North Caucasus Descending Into Violence, Further Eroding Putin’s Image as Strongman

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 57

(Source: The Times)

Russian President Vladimir Putin rose to power by means of successfully carrying out a war against Chechnya. Much of his reputation to this day rests on the view of many Russians that he has suppressed secessionist violence in the North Caucasus. This view has gained support over the past decade due to the radical decline in the number of violent attacks on government officials in the region, a fall-off in the number of casualties among both the siloviki and the population, as well as a sharp reduction in the number of counterterrorist operations the authorities have had to launch. Overall, some of the most troubled republics have experienced little or no violence in the past year, only a handful of casualties and no counterterrorist actions since 2020, or even 2019. (For detailed statistics on the sharp decline in all three measures over the past decade, and especially over the past three years, see Kavkaz-uzel, February 24, April 3.)

All these statistics now pale in comparison with the number of North Caucasians who have died in Putin’s war against Ukraine and are now being returned home for burial (Kavkaz-uzel, February 24). Moreover, in the past ten days, the region has seen a significant upsurge in violence, raising new questions about whether Putin has indeed achieved victory over the opposition there and even about whether the Russian siloviki and their local allies have the capacity to keep things quiet and hold the Russian Federation together.

Meanwhile, suspicions are growing that the upbeat statistics offered by Moscow may not be accurate and that, in fact, the North Caucasus has not been pacified. Instead, some observers are suggesting that what used to be called “terrorism” or “extremism” is now being counted only as ordinary crimes—though that is not an accurate description (, April 2;, April 3).

Such developments will create new and more widespread challenges to Moscow’s rule across the North Caucasus and further undermine Putin’s reputation, especially given his failure to gain a rapid victory in Ukraine. Indeed, it is quite likely that what is now happening in the North Caucasus is directly related to the situation in Ukraine, given the influx of bodies and weapons into the region, the drawing down in the number of Russian siloviki in the North Caucasus to beef up forces in Ukraine and the apparent sense among some in the region that the war in Ukraine has demonstrated that Russian forces are not invincible nor quite as adept as Putin and others have claimed. As a result, it is certain that judgments about Ukraine will affect and be affected by judgments about the North Caucasus—both among pro-Moscow Russians and anti-Moscow forces in the region.

Since the region had been relatively quiet in recent months, the two recent outbursts of violence—an Ingush attack on a Russian guard post at the republic’s border with North Ossetia and a skirmish between pro- and anti-Kadyrov Chechens in Gudermes (Kavkaz.Realii, January 5;, April 4; Kavkaz-uzel, April 5)—have sparked alarm. In the words of the Kazkaz.Realii outlet, worries are growing that “in the North Caucasus, people are shooting again” (Kavkaz.Realii, April 1), though the actual number of attacks is still small and the number of casualties, three dead and two wounded, still low (Kavkaz-uzel, April 4). Even so, there is little doubt that the problem is deeper and broader than that, with reports surfacing this week about the discovery of underground arms depots and the revival of court cases against those involved in earlier violent attacks on Russian forces in the region (Kavkaz-uzel, April 1, 4, 4).

Perhaps most important, however, two veterans of the Russian siloviki, Amir Kolov and Sergey Goncharov, are sounding the alarm that the Russian siloviki are now “unprepared” to deal with serious clashes—a judgment almost certainly shared by the local population and likely to lead to the revival of violence throughout the region (Kavkaz-uzel, April 4). Kolov argues that the fact the siloviki were not able to apprehend the terrorists who attacked the guard post but instead allowed them to flee and finally declared a counterterrorist operation only several days later shows that Russian forces were caught flat-footed. That sense has only been exacerbated, he and Goncharov say, due to the lack of information provided by the siloviki. Typically, these forces want to trumpet their successes; yet, when they do not have any to celebrate, they tend to keep quiet.

Additionally, both Kolov and Goncharov stress that these attacks should not have happened and would not have had the siloviki been conducting adequate intelligence operations. But clearly, Russian forces, at present, have been unable to penetrate anti-Moscow groups and thus are unaware of these groups’ plans (Kavkaz-uzel, April 4). Both experts blame this on the departure of experienced siloviki from the region, with many likely sent to fight in Ukraine, and on the fact that those who remain have been lulled into a false sense of security. They also suggest that the siloviki are not receiving the cooperation and support from officials in the North Caucasus republics necessary to do their jobs properly. Without that, Kolov and Goncharov stipulate, it is almost impossible for the siloviki to stay ahead of those who want to attack them.

Moreover, it is not only local officials who are not cooperating with the siloviki, the two Russian experts add. The populations in the North Caucasus republics are growing increasingly hostile as well. One Ingush social activist, speaking anonymously, told Kavkaz-Uzel that his nation has had too much experience with the siloviki acting as if they can do anything and arrest anyone. When the violence subsided earlier, fewer cases of such abuse occurred, the activist continues. But now that violence is on the rise again, it is entirely possible that more such abuses and more alienation will happen among the region’s populations (Kavkaz-uzel, April 4).

Obviously, the two cases of violence over the past ten days do not mean that the North Caucasus is about to return to the violent realities of two decades or more ago. Indeed, that seems unlikely at least in the short term. But there is little question that any increase of violence in the region will have a major impact in Moscow, adding to Putin’s own problems as long as his war against Ukraine continues.