Moscow is to appoint a new deputy foreign minister for counterterrorism whose main role will be to deal with international cooperation in the war on the Islamic State (IS) group, according to Russian media reports on March 13.
Kommersant newspaper reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree creating the new role on March 12. The new decree brings the number of Russian deputy foreign ministers reporting to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to nine.
The new role has been deemed necessary, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov told Kommersant, because "the significance of international cooperation on counterterrorism is increasing every day."
The presidential decree did not specify who would be appointed to the role, however -- an omission that has led to considerable speculation.
Kommersant said its sources suggest that the new deputy foreign minister will not be a Foreign Ministry official, but will come from Russia's intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), or from the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK). The NAK was established in 2006 with 300 FSB officers.
Not A Surprise...
The decree is not a surprise, coming amid signs that the Kremlin is increasingly concerned about the threat posed by IS to domestic and regional security.
Moscow's concerns largely stem from two phenomena that are mostly linked to existing militancy and security problems in the North Caucasus. The first concern is the large numbers of Russian nationals (and ethnic Chechens from elsewhere in Europe) fighting alongside militants in Syria and Iraq, and the second is the recent pledges of allegiance by some North Caucasian militant factions to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The head of Russia's Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, voiced these concerns this month when he warned of links between IS and militants in the North Caucasus.
Patrushev told Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda on March 5 that the Kremlin was "confirming information about the establishment of contacts between [IS] and the terrorist underground in the North Caucasus."
Foreshadowing the March 12 presidential decree creating the new Foreign Ministry post, Patrushev said that the information would "be taken into account when making future decisions to strengthen Russian security and protect its national interests."
Patrushev expanded on his warnings in a March 11 meeting with officials in Pyatigorsk on the prevention of terrorism and extremism in the North Caucasus.
Referring to Russian fears that returnees from Syria could foment unrest in the North Caucasus, Patrushev said that the participation of Russian militants "in the ranks of terrorist groups abroad poses a serious threat in the event of their return to the motherland."
"It is necessary to bring under control this threat posed by those returning from militant hotspots and who are participating in conflicts alongside terrorist groups. It is no secret that a large quantity of mercenaries of Russian origin are currently fighting abroad alongside these bandit groups," Patrushev said.
The Russian Security Council chief hinted at fears that IS could be starting to gain a foothold in the Russian Federation, warning that if Russians fighting in Syria and Iraq returned home, they could "bring sophisticated terrorist skills to our lands, including the creation of groups calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which does not have anything to do with Islam."
'Patrushev Is Stating The Obvious, Offering Nothing New'
Some in the North Caucasus have said that Patrushev appears to be offering nothing new in response to the threat posed by militants in the region, and noted that the security authorities have already cracked down harder on militant groups.
In response to Patrushev's remarks regarding the threat posed to domestic security by Russian militants returning from fighting in Syria and Iraq, Oleg Orlov of the rights group Memorial told the Caucasian Knot website that militants returning from the Middle East pose a "great danger."
"The course [of action] that gave positive results in Ingushetia and Daghestan collapsed long ago. Patrushev didn't say anything new, but just the obvious truth: the danger of militants returning from the Middle East is a sad reality," Orlov said.
In response to the threat, Orlov said that the security authorities have conducted "crazy actions" such as the September operation targeting suspected militants in Daghestan, which resulted in hundreds of people being displaced from their homes.
Nearly 1,000 residents of Vremenny, in the central Untsukul district, were forced to leave their homes as a result of a mass "counterterrorism operation."
According to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, the Untsukul district has been the target of frequent raids by the security services seeking to root out members of the Islamist insurgency.
Orlov said that the operation, which he dubbed a "zachistka" -- an unofficial Russian term for a "mopping up operation" in the North Caucasus -- had been counterproductive, creating a "base of dissatisfied people who have the potential to join the ranks of the militants."
Orlov noted that the Russian Federation has already prosecuted a number of Russian nationals who returned home after fighting with IS and other militants in Syria and Iraq.
Returnees in the Chechen Republic and also in Russia's Tatarstan Republic have been prosecuted and sentenced to jail time for fighting alongside militant groups, including IS and the Syrian affiliate of the North Caucasus militant group Caucasus Emirate.
However, some rights defenders and nongovernmental organizations in Chechnya have argued that the lengthy prison terms imposed on returnees will only deter others from coming home.
It is also worth noting that most of the returnees prosecuted in Russia so far appear to be the very lowest-ranking militants who had no prior links to militant groups in Russia. The common pattern appears to be of young men who spent a short time in Syria and then came home after becoming disillusioned with the situation there. It is questionable whether these young men would have posed a security threat if they had not been arrested.
Despite these criticisms, however, so far crackdowns and prison sentences appear to be the only way that Russia is responding to the threat of radicalization and blowback from returnees. Unlike initiatives in countries like Australia and Germany, Russia has not attempted to develop or provide de-radicalization programs for returning militants.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk