“From Nationalism to Islamism: Separatism in Post-Soviet Chechnya”, my three-part series, has been condensed to a single article and is available below. Thank you for reading.
Preview: 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 Part One I present the foundation for the purpose of this work’s analysis: the evolution of modern separatism in Chechnya from nationalism to Islamism.
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.
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.
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 by 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.
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.
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.
The First Chechen War (1994-1996): Nationalism Erupts into War for Independence
The first war between Chechnya and the Russian Federation was protracted and especially bloody. Casualty estimates fluctuate wildly. Many estimates leave casualty numbers between 50,000 and 100,000 Chechen civilians and 17,300 Chechen militants/military killed. For its part, it’s estimated that Russia lost more than 5,700 military personnel and more than 150 civilians in the war. However, these numbers are disputed and the real number of deaths is difficult to assess.
The first Chechen war lasted more than 20 months and ended with a tenuous agreement between the Russian Federation and Chechnya. This agreement ostensibly granted the Chechens independence. The period between the first and second Chechen wars was a moderate victory for separatists. Chechen government officials administered the region with reduced influence from Moscow. Clashes between the two sides ceased.
Galeotti’s overview of the first Chechen war highlights the destruction that the conflict wreaked upon the region. In particular, Galeotti underlines the intensity of the outcome’s impact on both Russia and Chechnya. For Russia, the withdrawal of Russian military forces from the restive republic meant an internationally recognized defeat. The military had proven to lack capability and its readiness for such a mission to suppress separatism was viewed by others within the Russian Federation as an inspiration for insurrection. For Chechens, the victory represented the culmination of nearly two centuries of battle against domination by their northern Russian neighbors. The satisfaction of autonomy from Moscow, even if limited, was a boon to Chechnya’s nationalist character. Galeotti writes:
Post-Soviet Russia fought its first war – the First Chechen War – in 1994-96. In effect, it lost: a nation with a population of 147 million was forced to recognize the effective autonomy of Chechnya, a country one-hundredth its size and with less than one-hundredth of its people. A mix of brilliant guerrilla warfare and ruthless terrorism was able to humble Russia’s decaying remnants of the Soviet war machine. (Galeotti, Mark. Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994– 2009. Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994-2009. Osprey Publishing. 2014.)
Russian public opinion of the military action in Chechnya (which was largely unfavorable) eventually forced President Boris Yeltsin and the government in Moscow to agree to a ceasefire. On August 31, 1996 in neighboring Dagestan, the two belligerents signed the Khasav-Yurt Joint Declaration and Principles for Mutual Relations”. The Khasav-Yurt Agreement formed a foundation for cooperation in ending the conflict and establishing a structure of governance that led to more autonomy for Chechen leaders. However, the peace would be comparatively short-lived.
The origins of the modern conflict in Chechnya must be analyzed in context of recent history in order to thoroughly assess the catalysts for the two most recent wars. In particular, the wars of the 19th century and the deportations that calcified in the national identities of many North Caucasians through familial heritage are an extraordinarily strong driver of modern nationalism in Chechnya. As Moshe Gammer notes:
“…on 23 February 1944 all Daghestani Chechens were ‘deported’ to Central Asia together with their co-ethnics across the border.7 Thirteen years later, in 1957, the Chechens (like other ‘deported’ peoples) were ‘rehabilitated’ by Khrushchev and allowed to return to their homeland. Relations between the Chechens and the authorities in Makhachkala as well as with the other Daghestani nationalities, mainly the Avars, remained awkward. The Chechens harboured the feeling that the republican authorities did not make any effort to protect them from ‘deportation’ as the authorities did with regard to other, ‘core’ Daghestani nationalities. Indeed, in the glasnost years and after Chechens often bluntly accused the then republican party secretary (who was an Avar) of selling the Aki Chechens out in order to save others from ‘deportation’.” (Gammer, Moshe. “From the challenge of nationalism to the challenge of Islam: the case of Daghestan”. Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder. Taylor and Francis. 2007.)
