North Caucasus and Russia: Part I

The North Caucasus is garnering headlines around the world in the wake of multiple suicide attacks this past weekend in the southern Russian city of Volgograd. Following our recent four-part series “Resurgent Russia” (Parts I, II, III, and IV), we will now provide our previously planned study of the North Caucasus, its conflicts, and Russian policy. In this four-part article series, we will note recent events, outline the historical origins for conflicts in the region, assess the impact of the conflicts on Russian national security policy, analyze the consequences of Russian policy in the North Caucasus for wider regional stability, and propound on the potential for wider international conflict. In our “Resurgent Russia” series, we outlined Leon Aron’s understanding of The Putin Doctrine and explained how recent Russian defense and national security policy changes, the heightening of President Vladamir Putin’s profile in mediating international disputes, and the the re-assertiveness of Russian influence in places such Ukraine (a subject we addressed in our article “Blue, Yellow, and Orange”) are representative of a fundamental re-alignment of Russian strategic goals.  

On December 3, we examined Dagestan and its insurgency in our article “Dagestan and Sochi”, noting the October 21 suicide bombing of a bus in Volgograd, Russia. We explained why Dagestan and the wider Caucasus region was an essential area of interest for Russian policy makers as they attempt to formulate security policy and assert control over a restive southern region that has been the cause of strife for post-Soviet Russia for well over a decade. Throughout the conflict in the North Caucasus, ethnic Chechens and Dagestanis have regularly attacked Russian interests both inside and outside of Russia. Among the more high profile attacks are the Moscow Nord-Ost Theater Siege in 2002 and the Beslan School Hostage Crisis of 2004.

In this series on the North Caucasus, we will continue to examine the region as background for wider Russian foreign policy and how events in the region can impact the implementation of what Aron has termed “The Putin Doctrine”. We will pay especially close attention to recent activity while providing historical understanding for context in analyzing recent events and violence both in the North Caucasus and Russia. Additionally, we will profile key insurgencies, groups, and separatist leaders in efforts against Russia and Georgia, and assess how the region will affect international efforts to combat violence in the region and how policies and events affect Russian policy with its near abroad.

We noted Russia’s recent assertiveness in international affairs in “Resurgent Russia: Part I” and addressed the issue of Russian foreign policy and the North Caucasus in “Resurgent Russia: Part IV”. Russian policy makers’ concern with ongoing conflicts outside of Russia’s borders (particularly in Syria and Afghanistan) is borne of an urgency in the Kremlin to ensure Russian capability to project force (both military and diplomatic) into the Caucasus. Among the reasons for Russian interest in asserting influence in the Caucasus is the national security-related issue of insurgencies and separatist movements that threaten Russian security in greater Russia and a strategic pursuit to maintain capacity to export natural resources located in the Caspian Sea basin.

Recently, Putin has both re-asserted Russia as an international diplomatic force and re-assessed Russia’s strategic goals and commitments to key regional powers, particularly in the Middle East. Putin further exposed his re-conceptualization of Russian national security policy and heightened his own profile internationally during the crisis in Syria this past summer. Many of the Chechen jihadists fighting in Afghanistan and Syria have returned to the North Caucasus well-trained and with invaluable experience. Putin is intent on ensuring Russian ability to influence the battlefields of the Levant and Afghanistan. In flexing Russian diplomatic muscle during the crisis surrounding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on August 21 and the international row that followed, Putin ensured continued Russian influence in the Levant and at least a nominal capacity in which to shape the battle being waged there between regional powers. The Saudi-supported Sunni extremist groups fighting in Syria and waging attacks in Lebanon have well-established ties to Chechen and Dagestani insurgent groups in the North Caucasus. The Kremlin is intent on keeping Russia engaged and influential in the ongoing regional battle. This provides Russia strategic depth with which to battle insurgencies and separatist movements in the North Caucasus, specifically in Dagestan and Chechnya.

