Reviving Conflict in North Caucasus: Moves and Countermoves

Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions

December 2014

On 3 December 2014, the Chechen capital of Grozny was rocked by renewed fighting between Caucasus Emirate gunmen and Russian counter-terrorism forces. The fighting resulted in at least 20 dead as of Friday morning. The gunmen seized a local press building in the largest attack in the capital since 2011, threatening the already fragile peace in the North Caucasus oblast. This attack was the second deadly clash in recent months, in a region that was only largely stabilized in 2008.


Quiet Islamic Revolution

These attacks have brought attention to what has been dubbed an “unnoticed Islamic Revolution” in Dagestan and Chechnya. The growth of radical Islamist denominations such as Salafism in these oblasts has caused some analysts to even fear the sparking of a Syria-like Islamist uprising in the Caucasus. Several recent incidents indicate increased militancy within factions of the local population.

  • On 31 October 2014, Dagestani police arrested several men outside of a Salafist mosque in Makhachkala, Dagestan. As reported by The Interpreter “instead of intimidating the others in attendance, this official action led the remaining parishioners to come out and surround the police cars. The police responded by shooting in the air, but even that did not cause the Muslims to back down.”
  • Three weeks prior, Dagestani police arrested popular Salafi leader Nadir Abu Halid. His supporters then surrounded the local police station and demanded his release. Police were unable to disperse the crowd and the situation remains tense.
  • In November, Russian security forces raided a suspected militant safe-house in Chechnya, finding themselves in a firefight with several gunmen. The clash resulted in at least 4 casualties.


Connections to ISIS and Other Terror Groups

It has been known that Chechen fighters were among the anti-Assad forces in Syria since early 2013, with some even holding prominent positions in the leadership of terrorist groups. Numbers vary, but it is estimated that there are up to 2000 Chechen/Caucasian militants involved in combat against Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State even went so far as to create school for Russian-speaking children in the occupied city of Raqqa, Syria.

Chechen fighters in ISIS threatened Russian President Vladimir Putin personally. In response, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov vowed to crush ISIS militants in Chechnya, stating that “I want to remind everyone who is planning something against our country, that Russia has worthy sons, ready to fulfill any order, wring the neck of any enemy in his own lair, wherever he may be…and we find ourselves with happiness ridding the world of these scum."

While inflammatory, his harsh stance finds resonance in the rest of Russia, particularly given well-documented ties between Jihadist organizations and Caucasian communities. Since the 1990s, Jihadist forces have fought against the Russian presence in the region under a pan-Islamist banner. Islam has been a driving factor for regional separatism since the early 19th century, when Imam Shamil created the first united front against the Russian Empire in the Caucasian Imamate.


Spill Over Into Ukraine?

Further complicating the situation is the presence of Chechen fighters on both sides of the neighboring conflict in Ukraine. Most of the fighters appear to be on the side of the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics (DPR and LPR), though the Chechen government of Ramzan Kadyrov denies ordering their deployment. A unit using the name “Vostok Battalion” (Eastern Battalion) has emerged on the separatist side, with possible ties to the disbanded Spetsnaz battalion of the same name which fought for Moscow in Chechnya, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

The group, which is noted for speaking a mixture of Chechen and Russian, made its debut in the Battle for the Donetsk Airport and has since been central to the defense efforts of the DPR. Though these fighters are on the pro-Russian side of this conflict, the very fact of their presence in East Ukraine has the potential to cause renewed conflict with anti-Russian Chechens, many of whom have extensive ties to Ukrainian nationalists. The coalition of Caucasian separatists and Ukrainian extremists has the potential to escalate both conflicts and create a major regional security concern.


What to Look For

  • The continued spread of Islamist ideologies such as Salafism and Whabbism in the North Caucasus
  • An increased Russian military, police, and intelligence presence in Dagestan and Chechnya
  • Extended cooperation between Caucasian separatists and Jihadist organizations in the Middle East
  • Greater numbers of Caucasian fighters joining terrorist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and Iraq
  • The continued presence of Chechen fighters on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict and the potential overlap of these two flashpoints