The first war in Chechnya was a product of decades of administrative subordination by Russian dominated political apparatuses. As the Chechens were subjected to mass deportation and outright marginalization from the rungs of power in the Soviet Union, nationalism grew to a level that was unsustainable. Given the opportunity to reach for independence just as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, Chechen nationalists seized the moment. The resulting bloody war was a product of this period in time. Anatol Lieven makes special note of the environment at the time of the creation of the Russian Federation. The motivation for Chechens to pursue independence was clear in context of the eroding mechanisms by which the Soviets had ruled in the Soviet Union’s final years as well as the Russians who would dominate the political structure of the newly formed Russian Federation. This created an almost perfect storm for the emergence of Chechen separatism to the forefront of politics in the Caucasus:
“In the early 1990s, both the Russian central state and the Chechen state got much weaker; but both in fact were stronger than they appeared. The Chechen state was stronger because, as the event proved, it could in the last resort rely on the support of the great majority of its members in the face of outside attack. The Russian state was stronger than many thought because, with the sole exception of the Chechens, it did not face really determined ethnic secessionist movements from its federal elements. This was a key difference between the new Russian Federation and the old Soviet Union, and a key reason why the new Russia has endured even in the face of military defeat…” (Lieven, Anatol. “Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power.” Yale University Press. New Haven and London. 1998. 56.)
Carolotta Gall and Thomas de Waal summarize the tragedy of the first Chechen conflict by noting the failure of the negotiators to ensure a codified structure for a future Chechen state. They note that the failure of the politicians and officials to avoid war was due to both ignorance and a nationalized public:
“The tragedy of Chechnya is that the war could have been avoided and pride satisfied on both sides if the Chechens could have struck a deal with Moscow on ‘special status’ or a moratorium on independence in 1992 and 1993. The Chechens could have agreed to it even if they didn’t intend to observe it. Dudayev said several times that if he had had a face-to-face meeting with Yeltsin everything could have been sorted out. Possibly such a meeting would not have achieved anything. But more than 60,000 deaths later it would have been worth an attempt. While Moscow repeated the slogan of ‘territorial integrity’, Chechnya repeated the slogan of ‘independence’. The issue was really one of freedom and human rights of a long-oppressed people. Using the formulae ‘sovereignty’ or ‘self-determination’, there were plenty of possibilities for constructive compromise.” Gall, Carlotta and Thomas de Waal. “Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus”. New York University Press. New York and London. 1998. 370.)
The Second Chechen War: To Islamism
In September of 1999, a series of apartment bombings in Moscow killed nearly 300 Russians and injured 650. These bombings, together with the ongoing war in Dagestan (neighboring Chechnya to its east), effectively ignited the second war in Chechnya. As The Economist explains, the fundamental underpinning of the conflict was altered in a fundamental way in the interwar period that separated the first war in Chechnya from the second:
“The second war in 1999 began with an insurgence of Chechen rebels into Dagestan, with the aim of freeing their Muslim brothers from occupation by infidels. The Islamisation of the conflict opened up a fierce sectarian fight between Sufism, a traditional form of Islam based on local customs, and Salafism, a more radical form that promotes sharia law.” (“Islamists in Russia.”, The Economist, April 27, 2013)
At the time of the second outbreak of war in Chechnya, former Chechen separatist military leader Aslan Maskhadov had been elected to the office of president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the de facto independent Chechnya of the brief interwar period. Maskhadov had begun moving to avoid the co-opting of the nationalist-based Chechen separatist movement by Islamists, but with little success. In doing so, Maskhadov’s ruling nationalists had split with Shamil Basayev’s Islamist group. In an effort to placate the Islamists and avoid a split, Maskhadov agreed to install Sharia Law in February of 1999. It did little to sate the appetite of the Islamist guerilla militants for further action against Russian domination. During this time, there were several attempts on Maskhadov’s life, all assumed to be conducted by Russian intelligence services.
Basayev was instrumental in integrating Wahhabism into a Chechen conflict that prior to the second war had been largely characterized by nationalist sentiment. Basayev’s Salafist sponsors were a key component that changed the overarching character of the Chechen conflict from one based in nationalism to one firmly rooted in Islamist ideology and Salafism:
“The armed activity of the Salafis has been guided by the principles of jihad and was aimed at pursuing an alternative state-building project—the creation of an Islamic Caliphate in the Northern Caucasus based on fundamentalist values. Basayev, as a military strategist, quickly realized the organizational benefits of ‘Wahhabi’ structures and the efficiency of their mechanisms for generating support. In particular, by the summer of 1998 following his failure as Prime Minister and with his heroic image rapidly fading away, Basayev became increasingly involved in Salafi projects. Basayev was in good contacts with the Daghestani Islamist leaders and when the prosecution of salafis in Daghestan intensified he encouraged their migration to Chechnya. He then successfully employed Islam for his political ends in Chechnya, namely to compete with Maskhadov for power.” (Sokirianskaia, Ekaterina. “Ideology and conflict: Chechen political nationalism prior to, and during, ten years of war”. Chapter 7. Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder. Taylor and Francis. 2007.)
