On September 28 in Khasavyurt, Dagestan, Interior Ministry Major-General Viktor Knyazhev announced that a temporary contingent of the ministry’s Internal Troops had been deployed to Dagestan. The general stated the purpose of the deployment was to help the local law enforcement agencies to stabilize the situation in the republic and provide public safety for the period of the electoral campaign in the run up to municipal elections on October 10. The exact number of additional troops is unknown, but bloggers reported that dozens of tanks, armored personnel carriers and trucks had arrived in the republic. The general said that Dagestan had been divided into five operative zones that were fully covered by the Interior Ministry units. Knyazhev promised there would be additional checkpoints and that the military would operate only with the consent of the local authorities and the police (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, September 29).
The official announcement confirmed multiple earlier reports by Dagestani bloggers about the massing of Russian troops in the republic. Some observers explain the increasing military presence in Dagestan due to the coming elections, but others say the move is much more far-reaching, as it paves way for imposing a counter-terrorism operation in the republic. Over 1,000 municipalities are due to hold elections on October 10 in Dagestan, prompting President of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedov, to reportedly ask Moscow to send in more troops to stabilize the situation in the republic (Kommersant-Daily, October 2).
There is oblique evidence that points to Moscow’s strategy going beyond simply providing a safe environment for the local elections. First of all, the present Russian leadership has repeatedly indicated its disregard for popular elections as such, curbing their importance in public life and undermining their credibility throughout the Russian Federation. So it is hard to see why Moscow would suddenly start caring about municipal elections in Dagestan.
Secondly, earlier in September, when the mothers of conscripted Russian soldiers in St. Petersburg protested their sons being sent to the North Caucasus in large numbers, they were given the explanation that the troops were sent to Dagestan to ensure the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games are held properly (www.bbc.co.uk, September 22). This indicates that Moscow is generally concerned about the insurgency’s activities in the North Caucasus and its potential to severely disrupt or even prevent the Sochi Olympic Games from taking place.
It should be noted, however, that elections in Dagestan still matter, unlike in many other parts of Russia, and there were unconfirmed reports about a possible takeover of the municipal governments in the republic by the Islamists. So the fresh military surge may be designed to influence the elections and ensure the elected officials are sufficiently secular and loyal to the authorities in Moscow.
The government forces’ activities in Dagestan surged most obviously in September, when they started killing large groups of suspected insurgents. The government appears to have chosen to increase the scale of its punitive actions consciously and unilaterally, since the insurgents have not changed their “normal” way of doing things. A deliberate expansion of reprisals against the insurgent suspects may seem counterintuitive, as it is likely to provoke a further increase in the insurgency’s activities. During a police operation in Makhachkala on October 2, four suspected insurgents were killed, two of them women, clearly showing the growing intensity of the actions by government forces (Interfax, October 2). However, the Russian military command probably finds it easier to fight larger insurgent forces instead of dealing with separate small insurgent groups. So by applying greater pressure on the rebel underground, they hope to provoke a bigger response from the insurgents that would reveal more of them and make them vulnerable to the overwhelming military strength of the Russian forces.
Previously, Moscow decided to replicate its Chechen experience by creating locally manned military units in Dagestan. A special Interior Ministry unit is currently being set up in the republic near the capital, Makhachkala. It will be manned with 750 soldiers and officers, most of them recruited locally. The new unit will be made up of three battalions, two of which will respectively be stationed in the north and the south of the republic. It is not yet known whether the newly created Russian Interior Ministry units will accept amnestied former insurgents, as did the analogous units in Chechnya (Kommersant-Daily, September 25).
The chairman of the Dagestani independent law enforcement unions, Magomed Shamilov, welcomed the creation of a special Interior Ministry unit to fight the insurgency. Shamilov said his hope was that the policemen would cease being involved in essentially combat operations in order to prevent them from becoming targets of the insurgents. At the same time, he said he would prefer this unit to be staffed with non-Dagestanis, reasoning that “Dagestanis should not kill each other” (Kommerstant-Daily, September 25).
Meanwhile, during a visit to Dagestan on September 22, Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Aleksandr Khloponin, addressed Dagestani officials, telling them: “Stop grumbling and explaining that terrorism obstructs you. You should start doing something yourselves” (Kommersant-Daily, September 23). Thus Khloponin indicated that he was disillusioned by the incompetence of the existing local government in Dagestan, which Moscow itself installed and has continually propped up.
The latest developments in Dagestan show that Moscow, as before, is relying on brute force and terror to govern this increasingly volatile region. The mounting Russian military presence in Dagestan will most likely result in an escalation of violence. Moreover, if the troops become actively engaged in combat operations and become more visible in Dagestani streets, larger segments of the Dagestani population may become antagonistic towards Moscow.