Designs on the North Caucasus: Moves and Countermoves

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


Since the Boston Marathon Bombings, American analysts have been paying increased attention to the North Caucasian extremism. Westerners have been reexamining the region to find out what makes it so turbulent and to discover the origins of Chechen resistance. Recent clashes furthermore direct attention to the area, as do the links between local militant groups and the current chaos in Iraq and Syria.  

Each of these subjects is worthy of detailed examination, an overview of which is provided here. Particularly relevant are militant groups in the North Caucasus, the pro-Moscow government of Ramzan Kadyrov, contemporary Russian policy towards the region, and the presence of Caucasian militants in Ukraine and in Jihadist groups, such as ISIS.


The Caucasus Emirate

The Caucasus Emirate is among the largest and most active militant groups in Chechnya. This Salafist organization aims to drive all Russian forces from the Caucasus and establish an Islamic state in the region. The group has had extensive contact with Middle East-based Jihadist organizations, but remains internally conflicted between causes of Chechen (and Dagestani, Ingush, etc…) nationalism and pan-Islamism. These divisions may have deepened in recent months, with some of the group’s leaders swearing allegiance to the Islamic State without the blessing of their superiors.

Power struggles are not new to the Emirate. In 2010, it was rumored that long-time Salafist leader Doku Umarov had stepped down for “health reasons”, only to later deny his resignation. A year later, it was declared that leadership disputes had been solved, with Umarov still very much in control. He remained among Chechnya’s most wanted terrorists until his death in late 2013.


The Government of Ramzan Kadyrov

Umarov had long been a substantial enemy of pro-Moscow Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. The President enjoys the backing of the Russian Federation in addition to his private army known as “Kadyrovsky” which numbers in the thousands. His administration has seen a definite clash between Chechen tradition and Russian law, with publically-discouraged practices such as bride stealing and honor killings still occurring on a regular basis. Nevertheless, Kadyrov’s pro-government stance has gained him friends in Moscow, despite the political opposition such favor generates. 

A recent controversy centers on the role of Caucasian nationals in the Russian armed forces. Previously, North Caucasus oblasts were not subject to the same draft laws as the rest of the Russian Federation. For the first time in 20 years, Moscow recently began drafting Chechen men into the military for a mandatory service commitment of 12 months, despite the internal divisions such a move could bring to the armed forces.

Russian Policy and Caucasian Eurasianism

Contemporary Russian policy towards the region appears to be a more inclusive one, as the area’s strategic importance could leave Russia vulnerable if the population rebels again en-masse. The increasingly popular Eurasianism ideology may be playing a role here, as proponents hold high positions of influence. Eurasianist political thought towards the Caucasus focuses on building a “continental Russia-Islamic alliance” based on the "traditional character of Russian and Islamic civilization" in opposition to the materialism and liberalism that has been imported from the West, particularly since 1991.

This concept became well-known to Western analysts in the wake of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity, a prominent Eurasianist, argued that Ossetia should have never separated from Russia. This sentiment is shared by a growing number of the Russian political elite, especially as movement offers an alternative model to the Euro-Atlantic-centrist geopolitical model that was partially implemented to devastating social, political, and economic results in 1990s Russia.

A possible indication that such an inclusive policy has been working can be found in the presence of pro-Russian Caucasian fighters among the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. In particular, the Vostok Battalion has emerged as one of the main players on the Donetsk side of the conflict, being central to the defense efforts of the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk. Their influence may have even sparked a power struggle in the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic, though conclusive evidence has yet to surface. 

Whilst Caucasian and Muslim fighters are involved in combat on both sides of the Donbas war, the majority appear to be on the side of Donetsk. Such combatants don’t appear media-shy and can be found giving interviews in multiple video clips. In which they express their anti-Western and pro-Moscow views.

A Little Chechnya in Syria

More radical Islamist militants could not be brought over to Moscow’s point of view however, and are busy building a new base of operations in the Middle East. The presence of Chechen fighters in Syria has been known since early 2013. Estimates put the figure at about 2,000 militants from the North Caucasus. Some of these militants have made direct threats against Vladimir Putin, with promises to liberate the whole of the Caucasus from his forces.   

Fears of ISIS-trained Jihadists returning to the Caucasus are very real in Russia, with some analysts even fearing the rise of a “second Syria” in the region. Oblasts such as Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia have been experiencing a quiet revival in Islamic fundamentalism, which is only coming to light as a result of recent clashes with security services.  

Ethnic Chechens can be found in leadership positions in both ISIS and rival Jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. A school for Russian-speaking students has even been established in ISIS-occupied Raqqa, reflecting the influence such militants have in the group. The prominence of such non-Arab elements has caused indications of resentment among fighters of Middle East/North Africa origin, along with accusations of them placing Chechen nationalism above pan-Islamism.

Lest one think that Russia alone will be afflicted by the potential return of hardened Islamist combatants, the fact that some of the Chechens involved are Georgian citizens helps spread the concern. Connections between Caucasian separatists and Ukrainian nationalists furthermore have the potential to spawn a massive regional crisis affecting the entire Black Sea/Caucasus region, as was previously covered by Leksika.