The Khankala military base near Grozny recently hosted a gathering celebrating the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Joint Group of Forces in the North Caucasus. Among those who attended the event, which undeservedly failed to attract the attention of Russia’s media, were the Russian president’s envoy to the North Caucasian Federal District, Sergei Melikov, and the interim commander of the Ministry of Interior’s troops, Sergei Bunin. The Joint Group of Forces is stationed at Khankala, which is one of the largest Russian bases in the region and located about a kilometer east of the Chechen capital. The former commanders of the group were also invited to the event. The Joint Group of Forces in the North Caucasus has, in the past, been commanded by generals Viktor Kazantsev, Gennady Troshev, Valery Baranov and Sergei Makarov. Currently, General Sergei Vlasenko is in charge. Gennady Troshev is deceased, but General Baranov, who survived the bombing that killed Ahmad-Haji Kadyrov in Grozny on May 9, 2004, attended the Khankala celebration as well (Instagram, September 23).
On September 23, 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed the decree establishing the Joint Group of Forces, which was to include units from all of Russia’s armed ministries and departments. The counter-terrorist operation regime in the Chechen Republic was lifted only on April 16, 2009, nearly ten years later.
The celebration of the 15th anniversary of the Joint Group of Forces was interesting for a number of reasons, including the fact that none of the leaders of the North Caucasus attended the ceremony. Statistics that were cited during the gathering, however, shed some interesting light on what has happened in the region in the past and what is going on there now (chechnyatoday.com, September 23).
The figures depict how mired Russia has been in its fight against the armed resistance in the North Caucasus. Two different conflicts should be clearly delineated. The first was the fight for the restoration of the independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, which occurred from 1999 to September 2007. The second is the conflict that has been ongoing since 2007, when the priorities of the militants changed and they replaced Ichkeria with the Caucasus Emirate project, the goal of which being to create an Islamic state in the North Caucasus. Bunin declared during the Khankala celebration that during the entire period of the counter-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus, the Joint Group of Forces had killed 10,000 members of the illegal armed formations. Bunin also said that during this 15-year period, more than 40,000 special operations were carried out, over 5,000 militant bases and hideouts were destroyed, over 30,000 small arms were confiscated and over 80,000 improvised explosive devices (IED) were defused (RIA Novosti, September 23).
Unfortunately, true to Russia’s Soviet traditions, the Russian military failed to provide accurate figures for casualties suffered by government forces. Back in 2010, the commander of the interior ministry’s troops, General Nikolai Rogozhkin, said that 2,984 interior ministry troops had been killed and 9,000 wounded during the previous ten-year period (vz.ru, June 10, 2010). This means that the Ministry of Interior suffered about 12,000 casualties. Since the military’s losses exceeded those of the militants for many years (voinenet.ru, 2009, accessed September 26, 2014), it can be concluded that the losses among the military, police and Federal Security Services (FSB) were no less than the losses among the militants. And while the casualty estimates for the rebels only include those killed, those for the Russian army also included those wounded—a figure several time greater than the number killed (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 6, 2013).
To some degree, Russian losses in the North Caucasus are comparable to the Soviet Union’s losses in Afghanistan (licey.net, accessed September 26). This is an indication of the dimensions of this region’s tragedy and the importance of the North Caucasus for Russia. Over the past 15 years, the priorities of the armed resistance have changed along with the political and military centers of resistance. For 14 years, Chechnya was the political center of the resistance, but Dagestan is arguably now the epicenter of militant activity. Some Islamic jamaats have completely disappeared from the political scene, such as the Karachay and Nogai Steppe jamaats, and the Ossetian Qataib al-Khoul. Other jamaats, such as those in Dagestan, have become so strong that they are now the leading jamaats in the North Caucasus. The mass social movements in North Caucasian societies, however, cannot be controlled by the police or the FSB. The rapid Islamization and the rise of Salafism as an active form of resistance to Russia make the region completely unpredictable in the near future.
What is more, because of Russia’s policies in the region, militants from the North Caucasus have emerged as a key players in Middle Eastern insurgencies. North Caucasians are active and influence politics in Syria and Iraq, and are starting to impact the situation in Ukraine. For this reason, the world community will have to attend to the problems of the North Caucasus today if it wants to avoid creating greater problems down the road.