Last July, Chechen separatist leader and jihadist Doku Umarov called off a cease-fire his group had abided by in its battle with Russia. A video was posted to YouTube containing footage of Umarov stating his intentions to attack the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the southern Russian city of Sochi. Umarov, the jihadist leader of a group calling itself the “Caucasus Emirate”, stated that the Olympic Games were “satanic”. Andrew E. Kramer of The New York Times reported:

“Mr. Umarov often makes broad threats against Russia, its railroads and its airports, particularly in the regions near his mountain hide-out, like Sochi. But Wednesday’s video included the most explicit threat to attack the Olympic Games so far.

In the video, speaking of the Olympics, he said, ‘We as mujahedeen are obliged to not permit it, using any methods allowed us by the almighty Allah.’” (Kramer, New York Times, July 3)

Escalation

The recent escalation in attacks carried out by North Caucasus militants targeting Russians went largely without notice until December 29. However, there were several events prior to the suicide bombings in Volgograd this past weekend that signaled the change.

We reported on the first of these major attacks in our article “Dagestan and Sochi” on December 3. We wrote:

On October 21, 2013 a woman later identified as 30-year-old Naida Asiyalova of Dagestan, Russia detonated a vest of explosives while aboard a Moscow-bound bus in the southern Russian city of Volgograd. The bombing killed six and wounded scores of others. Among those responsible for planning and carrying out the bombing was Asiyalova’s 21-year old husband, Dmitry Sokolov.  On November 16th, Russian anti-terror forces tracked down Sokolov in a village not far from the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala. The subsequent operation resulted in the killing of five militants, including Sokolov. Ria Novosti reports:

“’In course of the negotiations Sokolov claimed responsibility for terror attacks, including the bus blast in Volgograd,’ the National Anti-Terrorist Committee said in a statement.

According to the officials, he said that he personally assembled the explosives detonated by the bomber in Volgograd. The statement did not specify what were other attacks he mentioned in his claims.
Russia has suffered a long-running Islamist insurgency centered on the North Caucasus, especially in Dagestan where attacks on security forces, police and civilians occur regularly, generated by ethnic, religious and political rivalries, as well as poverty and corruption…’In course of the negotiations Sokolov claimed responsibility for terror attacks, including the bus blast in Volgograd,’ the National Anti-Terrorist Committee said in a statement.”  (Ria Novosti, November 16)

 

On December 27, a massive car bomb was detonated in Pyatigorsk, a Russian city approximately 170 miles east of Sochi. The blast, targeting a Russian traffic station, killed. Thomson Reuters of CBC reported:

“The blast blew out the windows of buildings in an industrial neighbourhood of the spa resort town, officials said. Three people were killed, Pyatigorsk mayor Lev Travnev said on state-run Rossiya-24 television. 

Interfax said the blast badly damaged a traffic police building. The explosion blew out the windows of buildings in the area, a regional police spokesman, Yevgeny Arnautov, said on Rossiya-24 television. He gave no casualty figure.

The spa resort town of Pyatigorsk lies 270 kilometres east of Sochi, just north of a strip of mostly Muslim provinces plagued by near-daily violence linked to an Islamist insurgency whose leader has called on militants to stop the Games taking place.” (Reuters, CBC, December 27)

This past weekend, dual suicide bombings rocked the southern Russian city of Volgograd (approximately 400 miles northeast of Sochi), inspiring a new wave of fear in Russia a month prior to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Preliminary reports from Russian sources already suggest that the militants who conducted the bombings this past weekend trained in the North Caucasus. Volgograd, a city home to 1,021,215 Russian citizens, was formerly known as Tsaritsyn and more recently named Stalingrad. Volgograd is located on the banks of the Volga River and acts as the capital of Volgograd Oblast. On December 29, a man identified as Pavel Pechenkin (or Pechyonkin), originally from Mari El in Russia, entered a railway station in Volgograd. Pechenkin detonated a suicide vest he was wearing, killing 17 while wounding more than 50. APA reports:

“He formerly worked as a medical assistant. Then he converted to Islam and changed his name to Ansar Al- Rusi.” (APA, December 30)

Pechankin had gone missing over a year ago. Novinite.com reported:

“The Voice of Russia writes that when he joined the ring, he left a note for his mother on his laptop computer and has since then communicated with his parents two or three times via the internet.” (Novinite.com, December 31)

Russian media have characterized Pechenkin as unremarkable. Pechenkin was former paramedic who had left his job to join with Dagestani militants in 2012, changing his name to Ansar Ar-Rusi.

