru
that his ministry knew nothing about it. He said his ministry "can fight terrorists and extremists without Kadyrov's help," and implied that its methods are more selective and persuasive and less brutal than those of his Chechen colleagues.Kadyrov Takes Charge
Kadyrov made the same argument for regional cooperation on June 10, implying that in contrast to Chechnya and Ingushetia, the heads of other North Caucasus republics and their law enforcement bodies are not making a great enough effort to prevent young people from joining the resistance. He called on the presidents of Daghestan, North Ossetia, Karacheyevo-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria to show "understanding" and cooperate to "restore order."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev delivered a similar message at a June 9 session of Daghestan's Security Council convened to discuss the assassination four days earlier of the republic's interior minister, Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov. The Daghestan-based Shariat jamaat subsequently claimed
responsibility for that killing. Medvedev affirmed that "work to restore order, to destroy the terrorist rabble must be continued regardless of what regime is in force. We must continue this work on all the territories of the Southern Federal District, the North Caucasus, independently, I stress this, of the legal restrictions [in force]."
Kadyrov told journalists on June 23 that during his meeting with Medvedev the previous day in Moscow, just hours after the assassination attempt on Ingushetian President Yevkurov, Medvedev ordered him to intensify the crackdown on the resistance in Ingushetia. "I will personally control the operations...and I am sure in the near future there will be good results," Reuters quoted Kadyrov as saying.
That statement triggered outrage
and resentment across Ingushetia, with Interior Minister Ruslan Meyriyev reportedly refusing point-blank to take orders from Kadyrov. Whether other republican interior ministers would do the same or fall into line is not clear.
In light of Kadyrov's megalomaniac tendencies, his clear ambition to assume control of the "power" agencies in Ingushetia, and possibly also other North Caucasus republics, in effect relegating republic heads to mere economic managers while creaming off for his own purposes a chunk of the subsidies those republics receive from the federal center, is alarming. Any additional powers that Moscow formally bestows on him cannot be simply annulled if/when the crisis that served as the rationale for granting them in the first place is resolved.
In that respect, Medvedev's argument to the effect that there is no need for a formal legal basis for intensifying the crackdown on "terrorists" could conceivably be interpreted as reflecting an awareness within the Kremlin of the very real dangers of legalizing in advance any actions Kadyrov undertakes outside his own republic.
In fact, as recently as two months ago, it seemed that Moscow was seeking on the contrary to circumscribe Kadyrov's freedom of maneuver in conducting operations against the resistance. On May 8, "Vremya novostei" reported
that a new Russian security committee was being mulled that would coordinate the activities of the various federal "force" agencies in Chechnya. That committee would be subordinate either to the Security Council or to the commander of the Russian Interior Ministry Internal Forces, with the former seen as likely to adopt a harsher line than the latter.
On the other hand, Moscow may have an entirely different task in mind for Kadyrov: that of catalyzing a new war with Georgia with the ultimate aim of ousting President Mikheil Saakashvili. Kadyrov boasted on June 23 in an interview with Vesti-24 television that if Medvedev as commander in chief of the Russian armed forces gives the go-ahead, he is ready to "restore order" in neighboring states if Russia's enemies seek to use Ingushetia, Daghestan, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia as bases from which to destroy the Russian Federation from within.
In late April, Russian military commanders in Chechnya alleged that Chechen fighters were again using Georgia's Pankisi Gorge as a rear base, as they had done in 2000-01. Georgian Foreign Ministry official Zurab Kachkachishvili promptly denied
those allegations, but Moscow could still opt to adduce the alleged Chechen militant presence as the pretext for a new incursion onto Georgian territory.
If Medvedev were to give Kadyrov such a crucial assignment, however, and Kadyrov succeeded, Medvedev would be hard-pressed to refuse him overlordship of the entire North Caucasus as a reward.