In 1999, Basayev and other Islamist leaders sought to incite a wider war against Russia. Moscow declared that the perpetrators of the apartment bombing were led by Saudi-born jihadist Ibn al-Khattab, a veteran of Afghanistan’s war against Soviet occupation. Al-Khattab was falsely reported killed on numerous occasions. Many of those false reports embolden al-Khattab and encouraged followers. However, al-Khattab was finally killed when Ibragim Alauri (a Dagestani courier who was working for al-Khattab) was sent by FSB officials to locate al-Khattab while carrying a letter laced with a nerve agent. The operation resulted in al-Khattab’s assassination in Dagestan. Maskhadov opposed the plan and advised against it. Basayev went ahead anyway and began incursions into Dagestan. The incursions into Dagestan, taken together with the apartment bombings, effectively ignited the second Chechen war. The second war raged for years and slowly the conflict evolved from one inspired by nationalism-based separatism to one based largely on Islamist ideology, pivoting around Islamist leaders such as Basayev.
After a short ceasefire with Russia in 2005, Maskhadov was targeted again by the Russian security services. In March, the Russian FSB raided a location, resulting in the death of Maskhadov. Following the operation, contradictory reports alternatively claimed that Maskhadov was the victim of inadvertent fire during the initial raid or was victim to fire from his own group. The official report by the FSB originally stated that they had intended to take Maskhadov alive. FSB reports state that the Chechen leader was killed during the raid by a grenade from Russian forces. Other reports assert that Maskhadov’s nephew had shot his uncle while carrying out a prior agreement between the two to kill Maskhadov if there were ever a chance the Russians would take him alive.
Basayev later tracked down Alauri, the courier that had assassinated al-Khattab. Alauri was found in Azerbaijan and was killed on the orders of Basayev. Basayev himself went on to continue fighting, later becoming known for conducting the 2004 attack on a school in Beslan, North Ossetia (also located in the North Caucasus), which killed more than 350 children. Basayev was killed in a massive (and curious) explosion in neighboring Ingushetia near its border with North Ossetia. According to The Long War Journal, the detonation of the device that felled the Chechen militant leader was assessed to have been the result of an accident. However, many theories also point to an assassination plot carried out by Russian intelligence services and the true cause of Basayev’s death remains one of debate among many Chechens. The second Chechen war officially carried on through multiple iterations, lasting until 2009 when the FSB officially declared the end of operations in support of anti-terrorism. However, Ramzan Kadyrov’s rule steadily wore through separatism in Chechnya and militants were relegated to short and intense bursts of attacks on infrastructure and population centers.
While many theories exist as to whether the apartment bombings that essentially catalyzed the second war in Chechnya were conducted by North Caucasus-based Islamist militants or Russian security services (most theories revolve around the FSB, led at the time by Director Vladimir Putin), what followed was another decade of war in the North Caucasus. Many analysts assert that the rise of Putin can be directly attributed to the attack and his later authoritative posturing on the crisis. The rise of Putin would ultimately lead directly to the rule of Ramzan Kadyrov.
The Rise of Ramzan Kadyrov
On February 15, 2007 Russian President Putin officially removed then Chechen President Alu Alkhanov, replacing him with Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, then having just turned 30 years old. The move was entirely expected, delayed only by Kadyrov’s age. By installing the son of the assassinated former President Akhmad Kadyrov, Putin placed an influential and brutal leader in the presidency of a region that was still reeling with separatist violence and a growing Islamist influence in the insurgency still wracking the region. The move would prove to be a decision that would pay dividends for stability for the remainder of the second war in Chechnya and beyond. Again Galeotti writes of the impact of the Kadyrov family:
“Akhmad and more especially Ramzan Kadyrov have been crucial instruments of Putin’s success in Chechnya. By installing a Chechen government – and two presidents who fought against the Russians in the First Chechen War – Moscow can claim a degree of legitimacy, even if international assessments are that the elections held to elevate both Kadyrovs were neither free nor fair. More to the point, by ‘Chechenizing’ the war and passing the bulk of the mopping-up operations to local forces, the Kremlin could minimize Russian casualties and get round the evident problems with the fitness, training and morale of many of its own troops. The Kadyrovtsy and similar Chechen forces, drawn largely from ex-rebels, knew the land and their enemies’ tactics and hideouts. They also provided an escape valve, a means whereby rebels (and especially those of the old-school nationalist variety) who had tired of the struggle or who were disenchanted by the slide towards terrorism and jihadism could defect with safety and honour.” (Galeotti, Mark. Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994– 2009. Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994-2009. Osprey Publishing. 2014.)
