Ilya Rogachev, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Department for New Challenges and Threats, has said that Chechen militants fighting with the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria are not Russian citizens but Kists from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.
In an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station on January 16, parts of which were transcribed by other Russian media outlets, Rogachev blamed Georgia for the phenomenon of Chechen militants in Syria.
The Russian Foreign Ministry official said that Georgian Kists -- ethnic Chechens from the Pankisi Gorge -- were "among the most prominent warlords who have already proved themselves in IS."
Rogachev did not name these warlords but said they were "trained in Georgia, probably by Georgian specialists, who in turn were taught by the Americans."
These comments -- perhaps surprisingly -- echo reports in Western news outlets, which have placed Georgia's Pankisi Gorge under an intense media spotlight, mostly because of the sudden rise to notice of IS's military emir in Syria, Umar al-Shishani, who is from the Pankisi Gorge. While Umar al-Shishani was a conscript in the Georgian Army, some news reports have emphasized that he was possibly trained by officers who may have been trained by Americans.
The Foreign Ministry official echoed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov when he said that there were "not as many North Caucasians with Russian passports in IS as it is acceptable to imagine."
Rogachev said that there were "Chechens from other countries, including those who received asylum abroad" fighting with IS in Syria and Iraq.
In November, Chechnya's Kadyrov lashed out at the West over what he said was a deliberate attempt to portray Chechens as terrorists in Syria. Kadyrov said that the "overwhelming majority" of Chechens in Syria were "residents of Western countries who were born there or who left 20 years ago."
According to Interfax Religion, Rogachev claimed that there were 800 Russian nationals fighting alongside the IS group.
However, Rogachev said that this figure was based on "unofficial, expert assessments" and did not offer any information about what the Russian security services believe the numbers of Russian citizens fighting in Syria and Iraq to be.
Rogachev also warned that Islamic State (IS) militants were "spreading out throughout the world and pose a serious threat." The Foreign Ministry official said that the rapid influx of militants to Syria and Iraq had not been curbed.
In an odd twist, Rogachev hinted that the U.S.-led air strikes against IS had had an effect. While he did not mention the air strikes conducted by the U.S.-led coalition against IS in Syria and Iraq -- which, after all, Moscow opposes -- Rogachev did say that IS was taking losses in Syria and Iraq.
"Now we can say there is some sort of balance. The rapid expansion of IS has stopped: IS militants are incurring significant losses and many of them have returned to their home countries, having lost faith in an ultimate victory," Rogachev said.
Rogachev also warned that IS militants who returned to their home countries from Syria and Iraq "represent a very serious threat."
"Experience has shown that individuals who have spent some time in conflict zones rarely return to a normal life. Going forward, they continue to engage in illegal activities, not necessarily terrorist [activities]. This could be ideological indoctrination," Rogachev said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry official also repeated Moscow's claim that the rise of IS in Syria was a result of "foreign military aid to Syrian rebels in the fight against the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad."
Russia and Iran, Assad's two most powerful allies, have both asserted that the IS group was created as a result of assistance provided by the United States and its Western allies to moderate Syrian rebels.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk