Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 40

The attack on Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, on October 13 again demonstrated the unpredictability of the Chechen or, more accurately, Caucasian insurgency. When Chechen separatist leader Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev in May issued a decree establishing the Caucasian front, independent observers and Russian security officials alike attempted to determine where Shamil Basaev would strike next. Many believed that it would be Dagestan, the largest North Caucasian region. There was almost no reprieve in bombings and shootouts in the republic during the entire summer. At the beginning of the fall, law enforcement agencies increased their search operations in Dagestan, expecting that a major rebel attack was imminent. On October 10, just three days before the attack on Nalchik, a group of gunmen ambushed a police motorcade in the Dagestani mountain region of Untsukul. The ambush led the military to believe that the militants had gathered in the district in preparation for a large-scale attack. Russian troops were sent to comb the area. An official told Interfax on October 10 that it was possible that the air force would be used in the search operation.

The authorities also believed that a rebel offensive was possible in Chechnya. All mountain districts and forests in the valley area were bombed and shelled almost daily beginning in the end of the summer.

Yet the rebels attacked Nalchik and, even more surprisingly, no Chechens were among the attackers except Basaev himself. RIA Novosti on October 14 quoted a source in a law enforcement body of the Southern Federal District as saying that rebels from all over the North Caucasus had participated in the Nalchik attack. Shamil Basaev said in his statement published by Kavkazcenter website that commanders from the Ossetian and ethnic Russian-dominated Krasnodar Krai sectors of the rebel Caucasian front had taken part in the raid. A report by the Memorial human rights organization on the events in Nalchik stated that one resident of Ingushetia, two ethnic Russians and three Ossetians were found among the dead rebels. As for the others who were killed in action, Memorial said that all of them were local Balkars or Kabardinians, reported on October 20.

Despite the multi-ethnic structure of the rebel groups that took part in the Nalchik raid, there are no doubts that the Chechen separatists were behind the operation. Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev ordered the attack on the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria and Shamil Basaev organized and coordinated it. A short video film posted by Kavkazcenter showed a meeting of rebel commanders prior to the raid, which presumably took place in the mountains of Kabardino-Balkaria. One can see in the film that the commanders were sitting together with Basaev under the Chechen flag. Immediately after the raid, Akhmed Zakaev, the London-based Chechen rebel envoy, said that the attack on Nalchik was the first real success of the new policy to achieve Chechen independence from Russia.

The current Chechen policy of mobilizing other Caucasian nations in the struggle against Russia is not new. The Chechens have always tried to use this strategy to weaken the Russian offensive on Chechnya and strengthen their own forces. In 1785, Sheikh Mansur, the leader of the first organized rebellion of the Chechens against Russian domination in the region, marched with his forces to Kabarda to persuade the locals to join him and spread the anti-Russian revolt to the western part of the North Caucasus. In 1846, Imam Shamil, raided Kabarda to inspire an anti-Russian uprising. The attempts of both leaders failed, however, because only a fraction of the Kabardinians supported them. Imam Shamil as well as Sheikh Mansur had to bring their own armies to Kabarda, which could not resist the overwhelming Russian forces without sufficient support from locals.

In 1991, Dzhokhar Dudaev, the first president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, also tried to unite all Caucasians regions under separatist slogans. He formed the Confederation of the Caucasian Nations, which consisted of people from all the republics of the North Caucasus. The Confederation leadership declared that the organization would call upon the Caucasians to go to war with Russia in the case of a Russian invasion of Chechnya. Nevertheless, when the Russian troops occupied Chechnya in 1994, the Confederation could only manage to hold several anti-war rallies in Nalchik. The North Caucasus was not yet ready for the war: the local authorities and local elites had sufficient sovereignty and were busy with internal struggles for power and control over their economies.

After the start of the second Chechen military campaign in 1999, the rebel leaders devised another strategy toward the North Caucasus. Unlike Sheikh Mansur or Imam Shamil, the contemporary Chechen commanders did not send squadrons of Chechen militants to other regions, but instead welcomed volunteers who wanted to help the Chechens fight against Russian troops. People from Karachevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia and Dagestan went to the Chechen mountains, first in small numbers and then in larger groups. They were trained, gained combat experience and then returned to their homelands. Jamaats—underground rebel groups—were formed in all Caucasian regions.

Now, there is no longer any need for Basaev to deploy Chechen groups to attack outside of Chechnya. He can go individually to any of the neighboring republics and recruit as many local men as needed to conduct a large-scale operation. This ensures that Basaev does not have to divert his Chechen forces, which immobilize the best-trained Russian troops and who are stuck in a quagmire of endless guerilla war. The new tactic allows the insurgency to open new fronts without weakening their struggle in Chechnya itself. This is the worst scenario the Russian authorities could imagine.

The great respect for Basaev among many Caucasians is undeniable. Timir Gashaev, a young Chechen, told The Jamestown Foundation that as far back as two years ago, when he was in Kabardino-Balkaria, the locals who knew that he was a Chechen told him how they liked the famous warlord. “They called Basaev a real man and a real warrior,” Timir said.

While Chechen separatists want to spread the war throughout the Caucasus, it still begs the question of why locals in neighboring republics support such action. Observers cite different reasons, including unemployment, the influence of radical Islam, human rights violations by law-enforcement agencies, and the elimination of ethnic autonomies by Putin’s new law stipulating that the heads of the regional executive branches are to be appointed rather than elected.

Beyond all of this, however, the emergence of a Caucasian insurgency may have deeper roots. Putin’s hardline, suppressive policy in the region has awakened the historical memory of the locals. The Caucasian nations have recalled their old traditions of struggle against the Russian empire. The Chechen strategy is thus emboldened with the aid of the “wise” policy of the Kremlin.