Kadyrov’s rise to lead Chechnya in the wake of the launching of the second Chechen war was meteoric. Having switched sides with his father and the Kadyrov clan at the outset of the second war, Kadyrov was well-positioned to eventually impact the conflict in a way that far exceeded any Chechen leader, separatist or Russian-aligned, in the post Soviet period.
Kadyrov has taken on the issue of Chechen separatism with a particularly fervent animosity for the militants battling against Russian rule. Throughout the period of both his time as prime minister as well as president, Kadyrov and his government have been the subject of accusations of egregious human rights abuses. A rebel who fought the Russian government in the first Chechen war, Kadyrov switched sides (along with his father) at the outset of the second Chechen war. Following his father’s lead, Ramzan quickly rose to the position of prime minister following then-Prime Minister Sergei Abramov’s car accident in late 2005. In an effort to co-opt the surging initiative and popular support of the growing Islamism-based insurgency during the second Chechen war, Kadyrov installed Sharia law and largely sought to undermine the claims of the Islamist opposition to the moral high ground in the second war. Chechnya has remained under Sharia law ever since.
By the time of his appointment as the head of Chechnya, Kadyrov had become very influential even outside of Chechnya within the Russian Federation. That influence has carried over to today. Comparatively, there are few leaders today in Russia that can lay claim to a similar level of regional power. Throughout his rule, Kadyrov has been characterized by his critics as an organized criminal leader running a region in the Federation. Other critics go further to accuse him of running Chechnya as a criminal state within a state. Kadyrov is also a very capable political leader who has repeatedly reinforced the notion that his ultimate loyalty is to Putin himself. As a result, Putin has given Kadyrov wide latitude by which to exert his authority over Chechnya. The payoff for Putin remains the subjugation of an insurgency and separatist movement in a region of extraordinarily important geopolitical consequence for Moscow.
Throughout Kadyrov’s reign as leader of Chechnya has been accusations that the leader is involved in or has ordered the assassinations of journalists, human rights leaders, dissidents, and political opposition have been leveled consistently by his opponents and adversaries. More recently, Kadyrov has been the subject of accusations of involvement in the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on February 27, 2015. The intrigue that followed the assassination of Nemtsov was made more curious by the 10-day media hiatus of Putin that followed and the arrest of five ethnic Chechens. The detained Chechen suspects include Zaur Dadayev, a former deputy commander of the Sever (North) Chechen battalion. Russian authorities claimed to have conducted forensic analysis confirmed that Dudayev had been the assassin who murdered Nemtsov. Dayev’s original statement of responsibility further clouded the investigation. However, Dadayev has since retracted that statement.
These curiosities add context to the importance of Ramzan Kadyrov’s leadership in Chechnya and his ability to suppress separatism in the region. For Moscow, Kadyrov’s ongoing effort to mitigate rising insurrectionist sentiment among the Chechens is an essential part of Russia’s strategy to ensure their dominance of the region. The North Caucasus remains a vital area for Russian strategists for several reasons, among these energy resources in the Caspian Sea and the historical trend of destabilizing separatism in Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan.
The two Chechen wars fought by Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union are an important historical benchmark for Moscow. Any separatism rising from the North Caucasus would have far-reaching consequences for a Russian regime that aspires to a return to great power status. To understand why separatism in Chechnya poses such a great threat to the security of the Russian Federation, one must understand the evolution of the most recent Chechen separatist movement from one based in nationalism to one that is dominated by Islamism and international sponsorship.
