Nationalist-leaning Russian experts are expressing concern over the situation in the North Caucasus, demanding that Moscow use more force there. Against the backdrop of Russia’s aggressive moves in Ukraine, some Russian analysts wonder if the Kremlin will ever be as resolute in defending Russia’s interests in the North Caucasus as it is abroad.
Comparing Russia’s reaction to events in Ukraine and those in the North Caucasus, the chairman of the Stavropol region Public Chamber, Sergei Popov, said Russian pundits did not react in a proper manner following the April 3 bomb attack in Chechnya, which killed four Russian servicemen. Popov said State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin did not declare that the lives of compatriots were a priority, while Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist politician who serves as an unofficial Kremlin mouthpiece, did not condemn the perpetrators of the attack. Popov also said rights activists do not care about ethnic Russians killed in the Caucasus, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, in Popov’s words, “continues to insist that he will protect all Russians, Tatars, Chechens and Cossacks in Crimea and Ukraine” (https://stringer-news.com/publication.mhtml?Part=37&PubID=30835).
Popov concluded that the “life of a Russian man (Russky) apparently has different value in the North Caucasian Federal District and in Ukraine, depending on [his] political positions.” The expert lamented the disparity between the Russian government’s brazen moves in Ukraine in the name of protecting the rights of ethnic Russians and its inability to protect ethnic Russians on its own territory. Russian diplomatic successes and the government’s resolve in the European theater should be matched by actions in the North and South Caucasus, “where protecting the [ethnic] Russian population must become the essence of the government’s policy,” Popov declared, adding that the North Caucasus “arguably has greater importance to Russia than Crimea” (https://stringer-news.com/publication.mhtml?Part=37&PubID=30835).
As Russian nationalism reaches another apex, spurred by the annexation of Crimea and rising tensions in Ukraine, the nationalists are demanding that ethnic Russians inside Russia be given a status higher than other ethnic groups. This trend strikingly resembles what happened in Yugoslavia, when Slobodan Milosevic embraced Serbian nationalism in order to hold onto power and prevent the country from disintegrating. Russian nationalism has ceased to be the domain of petty politicians and organizations in the Russian Federation. Increasingly, Russian government officials proclaim defending the interests of ethnic Russians as the goal the state, similar to what the Milosevic government did regarding the Serbs. In his nationally broadcast speech to Russian parliament on March 18, Putin lamented that ethnic Russians had become “one of the biggest if not the biggest divided peoples in the world” following the demise of the Soviet Union and that Russians found themselves in a minority status (https://www.kremlin.ru/transcripts/20603).
Many Russians apparently feel that the Russian nation will rebound as a result of the annexation of Crimea and possible encroachment on other Ukrainian territories. The independent Levada Center found in polling conducted on March 21–24 that Russians on average have become more optimistic about the situation in the North Caucasus than previously. According to the Levada Center’s pollsters, this optimism is a short-term effect of Crimea’s annexation. In January of this year, only 18 percent of survey respondents described the situation in the North Caucasus as “favorable,” while in March the figure jumped to 41 percent. Whereas, the number of respondents who described the situation in the North Caucasus as “tense” plummeted from 60 percent to 43 percent (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/240984).
“There was a sharp surge of positive ratings of the actions of the government and the president, who also touched on the situation in the region,” the Levada Center’s Denis Volkov told the Kavkazsky Uzel website. “This rise in positive attitudes is also reflected in the attitudes toward the North Caucasus. A mobilization has taken place that is founded on the premise that the country is headed in the right direction.” The last time such a euphoric mood took hold was during the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, and it lasted about three or four months. This time, according to the experts, the euphoria is likely to last longer as it has stirred up the Russian public’s grievances about the breakup of the Soviet Union (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/240984).
Levada Center director Lev Gudkov, said that as Ukraine-related news has supplanted reports from the North Caucasus, many Russians have assumed that the situation in the North Caucasus has stabilized (https://ndelo.ru/politika-5/3057-lyubov-i-nenavist-v-protsentakh).
In an article titled “The Hated Caucasus,” Russian expert Anton Chablin tried to explain why xenophobia is on the rise in Russia. However, even renowned Russian experts often fail to provide plausible explanations and some, ironically, call for the government to provide a proper ideology to resolve this problem. North Caucasian activists also play along with Russian nationalism and make appealing, but meaningless, declarations about ethnic Russians being the “pillar” of the North Caucasus (https://kavpolit.com/articles/kavkaz_nenavidimyj-3639/).
The optimism of Russians about the situation in the North Caucasus in the wake of Russia’s meddling in Ukraine may also be linked to the hopes of Russians that the government will use the same methods of conflict resolution in the region as it did in Ukraine. Sergei Popov called on Moscow to support ethnic Russians in the North Caucasus because, in his words, “where there are no [ethnic] Russians, there is no Russia.” Not unlike Russia’s moves in Ukraine, Popov further suggested that the region’s administrative borders be redrawn, with the return to Stavropol region of Russian districts that were handed over to the North Caucasian republics under Khrushchev, and that the North Caucasian Federal District be “reformed” (https://stringer-news.com/publication.mhtml?Part=37&PubID=30835).
The Ukrainian crisis has triggered changes in how Russians view the North Caucasus and is likely to have profound implications for Russian policies in the North Caucasus. Russian nationalism may push Moscow either toward greater adventurism in the North Caucasus or an ultimate retreat from the region, depending on the outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.