Part III in an ongoing series analyzing competing views of potential conflict zones, influencing factors, and geopolitical implications.
In contrast to Ukraine and Moldova, Chechnya is firmly Russian territory. Rather than a site of West-East tension, the causes of conflict here are religious, ethnic, and political. The presence of Chechen fighters in ISIS and the history of cooperation between Chechen and Ukrainian extremists increase the potential for renewed armed conflict in the region. Chechen President Kadyrov’s firm pro-Moscow stance and possible sending of paramilitaries to Donbas serve to heighten tensions within Chechnya.
The Republic of Chechnya is no stranger to ethnic conflict and religious extremism. The dissolution of the USSR heightened Chechen nationalist sentiments and the resulting warfare with Moscow in the 1990s contributed to increased religiosity and extremist sentiments among rebels. Chechen militants further volunteered in extremist groups spanning the Balkans, the Arab World, and Central Asia. Most recently, Chechen veterans joined the coalition of anti-Assad forces in Syria, volunteering for Jihad against the Russian allied government in Damascus. Over the course of that war, one ‘rebel’ group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), rose to dominate the others, and Chechen fighters were quick to fill the ranks.
Given the success of ISIS, and the armed conflict in Ukraine, many fear that old wounds in Chechnya could re-open. ISIS veterans returning to the North Caucasus present an obvious security threat, and many anti-extremist Chechens are tied up in eastern Ukraine, leaving the homeland vulnerable to further divergence upon return. If there is to be another armed conflict following Ukraine, Chechnya is a likely candidate.
The ISIS Problem
Since early 2013, it has been known that Chechen fighters were amongst the anti-Assad forces in Syria, even holding prominent positions in the group’s leadership. Numbers vary, but it is estimated that there are up to 2000 such militants involved in combat between Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State has even established a school for Russian-speaking children in the ISIS-held city of Rakka, Syria.
In a recent video release, Chechen fighters affiliated with ISIS personally threatened Russian President Vladimir Putin. The message was given in Arabic, but with a clear Russian accent. 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."
His stance is not surprising, given that Kadyrov has a long history of opposition to radical Islam. His father, the late Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, helped lead Russian counter-terrorism efforts in the region after the Second Chechen War. He founded the infamous Kadyrovtsy (Кадыровцы) paramilitary organization to combat Mujahedeen fighters in the North Caucasus. Since that time, the Kadyrov family have been close allies of President Vladimir Putin and the United Russia party.
The Vostok Battalion
This faction of anti-Wahhabi Chechens made an unexpected appearance in the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic (DPR) in May 2014. Led by DPR commanders Alexander Khodakovsky and Vladimir Antyufeyev , the battalion is believed to consist of veterans of the original Spetsnaz Special Battalions Vostok and Zapad, which fought for Russia in the Second Chechen War and the South Ossetia War.
The Battalion played a major role in the May 2014 Battle of Donetsk Airport, and have subsequently been involved in the defense of the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk. Despite this, President Kadyrov has denied sending troops to Donbas. In a statement to Russian media, he stated that “If there are Chechens there, I know nothing about it. But if this information is correct, I’d love to know who exactly is there and why”. In a later statement however, Kadyrov expressed solidarity with Donbas fighters, commenting that 74,000 Chechens were ready to restore order in Ukraine, starting in Kiev.
In a future scenario where both veterans of ISIS and the Vostok battalion return to Chechnya, it is highly likely that conflict will break out.
Ukrainian Nationalists and the Caucasus
To further complicate the situation, the Ukrainian paramilitary organization, Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian National Self Defense (UNA-UNSO) has a history of sending volunteer fighters to the Caucasus during wartime. During the 1992-93 War in Abkhazia and the First Chechen War, Ukrainian volunteers fought against Russian forces, establishing connections with various militant organizations native to the area.
Such connections became publically known in March 2014, when Right Sector (successor to UNA-UNSO) leader Dmitry Yarosh called for Russia’s most wanted terrorist Doku Umarov to “activate his fight” and “take a unique chance to win” over Russia. United by a common opponent, an unlikely alliance of Jihadists and fascist-sympathizers Banderists in Ukraine has formed.
Linking these two conflict zones would only add fuel to the fire in the event of renewed hostilities in the North Caucasus. Combining the military experience of Chechen Jihadists and Ukrainian extremists would create a region-wide zone of instability that threatens both Russia and NATO member-states.