What explains the evolution of the conflict in Chechnya from one largely motivated by nationalism borne of perceived historical injustices, domination by foreign powers, and external influence most recently by the Russian-dominated Soviet Union to one where recruits fighting on behalf of separatism and independence are motivated more by a sense of religious duty? At its core, has the nationalism that defined the early post-Soviet separatist movement been replaced by fundamentalist Wahhabism imported from places such as Saudi Arabia? Maxim Barbashin explores the idea that ethno-social factors dominate the insurgency:
Is the Chechen conflict ethno-cultural? There can be no doubt in it. Russians and Chechens (I mean those Chechens who have not gone through the modernization processes pressed by the Soviet authorities), hold different cultural norms and archetypes. Is this conflict ethno-economic? Of course it is. The expression about the contradictory interests with regard to Chechen oil and the Caspian oil pipeline has already become an axiom. The same can be said about any conflict—religious, territorial, status, irredentist, etc. (Barbashin, Maxim U. “Informal power structures in Russia and ethno-political conflict in the Northern Caucasus”. Chapter 1. Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder. Taylor and Francis. 2007.)
What exactly accounts for the new Islamist separatism in Chechnya? Among the most important external forces that significantly altered both the character and the motivation of the insurgency leadership in the lead-up to the second Chechen war were international Islamist actors. These Islamist forces, dominated largely by Wahhabist ideology and represented by leaders such as Basayev and al-Khattab, would prove to be the underpinning and foundational mechanism that defined the Chechen separatist campaign in the second Chechen war.
The co-opting of the Kadyrov clan at the outset of the second Chechen war would prove to be instrumental in Russia’s ability to fracture and subdue separatist forces in Chechnya. While some analysts have assessed that the nationalists were marginalized from power through incompetent management of the interwar period governing structures, a more detailed analysis drives this point home further. As the incompetence of the Chechen government grew during the interwar period, funding streams that supported the nationalists who won a hard fought victory against the Russian military in the first Chechen war slowly dried up or were re-directed towards Islamist factions. This incompetence eroded the sense of trust that the Chechen populace had in their nascent government. This erosion opened a gap for international groups to fill. These international groups, sustaining deep funding and logistical relationships, aptly filled the vacuum that was left by the inability of the nationalists to govern in the wake of the victory over the Russian military.
The Wahhabists that eventually would come to dominate the separatist movement were international in both scope and character. The goal of the original separatists that emerged in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union was based in the establishment of an independent Chechen state. However, by 1999 the government was reeling from lack of sources of income. No real industry or energy resource management existed to produce income for the de facto Chechen state. As the Chechen population grew restless with high unemployment, the Islamists came to fill the gap. The motivations of the Islamist groups that would comprise the foundation of the newly evolved insurgency were international.
Ibn al-Khattab represented the international reach of the Chechen insurgency in the second conflict. Al-Khattab was born in Saudi Arabia and took on the cause of the Chechen separatists in the North Caucasus. Carlotta Gall, writing for the New York Times in 1999, described al-Khattab as Saudi-born and 30 years old. Gall goes on to state that while al-Khattab denies involvement in the Dagestan apartment bombings that came to symbolize (in many ways) the catalyst for the second Chechen war, he spoke of his ferocious animosity towards the Russian government and military. In particular, what is especially noteworthy in Gall’s article is the mention of al-Khattab’s relationship with fellow Islamist Chechen separatist leader Shamil Basayev:
“Khattab denies any connections with the explosions in Russia. But he never misses an opportunity to pledge to fight Russia, and to help Muslims separate from Moscow in the republics of the North Caucasus — including Chechnya, where there is strong sentiment for independence, and Dagestan, where it is much weaker.
In a rare interview in the Chechen capital, Grozny, Khattab said his only aim was to help free his fellow Muslims from Russian rule. Since his arrival in the Caucasus in 1995, he has trained scores of young fighters in guerrilla warfare, and in particular in the art of mountain ambushes. During Russia’s 1994-96 war against Chechens seeking independence, his units were widely credited with conducting two ambushes on Russian columns that killed as many as 100 soldiers each.
After that war ended in an uneasy truce in 1996, with Chechnya’s status left in limbo until 2001, Khattab did not abandon the battlefield. Last year he led an attack on a Russian brigade based in Dagestan, which had been accused of committing atrocities against Chechens during the 1994-96 war.
In August, Khattab linked up with the Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev for more strikes into Dagestan, provoking Russia first into bombing what it said were guerrilla bases in Chechnya, and then into sending its forces in.” (Gall, The New York Times, October 17, 1999)
In many ways, al-Khattab was responsible for adjusting the separatist conflict from one dominated by fighters from the North Caucasus to one of international jihad. Al-Khattab, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation forces during the 1980s, first entered Chechnya in 1995. His participation in setting off the second war was documented by Moshe Gammer:
“At the beginning of August 1999 a large number of Chechen and other foreign (i.e. non-Daghestani) ‘Wahhabis’ commanded by Shamil Basayev and Emir Khattab invaded the villages of Ansalta, Rakhata and Echeda in the Tsumada raion in the Western, mountainous part of Daghestan.” (Gammer, Moshe. “From the challenge of nationalism to the challenge of Islam: the case of Daghestan”. Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder. Taylor and Francis. 2007.)
