From Nationalism to Islamism: Separatism in Post-Soviet Chechnya (Part One)

Below is Part One of a three-part series examining separatism in Chechnya since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Through multiple periods of war, Chechnya’s modern history is riddled with the violence that has accompanied nationalist and Islamist based separatism since the region first pursued its independence following the collapse of the Soviet regime in late 1991. In parts two and three, I will explore the first and second Chechen wars against Russia in the post-Soviet era and analyze the variables of nationalism and Islamism in the trajectory of the two conflicts. Finally, I will conclude by assessing the current state of separatism in Chechnya and the likelihood of future conflicts.

In Part One below, I introduce the series and present the foundation for this analysis: the evolution of modern separatism in Chechnya from nationalism to Islamism.

Thank you for reading.

Eric Jones
Foreign Intrigue


Chechnya has been almost entirely shaped by the separatism and wars it has experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The first war, marked by nationalism and a fervent, well-supported movement inside the Chechen population for independence, was a conflict that tore apart the region for nearly two years. During the period that existed between the first Chechen war (December 1994 through August 1996) and the second war in Chechnya (1999 through April 2009), a de facto state of independence characterized the legitimacy of an independent Chechen people. This self-governance, limited as it was, represented the first self-rule experienced by the Chechen people in modern times. However, this period was not to last.

North Caucasus regions map, Northern Caucasus. Map photo courtesy of Peter Fitzgerald.

North Caucasus regions map, Northern Caucasus. Map photo courtesy of Peter Fitzgerald.

The result of the interwar period was an evolution of the nationalist character of the separatist movement into one dominated by Islamism. This domination was due to many factors, among them attrition of the nationalists that largely coordinated the insurgency prior to the second Chechen war, the diffusing of centralized power that drove the nationalists, the co-opting of the separatist movement by Russian security services and the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and most importantly Wahhabist-inspired support from external actors that would eventually split the insurgency and create an extra-national movement driven not jihadist ideologies.

The resurgence of Russian military interventionism at the end of the decade, coupled with a rise in Islamist support from external actors, eventually became a weight that would collapse the nascent independence of Chechnya. The result was a fractured separatist alliance, an emboldened Russian government, and a co-opting of the campaign for independence. This series will be broken into three parts; I will analyze issues of identity and how they impacted the separatist movement in post Soviet Chechnya.

Map of Ingushetia and Chechnya, courtesy of Don-kun.

Map of Ingushetia and Chechnya, courtesy of Don-kun.

This article series will focus specifically to the evolution of the separatist movement from one based in an historical understanding of nationalism-based self-reliance and self-rule to one dominated by external forces. These external forces shaped the separatist campaign of the second Chechen war. The separatist movement became dominated by an Islamist ideology that was largely imported from outside Chechnya, funded by fundamentalists, and characterized by a Wahhabism that would overrun the entire movement. This Islamism would prove to be consequential in the fracturing of the movement during the interwar period, separating the movement into two sometimes competing camps: one characterized more by a motivation for self-rule (nationalists) and one based n an international movement founded largely on jihad and motivated by a goal to establish a caliphate in the Caucasus.

Throughout the post Soviet period, Chechnya has been a battleground for a tug and pull between power brokers in Chechnya and leaders in Moscow. At the outset of the first war for Chechen independence in 1994, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin applied an overwhelming military campaign to suppress both the independence movement and opposition to Moscow. The campaign was a disastrous loss for the Russian Federation. High numbers of military and security forces casualties and an unpopular war of attrition against the Chechen insurrection compelled Yeltsin and his government into an agreement with the leaders of the Chechen separatist movement in 1996. A tenuous period of a halt of hostilities commenced from the agreement whereby the Chechen separatists had achieved what is commonly accepted as de facto independence from the Russian state. This peace lasted until 1999 when a series of events including apartment bombings in Moscow and an invasion of Chechnya’s neighbor Dagestan catalyzed a second Chechen war. The second war was fought as a counterterrorist campaign by the Russian government under the leadership of new President Vladimir Putin.

