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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Migrating violence in the Caucasus

On Monday, two car bombs rocked Makhachkala, the capital of the Republic of Dagestan. A part of the Russian Federation and nestled against the Caspian Sea just north of Azerbaijan, Dagestan has struggled for years with violence stemming from the insurgency in neighboring Chechnya. What is going on?

In one sense, this most recent bombing matters very little. Small gun fights with separatists or the occasional car bomb is a depressingly regular occurrence in Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and North Ossetia (the four most violence-prone Republics of the Russian Caucasus). Despite the undeniable tragedy, a lot of residents in these Republics have become accustomed to the idea of random violence.

But in another sense, it matters a great deal. Just a few hundred miles west, in Krasnodar Kray, along the Black Sea, lies Sochi, the city hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. When the International Olympic Committee narrowly awarded the city the Olympics in 2007, many analysts wondered if the roiling violence in the rest of the North Caucasus would affect the city’s readiness for the games.

Sochi is pretty famous as an all-year resort town, with sunny beaches in the summer and snowy mountains in the winter. Its current problems relate more to Russian-ness than geography, like the typical corruption issues one expects in any high-dollar Russian project. Despite bordering the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, which was involved in Russia’s 2008 war in Georgia, Sochi and the Krasnodar region are not known for the Islamist insurgency the other Caucasian Republics are known for. Yet.

Right now, the Caucasus’ trouble spots are further east. Dagestan hasn’t had it as rough as Chechnya. The Russian army did not stage two separate, brutal offensives into its cities. Makhachkala has never faced the same devastation as Grozny, the Chechen capital declared by the United Nations in 2003 as the most destroyed city on Earth (a distinction repeated by Andrew Meier, who, in his haunting 2005 portrait of Russia, “Black Earth,” says Grozny’s fall was worse than Kabul’s, since it had so much farther to fall). But Dagestan has been the center of an increasingly violent explosion of violence in recent years.

Part of that explosion is because of Chechnya. Russia cleverly installed Ramzan Kadyrov — a former militia leader in the Second Chechen War who switched sides to fight for Moscow in 1999 — as president of the region in 2007. Since then, incidents of violence within Chechnya itself have leveled off — only to migrate east to Dagestan and west to Ingushetia and North Ossetia. The violence was pushed out of one Russian republic, making its neighbors worse off.

The conflicts in the North Caucasus all involve, to one degree or another, Muslim separatists wishing for a separate, Muslim state, who violently resist Russian rule. In Dagestan, militants linked to al-Qaida have been killed in shootouts with police. They routinely attack police and governors, and other government officials, and kill a small but steady number of people every year through gunfire, grenades and improvised explosives.

In a lot of ways, Russia has been lucky. They have suffered some spectacular attacks by Caucasian militants — the 2002 Moscow theater crisis, the 2004 Beslan School massacre, the recent double-bombings on the Moscow Metro — but al-Qaida’s involvement has been limited to helping Caucasian militants establish an Islamic state. They are strictly focused on Caucasian problems, in other words. Moscow is their enemy, not some diaphanous idea of the decadent West, and not the international community. There is very little evidence that militants from Chechnya or Dagestan travel to other al-Qaida fights, such as Afghanistan or Yemen. Most Chechen militants, who remain major figures in Caucasian resistance movements, are primarily concerned with Russia, not any sort of global jihad movement.

The challenge in Dagestan, however, is what comes next. The Russian security services have struggled with containing the violence in the region, seeing limited success in the installation of Kadyrov in Chechnya but very little elsewhere. It’s an endemic problem. On Friday, officials in Dagestan announced their intention to form tribal militias to combat the militancy. Rizvan Kurbanov, Dagestan’s first deputy prime minister, has described the creation of “ethnic” brigades “to maintain order in the areas where the militants were highly active.” These ethnic battalions will be more effective, Kurbanov continued, because “they know all the roads in the mountains and can tell the difference between traditional Islam believers and the extremists even by their appearance.”

Political scientist Jason Lyall, who teaches at Yale, noted earlier this year that in Chechnya, these units are generally successful … and incredibly brutal. These ethnic “battalions,” Lyall said, have cut “a wide swatch of fear and intimidation among the general public through forced disappearances, targeted home burnings and extrajudicial killings.” Worse still, the peace they secured in Chechnya is “fragile,” in his words, punctuated by the resurgence of suicide bombings, and spurring resentment among the people who are brutalized. These militias, commanded, ultimately, by Kadyrov, have pushed the militants into Dagestan. Once similar militias are created in Dagestan, where else will the violence spread? Will militants strike out next at Sochi in an attempt to force the Russian government to deal with their demands for independence?

There doesn’t seem to be a plan to deal with how militancy and the Caucasian insurgency operates. If the last 20 years of grinding, appalling conflict in the region has taught us any lessons, it is that severe brutality is no guarantee of victory — at least without a political solution. While the new plan to address the spilled-over militancy in Dagestan has a successful precedent in Chechnya, none of the republics there show any indication that their leadership is interested in political solutions. Kadyrov’s presidency of Chechnya is faltering, and both Dagestan and Ingushetia haven’t seen the same kind of aggressive security campaign to secure their cities. Since the Chechnya solution did little more than shift the militancy from one small region to several, much bigger regions, it’s difficult to imagine how the current policies — seemingly repeating the same ideas over and over again — stand much chance of fundamentally altering the conflict.

Russia is running out of time. Any sort of plan to address deep-seated insurgencies like the one in the Caucasus takes years to implement and succeed. The Olympics are only four years away. Given recent history, the new plan to calm Dagestan will most likely shift the militants yet again, though no one knows where they might go next. They could remain nearby, in Ingushetia and North Ossetia. There is an outside chance they could flee south, to Georgia’s unhappy breakaway northern provinces. But most worrying of all, they could flee west, taking up residence in Krasodar Kray, and focus on disrupting the Olympics. Russia is surely aware of this, but so far they haven’t indicated they have a plan to deal with it. And no one knows if they will by the time the torch is lit, four years from now.