Moscow’s Action in Ingushetia About Far More Than Counterterrorism

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 36

(Source: RIA Novosti)

Executive Summary:

  • Moscow recently carried out a counterterrorism operation against what it describes as Islamist radicals in Ingushetia—the smallest, poorest, and arguably most restive republic not only in the North Caucasus but also in the Russian Federation.
  • The Kremlin took this step lest violence in the region call into question President Vladimir Putin’s claims to have pacified the North Caucasus and out of fears that such incidents will spread because of indigenous activists and their Ukrainian supporters.
  • Moscow’s latest move is likely to prove counterproductive and lead to precisely the opposite outcomes of what the Kremlin wants.  

On March 2 and 3, 150 Russian troops surrounded and killed six militants in Karabulak, Ingushetia, countering what the National Anti-Terrorism Committee said was “a group of fighters planning crimes in the direction of terrorism” (TASS, March 2).  Moscow’s counter-terrorist action in Ingushetia was about far more than countering Islamist penetration in the region, the justification Russian sources have given. First, it was intended to preserve Putin’s image during the election period as the Russian leader who pacified the North Caucasus. Second, it was carried out to block the spread of resistance to Moscow in Ingushetia more generally and across the entire North Caucasus. Third, it was designed to warn Ukraine and the West against actively supporting the independence movements inside the Russian Federation. Its significance has been underscored by the arrival of Nikolay Patrushev, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council, to Ingushetia for a closed-door meeting on national security issues in the North Caucasus. Moscow says the meeting had been long planned, but the sessions will now undoubtedly focus on the more significant threat the events earlier this month represent in the minds of Kremlin officials (TASS, March 7).  

In many respects, the latest Russian counter-terrorism action in Ingushetia resembles others that Moscow has claimed to have countered in the region over the last decade (Kavkaz Uzel, March 2). The previous occurrence was 11 months ago and limited to a few blocks within Karabulak, a city of some 30,000 people located 20 kilometers from the Ingush capital of Magas (Kavkaz Uzel, March 2). It involved the use of overwhelming Russian military force, which resulted in the widespread destruction of an apartment block where the militants were based (Golos Kavkaza, March 7). The operation was not designed to take hostages that might be interrogated but sought to kill all who resisted, like earlier Russian counter-terrorist actions (, March 7). Despite repeated statements about how the operation was limited, there were early signs that involvement with and support for the militants was to be found not only throughout Ingushetia but in neighboring republics and even further afield (RIA Novosti, March 4 [1], [2];, March 5; Kavkaz Uzel, March 5 [1], [2], 7;, March 6). 

In the wake of Russian action, there have been many suggestions that what Moscow is saying about Karabulak is untrue. Officials have now announced that anyone who does not simply accept official reports will be charged with spreading “fake” news (Kavkaz.Realii, March 3). Despite this, articles suggesting that Moscow is lying continue to appear, with the most judicious being from the independent-minded Ingushetia portal, Fortanga. The publication asks pointedly whether the activists the counter-terrorist operation liquidated were “international terrorists” or “Ingush separatists.” It argues that there are more than a few reasons to conclude that those the Russian forces killed were more likely the latter than the former. The online paper’s editors concede, however, that the dividing line between the two categories is anything but straightforward, given that both sides consist of Muslims and that the separatists have made clear that they favor moderate Islam as the guiding principle for the republic’s future  (, March 5).

There are compelling reasons for such a conclusion that reflect both recent Ingush history and the Kremlin’s obsession with the demonization of any group that challenges its rule. Ingushetia, the smallest Russian federal subject, seldom gets the attention that its larger neighbors of Chechnya and Daghestan do. Still, it has been among the most restive in recent years, not only because it has the country’s highest poverty and unemployment rates but because it has lost so much territory to its neighbors (Kavkaz Uzel, March 4). This occurred most recently to Chechnya in 2018, which sparked massive protests and international outcry, led to trials of activists that continue to cycle through Russian courts, and forced Moscow to boost the size of its military and police presence in the republic (Window on Eurasia, September 16). Perhaps the most important consequence of all this has been the radicalization of opinion among the Ingush, who in the past had sought only greater autonomy within Russia but now increasingly seek independence (Kavkaz.Realii, July 20, 2023).

That radicalization has sparked two developments that are clearly alarming Moscow. First, the Ingushetia Independence Movement declared it is pursuing a policy of independence based on moderate Islam and organized its own military arm toward that end (Window on Eurasia, February 2;, April 24, 2023,  April 26, 2023). Second, there is increasing support from Ukraine for its activities. The Verkhovna Rada voted to recognize the Ingush nation’s right to form an independent state, a step it took after earlier recognizing Chechnya-Ichkeria as a temporarily occupied land  (Idel.Realii, November 11, 2022; ABN Correspondence, February 23;, February 23). Ukrainian politicians, officials, and experts have declared that now is the best possible time for the peoples of the North Caucasus to pursue independence (FREEDOM, December 11, 2023, February 29, March 1). Additionally, Ingush, Ukrainian, and other national groups have actively celebrated what they see as the heroism of those killed by Russian forces in Karabulak at the beginning of March (ABN Correspondence, March 2, 3; Svobodny Idel’-Ural, March 3).

That the Karabulak counter-terrorism action is about far more than just Islamic militance is further underscored by Patrushev’s arrival in Ingushetia. The Russian Security Council secretary has been Moscow’s leader in pointing to what the Kremlin believes are Ukrainian and Western support for ethnic minorities inside the current borders of the Russian Federation (see EDM, January 18, 2023, August 10, 2023). He will likely deliver a message similar to this week’s meeting in Magas, and Patrushev may issue a new public diatribe against any outside involvement in the North Caucasus. Moscow’s reaction is unlikely to stop with words alone. Instead, it is likely to expand its effort to use Ukraine’s ethnic minorities against Kyiv and to play the ethnic card elsewhere as it is already doing with the Gagauz in Moldova (Ukrainska Pravda, March 6). To that extent, the events in Karabulak will echo far beyond the borders of Ingushetia or even the North Caucasus and require a response by those who support democracy and the right of nations to self-determination.