For reasons most closely related to geopolitical interests, strategists in the government of President Putin (as well as his successor and current prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev) have sought to suppress dissent in Chechnya through a co-opting of the separatist movement and a hard-edged counterterrorist campaign. The former has been most apparent in the re-alignment of the powerful and influential militia forces led by Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov, famously switched sides following the first war for Chechen independence, pledging his group’s allegiance to the regime of President Putin early on during the second Chechen war. Akhmad Kadyrov later became the first president of Chechnya in 2003 before being assassinated in Grozny on May 9, 2004. The latter, conducted by security services to include the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Russian military, has led to an astounding attrition of the separatist movement.

How did issues of national identity, religious fundamentalism, and nationalism contribute to the evolution of the conflict in post-Soviet Chechnya? Further, how did these issues conflate, converge, or conflict in determining the predominant character of both post-Soviet wars? Finally, how do issues of nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism currently contribute to anti-Russian separatism in Chechnya today?

In this article series, I will examine the catalysts for conflict in Chechnya following the collapse of the Soviet Union. I will explore the consequential and underpinning notions of Chechen identity, especially in the context of anti-Russian separatism and the ongoing battle for the establishment of Chechen identity in the post-Soviet Caucasus. Specifically, I will research and analyze the factors that contributed to the evolution of what was originally a nationalism-dominated conflict in Chechnya to one that reflected significant influence by Islamists. These Islamist based groups, to include the Caucasus Emirate, were supported by foreign sources of logistics and financing. I will explore the threads of this financing and assess the likelihood that foreign interference in the conflict was consequential for the anti-Russian forces that fought throughout the second Chechen war.

I will explore the effects of Wahhabist ideology on the separatist movement and the how foreign funding derived of sources propagating this extreme form of Islam permeated the movement and became a pervasive factor in the rise of opposition under leaders such as Shamil Basayev and Doku Umarov.

Map showing Chechnya's geographic relationship to the Caucasus region. Map photo courtesy of Kbh3rd.

Map showing Chechnya’s geographic relationship to the Caucasus region. Map photo courtesy of Kbh3rd.

In order to accomplish a thorough examination of the evolution of Chechen separatism, it is also important to explore the rule of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and explain the impact his government has had on separatist opposition since his installation as Chechnya’s leader in 2007. Finally, I will conclude by analyzing the likelihood that separatism exists inside Chechnya in the present day, what characterizes it (nationalism or religious fundamentalism) and assess the likelihood of its re-emergence in the coming years.


A Conflict (1994-Present)

Chechnya (officially known as the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation) is located in the restive and war-torn North Caucasus region. The North Caucasus is a region valued by the Russian Federation for its geostrategic value. Chechnya has historically been a source of separatism throughout the North Caucasus and its separatist campaigns have often stretched into neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia. Any historical analysis of the Chechen wars against external aggression and domination would be the length of several volumes of books. The history of the struggle for independence from the Russian Federation demonstrates the aggressiveness of the separatist movement in Chechnya as well as the evolution of its character.

Chechens have been widely respected by even their adversaries as fierce warriors throughout history. The people of Chechnya have many wars over the centuries, most of them efforts to avoid the domination of the region by external powers. This includes the two most recent battles against the Russian Federation after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Mark Galeotti writes of the respect that even Russian military officers had for Chechen fighters during the war against the rebellion led by Imam Shamil in the Caucasian War:

In 1832, one officer admitted that ‘amidst their forests and mountains, no troops in the world could afford to despise them’ as they were ‘good shots, fiercely brave [and] intelligent in military affairs.’ Lieutenant-General Alexei Vel’yaminov, Yermolov’s chief of staff, noted that they were ‘very superior in many ways both to our regular cavalry and the Cossacks. They are all but born on horseback.’. (Galeotti, Mark. Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994– 2009. Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994-2009. Osprey Publishing. 2014)

In Part Two, I will explore the first and second Chechen wars against Russia in the post-Soviet era and analyze the variables of nationalism and Islamism in the trajectory of the two conflicts.

(Featured photo: A Chechen boy stands in the street during the battle for Grozny in 1995. Photo courtesy of Mikhail Evstafiev)

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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 Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: