Moscow Under Pressure to Make Decisive Moves in the Northwest Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 12 Issue: 5

On March 1, a blast destroyed the home of a suspect militant, Eduard Ulbashev, in Kabardino-Balkaria’s Chegem district.  One day earlier, on February 28, Ulbashev himself was killed in a shootout with the police.  Government forces reported that two explosive devices equal to 25 kilograms of TNT as well as other pieces of ammunition were found at the suspect militant’s house and the bombs went off as the police tried to defuse them. No one was hurt in the explosion (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 1).

As the security situation in once quiet Kabardino-Balkaria has dramatically deteriorated in recent months, the government response has offered few solutions. Following the killings of tourists from Moscow in Kabardino-Balkaria and other attacks in February, a counterterrorist operation regime was introduced in parts of Kabardino-Balkaria on February 22. Later, it was expanded to the capital Nalchik and other areas. Republican and federal officials have repeatedly stated and then retracted the claim that their tactics include punishing the relatives of suspected rebels. The latest destruction of a suspect rebel’s house may be a sign of the government’s new tactics to pressure insurgents and their relatives.

At the beginning of February, the head of Kabardino-Balkaria, Arsen Kanokov, stated in an interview that the republican authorities would learn from their Ingush, Chechen and Dagestan colleagues how to cope with an insurgency. “There are cases when [the militant] wanders in the forests, while his relative has a shop and trades in it. We will not, of course, burn their houses, as in Chechnya, but we will force them to answer for their relatives and children,” Kanokov said (www.kp.ru, February 2).

A previously unknown terrorist organization the Anti-Wahhabis-Black Hawks has threatened to take revenge on the insurgents and their families. On February 11, a two-part video statement was posted on YouTube in which a man in a mask, speaking in Russian with no easily detectable Kabardin or Balkar accent, promised to kill insurgents and advised their families to leave Kabardino-Balkaria. Trying to play the nationalist card, the masked man derided Kabardino-Balkaria’s militants, saying “there have been no Balkars or Circassians in history who subordinated themselves to Chechens” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9m3iegEs9Y). The rebels in Kabardino-Balkaria say they are part of the Caucasus Emirate led by Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov.

Later, on March 1, a representative of the Black Hawks’ gave an interview to the Russian TV channel REN-TV. The masked representative threatened that his group would not spare even the children of militants (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UN1QQpY0Y-0). Aleksandr Torshin, the first vice-speaker of Russia’s Federation Council and a member the Russian National Anti-terrorist Committee, revealed surprisingly deep knowledge and support for the Black Hawks.  Torshin said that the group was “a real force” made up of mostly young people who “want to live according to civilized laws, not according to radical religious Islamic rites.” Torshin said he did not believe the Black Hawks would kill children and said that the law enforcement authorities should not fight these “decent people,” but rather use them as informants against the insurgency (www.kbr-inform.ru, March 4).

The rebel website Kavkaz Center compared the masked image of the Black Hawks on REN-TV to a previous interview with a masked Russian security services officer and claimed they were identical (http://kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2011/03/05/79759.shtml). In addition, many local experts expressed skepticism that the Black Hawks is a spontaneously organized civil organization (www.regnum.ru, March 3). “The Black Hawks came about almost immediately after President Arsen Kanokov proposed creating self-defense groups to fight the extremists,” said Timur Tenov, a political scientist in Nalchik, in an interview. “So many people in Kabardino-Balkaria view them as sort of a special project” (Interfax, March 3).

Meanwhile, the rebels treated the threats against their families quite seriously and assumed the local government was behind these threats. In a special statement, they promised not to take revenge against the families of the ordinary policemen, but said that if the Black Hawks started to spill their relatives’ blood, they would go after the families of Arsen Kanokov and his administration in response (www.islamdin.com, February 27).

At a Russian National Antiterrorist Committee meeting in Vladikavkaz on February 22, Kanokov asked Moscow to create a special police unit to defend the republican government along with a separate military detachment to fight the rebels, which would be comprised of 500 local men (Interfax, February 22).

Conditions seem to be ripe for the start of a civil war in Kabardino-Balkaria, as Moscow appears to be running out of other options to retain control over this territory. The rebels apparently enjoy considerable support on the ground, which allows them to launch attacks and lose no fighters. At the same time, it is hard to see how the insurgency can translate its strength into political capital. There is no question that the Russian military could quell an open uprising in this small republic, with a population of 900,000. So the situation has reached the point of unstable parity between the government and the insurgency forces.

Given the current political climate in Moscow, which is manifestly opposed to making deep and thoughtful political reforms, and the rapidly expanding influence of the rebels in Kabardino-Balkaria, Russia is likely to face the dire choice between withdrawing from the republic altogether or opting for a low-intensity civil war. Since Moscow has somehow managed similar conflicts in several other North Caucasian republics, it must be tempted to head down the path of an escalated war in Kabardino-Balkaria as well. Yet, there are also serious reasons why Moscow will try to avoid this. One of them is the viability of the Olympic Games in the nearby Sochi in 2014, which could be severely affected by serious skirmishes in Kabardino-Balkaria. Another, more strategic factor is the question of how many unstable regions Russia can sustain simultaneously, which could militate against Moscow making further moves in the increasingly stable Northwest Caucasus.