“There was nothing special about Pechenkin, Khamidullin said. ‘There was nothing special about him, he was an ordinary paramedic. He lived with his parents in Volzhsk, came to Kazan by car to work, worked his shift and went back home,’ the source said.

Khamidullin said he had not noticed any religious affiliations in Pechenkin.

‘As a rule, I talk with my subordinates about work-related, medical issues. No religious issues have ever been discussed in my presence, I didn’t notice any special affiliation with Islam in him. Yes, he wore a small beard, but half of my male employees wear moustaches or beards, it doesn’t mean anything,’ Khamidullin said.

Pechenkin became ill in mid 2012 and took sick leave, but never returned to work, Khamidullin said.” (Kyiv Post, January 2)

“We contacted his relatives, but they said they didn’t who where Pavel was either. We had to fire him for missing a lot of work,” Khamidullin said.

Pechenkin, a Muslim convert, had been beseeched by his parents via video to return home. His parents had previously issued a video plea for him to return home.  Anna Dolgov of The Moscow Times reports:

In a plea by his parents recorded in March, his father, Nikolai, admonished his son to ‘drop those weapons’ before he would become a ‘terrorist.’

 ‘Do all Muslims go around with weapons?” the father said in the video. ‘You are the only one so stubborn. What harm have people done you? […] You are going to kill children.’

 His mother, Fanaziya, said that she was also a Muslim, and pleaded with her son that he should abstain from using violence.

 ‘What kind of the Koran…’ she said, apparently too pained to finish the sentence, before finding the strength to continue: ‘I don’t believe that Allah has ever said that one must kill people.’

 ‘Pasha, I’m appealing to you — please come back,” she said. ‘Imagine, what is happening to me now, how I am feeling. …I’m not living, I’m in hell.’

 ‘Imagine that somebody were to kill your parents, how would that make you feel? Why are you turning children into orphans?’ she said.” (Dolgov, The Moscow Times, January 2)

In response to his parents’ pleas, Pechenkin posted his own video to YouTube, stating he would not abide by his parents’ wishes. Dolgov again reports:

In response to his parents’ video appeals for him to come home, Pechyonkin posted his own video online this spring, saying he was following God’s will and would not turn back.

 ‘I have come here only to make Allah pleased with me, to earn heaven,’ he said in the video…

In his response, Pechyonkin told his parents that initially their ‘tears had saddened’ him, but that he had then decided he would not be swayed.

‘I didn’t want to watch your appeal, I thought that it would weaken me, that it would make me softer,’ he said, adding that he had ‘no intention’ of turning back.

‘Why should we follow those Christian commandments, when Allah, may he be glorified, urges us to fight those kafirs [unbelievers],’ he said. ‘Why shouldn’t we leave their children orphaned?’

He also brushed off his mother words that the Koran does not instruct believers to kill.

‘I am not inventing anything from the Koran, I am reading,’ he said.

‘You say that a man has no right to kill,” he said. ‘Those kafirs have occupied radio and television, and they are making the kind of religion that they need for the Muslims. They are trying to convince you that a man can’t do this.’ (Dolgov, The Moscow Times, January 2)

Less than 24 hours after Pechenkin detonated his suicide vest at the railway station, a second suicide bomber detonated a vest with what amounted to an estimated four kilos of TNT while aboard a trolley in Volgograd during rush hour. The blast killed at least 14 people and wounded scores more. Latest reports have indicated that several of the wounded remain in critical condition. Leonid Ragozin of The Guardian relayed:

“At least 14 people have been killed in a suicide bombing on a trolleybus crowded with morning commuters in Volgograd, less than 24 hours after another deadly suicide attack at the city’s main train station.

The authorities initially said 15 people were dead, but a statement from local authorities subsequently put the toll at 14. Dozens were reported injured, including a one-year-old child who was in a critical condition.

The blast ripped apart the trolleybus, leaving a disfigured carcass without the roof and walls.

