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Why Is The Death Toll Tumbling In The North Caucasus?

People use their mobile phones to take photos of the scene of a gunfight between Russian security forces and militants in the Chechen capital, Grozny, in April 2011.
People use their mobile phones to take photos of the scene of a gunfight between Russian security forces and militants in the Chechen capital, Grozny, in April 2011.

In 2014, the total number of people killed and wounded in the North Caucasus in clashes between the Islamic insurgency and police and security forces declined for the fourth consecutive year. According to data compiled by the website Caucasus Knot, which does not vouch for the data's 100-percent accuracy, the death and casualty toll fell last year by 46.9 percent, to 525, down from 986 in 2013. Expert opinions differ, however, on the reasons for that decline and whether it is likely to be sustained in 2015.

Since 2010, the overall death toll has fallen by more than half, from 754 to 341 in 2014. Those figures are misleading, however, given diverging trends in the number of fatalities among insurgents, on the one hand, and police and security personnel, on the other. The number of insurgents killed in 2014 (249) was just one fewer than in 2010; the figures for 2011 and 2012 were 384 and 404 respectively.

By contrast, despite a slight increase in 2011-12, the number of police and security personnel killed has fallen dramatically, from 225 in 2010 to 55 in 2014. Thus the ratio of militants to siloviki killed has changed from close to 1:1 in 2010 (250 and 225 respectively) to approximately 2:1 in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and almost 5:1 in 2014.

The overall downward trend was observed in every republic bar one. The exception was Chechnya, where according to official statistics 14 police and a dozen insurgents were killed in large-scale attacks on Grozny on December 4. As a result, the overall death and casualty toll rose by 15 percent compared with 2013, from 101 to 117.

Several factors, singly or in combination, are likely to have contributed to the overall decline in casualties and the variations between individual republics.

First is the death of individual insurgency commanders. The insurgents' most prominent losses in recent years were the Chechen brothers Khusayn and Muslim Gakayev, both skilled veteran fighters, who were killed in January 2013. But the deaths of Tengiz Guketlov in Kabardino-Balkaria in March 2014 and of Artur Gatagazhev in Ingushetia in late May were also followed by a lull in insurgent activity. In Ingushetia, overall casualties were down 60.6 percent in 2014 compared with 2013, and the number of fighters killed fell from 24 (in 2013) to 15.

Second, and possibly related to the first, is what Colonel General Sergei Chenchik, head of the Interior Ministry Main Directorate for the North Caucasus Federal District, termed a steady decline in the number of times insurgents have opened fire or planted bombs (down 50 percent during the first 10 months of 2014).

Third is an increase over the past year, particularly in Daghestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, in the number of "counterterror operations" in which premises where one or more fighters have taken temporary refuge are surrounded and, if the fighters refuse to surrender, destroyed by artillery fire.

Fourth is the systematic targeting by federal forces of the support personnel on whom the insurgents rely heavily for supplies of food and medications. Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Ivan Sydoruk told the daily Kommersant two years ago that the siloviki in other North Caucasus republics had begun following Chechnya's example and systematically rounding up support personnel. Sydoruk said the number of support personnel apprehended in the North Caucasus had increased from "just a handful" a few years previously to over 300 in 2012.

That targeted erosion of the insurgency's support base could prove damaging in the medium term. U.S. counterinsurgency expert Robert Schaefer made the point in his recent book on the North Caucasus insurgency that the optimum ratio of support personnel to fighters in rural areas is 4:1.

Some Russian analysts have attributed the decline in violence in 2014 to the ongoing exodus of fighters from the North Caucasus to swell the ranks of the militant group Islamic State (IS) in Syria. That assumption may hold true for Daghestan but not necessarily for other republics. Daghestan registered the steepest decline (54.3 percent) in the overall number of casualties, even though the number of fighters killed fell by just 4.7 percent. In that context, it is worth noting that of the total 208 killed and 85 wounded in Daghestan in the course of the year, only 40 and four respectively died during the last quarter, which is when Daghestan insurgent Amir Abu-Muhammad (Rustam Aselderov) announced that he and a large number of his fighters had sworn allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.

If the exodus of fighters to swell the ranks of IS and thus hone their combat skills continues, then the level of fighting in the North Caucasus is likely to fall even further. And as Russian journalist Orkhan Djemal has pointed out, it is likely to be several years before the bulk of those who are currently fighting in Syria return.

Whether or the legislative amendments submitted by the Chechen parliament to the Russian State Duma that would reinstate the death penalty for insurgents' relatives will impel more fighters to leave the North Caucasus remains to be seen.

-- Liz Fuller

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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