Russia’s policy toward the Islamic State (IS) group in the Middle East is controversial. On the one hand, involvement in IS activities officially became a crime in Russia in February 2015 (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 27). On the other hand, Russia does not seem to have taken the appropriate steps to stem the outflow of volunteer fighters to the Middle East. Given the powers of the Russian state to control the movement of its citizens, there are few if any indications that the government is preventing people from going to the war torn region. A recent investigative report by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta states that beyond failing to create obstacles for Russian citizens seeking to go to Syria to fight, the Russian security services actually contribute to the outflow. “They regard as a threat only those who try to return from that war,” the newspaper wrote (Novaya Gazeta, July 29).
During his annual phone-in show on April 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that IS did not pose a direct threat to Russia, although the authorities were concerned about Russian and other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries’ citizens traveling to the Middle East and about the consequences of their potential return back to Russia. “I cannot say that we know them [the IS recruits] all by name, but we know their approximate number, where they fight, where they train,” Putin said. “Some of them we actually know by name and the security services are actively working on this issue” (Kremlin.ru, April 18).
It is unclear what the Russian security services are up to in the Middle Eastern conflict. It follows from the Novaya Gazeta report that some groups of militants in the Middle East, such as Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, have not even been outlawed by Russia. Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar is primarily made up of Chechens, Dagestanis and other people from CIS countries. Russian state agencies are notorious for scouring the Internet for extremist materials. Yet, much of the IS propaganda in Russian has been openly accessible, and the state agencies have shown little interest in this fact. The Russian authorities are known to put pressure on Muslims, but some preachers of IS ideology are operating quite openly and freely, which is quite unthinkable in contemporary Russia (Novaya Gazeta, July 29).
Thousands of people from Russia and other former Soviet states are believed to be fighting in the Middle East now. Some Russian experts have voiced concerns about a possible deterioration of the security situation in the North Caucasus after the militants start returning to the region. However, so far the situation in the region has actually become quieter, and there is a simple explanation for that. According to the well-known Russian expert on Islam, Aleksei Malashenko, officials from Dagestan traveled to Syria specifically to convince the Dagestani militants who are fighting there to stay in the Middle East and refrain from returning back home (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 13).
The Novaya Gazeta article also has extremely credible evidence of the new government policy designed to export Islamists from Russia to the Middle East. According to the newspaper, several leaders of the underground movement in the village of Novosasitl, in Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district, reached an agreement with the Federal Security Service (FSB), which allowed them to receive foreign passports and secure safe passage to Turkey and then on to Syria. Among them was the so-called amir of the Northern Sector of the Caucasus Emirate who, officially, is dead, but in reality, according to the report, went to Turkey. The Russian security services routinely offer “agent agreements” in exchange for safe passage to Syria, Novaya Gazeta writes. Instead of solving the pressing social issues that propelled the armed underground movement, such as corruption and the lack of social mobility and opportunity, the government in Dagestan has adopted a new strategy—exporting militants to the Middle East (Novaya Gazeta, July 29). The strategy is remarkably similar to the centuries-old Russian strategy in the Caucasus, when the Tsarist authorities promoted the mass emigration of the unwanted populations. Even the destination of such forced emigrations remains the same—Turkey and the Middle East.
By allowing and promoting the emigration of Islamists, Russian authorities achieve several aims. They clear the volatile North Caucasus of Islamists and reduce violence in the country. The export of militants to the Middle East also serves Russian foreign policy goals, most principally to cause as much volatility in the Middle East as possible in order to drive up oil prices. High oil prices are practically the only way for the current Russian regime to survive in the long run. What appears to be a widespread practice in Russia, “agent agreements” signed between the Russian security services and Islamist recruits amounts to the Russian state recruiting militants for militant organizations in the Middle East. This policy of creating problems for neighboring countries, while having an Islamic underground movement on Russia’s own territory, is likely to backfire sooner or later. Even though Russia temporarily “solves” its problem in the North Caucasus and creates headaches for others in the Middle East, this strategy is unlikely to lead to a long-term solution for either of these regions.