It is the third bombing attack in Volgograd in three months, with most security experts linking the wave of attacks to the pledge by the Chechen jihadist leader Doku Umarov to disrupt the Olympic Games in Sochi, which start in six weeks’ time.” (Ragozin, The Guardian, December 30)

Witness reports of the blast were alarming. EuroNews reported:

“An eyewitness account of Volgograd’s second blast in two days described the destruction Monday’s explosion caused.

‘I heard a loud bang and soon after, people were shouting,” said the witness. “I thought it was strange and wondered what happened, and continued to the bus stop. When I got closer, I saw what had really happened. It was not a fire cracker, it appeared to be an explosion. At first, I did not realise it was a trolley-bus. People around were saying: ‘trolley-bus, trolley-bus!’ It was such a wreck that at first sight, it did not look like a trolley-bus.'” (EuroNews, December 30)

The trolley attack represented the third major attack by militants based in the North Caucasus in four days. In the wake of the second blast in Volgograd, security fears surrounding the February Winter Olympic Games in Sochi were expressed in stark terms. Western media began examining the North Caucasus, the instability resulting from years of insurgency and warfare, and began assessing the danger to the Games. Lukas I. Alpert And Gregory L. White of the Wall Street Journal wrote:

“Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered security to be tightened around the country after the second attack, which comes less than six weeks before the games are set to start in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The repeated bombings, and risk of additional violence, threaten to tarnish an event on which Mr. Putin has staked his personal pride and the country has spent $50 billion to stage.

‘This is about embarrassing the Russian government and creating a state of insecurity,’ said Matthew Clements, a Russian defense and security expert at IHS Country Risk. ‘The chances of a successful attack at one of the Olympic venues are slim, but attacks in the region around it still have the desired psychological effect.'” (Alpert and White, Wall Street Journal, December 31)

Why Volgograd?

In targeting Volgograd with multiple, near-simultaneous attacks, militants could be working to distract attention from another major attack pending elsewhere. The resulting draw of essential Russian support and security resources away from what could be another target location to Volgograd could weaken Russian response to this other assessed attack location. Daisy Sindelar of Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty addressed this possibility and assessed the potential diversionary characterization of targeting Volgograd for the suicide attacks. In her exceptional article, Sindelar effectively explores the possibility that the attacks in Volgograd are diversionary, assessed the likelihood that these attacks are to distract from prospective attacks elsewhere in Russia, and noted the observations of other analysts. Sindlear writes:

“With the Winter Olympics less than six weeks away, the security spotlight has been focused on host city Sochi, nestled uncomfortably close to Russia’s volatile North Caucasus republics and their ongoing Islamic insurgency.

But Andrei Soldatov, the editor of Agentura.ru, a Russian site dedicated to terrorism and intelligence, says the Volgograd attacks — which took place 650 kilometers northeast of Sochi — throw such planning into disarray.

‘I think the goal was to distract security forces. Because now, with the Olympics coming up, they’ll be forced to think not only about ensuring the safety of the major Russian cities as well as Sochi and the infrastructure around the Olympic facilities,’ Soldatov says. 

‘On top of that, they’ll also have to pay special attention to Volgograd. It’s an effective tactic — diverting attention away from a place where the terrorists may be planning their next attack.'” (Sindelar, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, January 2)

Previewing Part II

In the next article in our series, “North Caucasus and Russia: Part II”, we will examine the conflicts of the North Caucasus, their historical origins, and their impact on Russian policy. We will provide analysis of insurgent groups in Chechnya and Dagestan, with particular attention paid to Doku Umarov and his group, the Caucasus Emirate. We will study and examine the goals, motivations, and capabilities of these groups, outline the separatist movements in areas such as Abkhazia, Ingushetia, and Ossetia, and provide analytical background for our assessments on what this means for Russian policy and wider regional stability.

(Accompanying photo, above, courtesy and property of Peter Fitzgerald)

Resources for further study on the topics above are linked below.

Eric Jones
Editor-in-Chief and Senior Analyst
Foreign Intrigue

 

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Eric.Jones@Foreign-Intrigue.com. Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/ForeignIntrigue.