What followed al-Khattab was an adjustment of the character and composition of the insurgency. Non-Chechens would arrive to serve under the command of al-Khattab, battling the Russian military for control of Chechnya. However, the ultimate goal of the group would alter the fundamental purpose of the Chechen separatist campaign itself. The creation of the Caucasus Emirate permanently changed the entire character of the separatist movement. Instead of the driving inspiration being one of a nationalist motivation to establish an independent Chechen state free from the control of Moscow, the campaign became one based in religious fundamentalism and conjoined to an international movement to establish a pan-Caucasus caliphate. The introduction of this strain of fundamentalism was most urgently observable in the Wahhabist influence in the conflict. The introduction of the Caucasus Emirate had great impact upon the Chechen separatist movement, diffusing the previous power structure and introducing Islamist control:
Chechen militant leaders such as Shamil Basayev — who claimed responsibility for the attack that killed pro-Russian Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov and the Beslan school siege, both in 2004 — was killed by Russian forces in 2006. Before Basayev, Ibn Al-Khattab, who was widely suspected of being responsible for the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia, was killed by the Russian Federal Security Service in 2002. The deaths of Basayev, Khattab and many others like them have fractured the militant movement in the Caucasus, but may also have prompted its remnants to join up under the Caucasus Emirate umbrella. (“The Caucasus Emirate.” Stratfor Global Intelligence. April 15, 2010)
The impact that the rise of the Caucasus Emirate had on the relationship between Chechens and the separatist movement is unknown. However, with the death of Doku Umarov in 2014 and the domination of the Kadyrov government, separatism in Chechnya has been relegated to battling for the attention. On December 4, 2014 militants of the Caucasus Emirate launched their most audacious attack in recent years, attacking strategic locations in the Chechnya capital, Grozny, and leaving dozens dead.
Kadyrov’s grip on power and his ability to quell dissent and maintain stability in Chechnya has resulted in increased support from the Putin regime. This support, largely financial and rhetorical, has resulted in Kadyrov’s near total domination over every sector of Chechen society. As such, the separatist movement has been impacted greatly by Kadyrov’s clannish control of the region and the reinforcing component of Russian support for his continued rule.
Geopolitical interests have conflated in the region more recently. For Moscow, maintaining stability (and control) of Chechnya is paramount. With energy resources, Islamist violence, and nationalism conflating in the region, in many ways Chechnya acts as a fulcrum for both stability and wider insurrection in the Caucasus. As Chechnya goes, so go Dagestan, Ingushetia, and the wider North Caucasus. In this respect, Russian interest in keeping the violence manageable and a controlling mechanism in place serve to ensure that Russian dominance over the North Caucasus and its influence over the South Caucasus are not eroded by either a catalyzing event such as those which occurred in 1999, or the steady erosion of Russian control as occurred throughout the later years of the of the Soviet Union.
Signs of separatism returning to Chechnya have been clouded by intrigue surrounding the relationship of Ramzan Kadyrov and the Russian security services have emerged in recent months, particularly in the wake of the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Kadyrov has recently strengthened his personal security forces. The relationship between Kadyrov and the Russian intelligence services in particular has elicited raised eyebrows and curiosities from around the world. In the wake of the Nemtsov murder, Russian news media have floated reports that Kadyrov himself ordered the assassination. Kadyrov has responded by stating his willingness to testify in the murder inquiry. The future of Chechnya’s separatist movement may revolve around Kadyrov’s relationship with the Kremlin, in particular with President Putin. Kadyrov continually heaps effusive praise on the Russian leader and reinforces his loyalty to Putin personally. Given Kadyrov’s poor relationship with many officials in Moscow, Putin’s removal as president of the Russian Federation would almost certainly catalyze a fracture and rift between the Chechen leader and Moscow. The result could be a renewal or reinvigoration of the Chechen separatist movement.
(Featured photo: A Chechen fighter runs past a burnt Russian armoured personnel vehicle (BMP-2) during the battle for Grozny during the first Chechen war in 1995. Photo courtesy of Mikhail Evstafiev.)
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