Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Is Changing Regional Politics in the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 84

Russia's Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov

Russia’s large-scale re-invasion of Ukraine continues to send tremors across the wider region as well as inside the Russian Federation, including transforming the politics of Russia’s regions. Earlier plans by Moscow to amalgamate various federal entities and to create several large supra-regional metropolitan areas across the country had to be put on hold, writes Alexei Nikishin, an expert with the analytical website Club of the Regions. During war time and against the backdrop of unprecedented Western sanctions pressure, the Russian government has been forced to tackle more urgent tasks than experimenting with the system of territorial governance. Besides, compulsory regional amalgamations might generate conflicts that negate whatever positive economic effects such innovations were meant to bring, Nikishin concedes. Notably, the Russian expert blames the war in Ukraine on the Ukrainian elites’ allegedly attempts to impose the same model of governance on diverse regions; he assures that Russia will not make the same mistake domestically (Club of the Regions, May 26). Of course, Moscow has tried to incorporate the Circassian-minority Republic of Adygea into the Russian-majority Krasnodar Krai for years (see EDM, June 16, 2020). But the Russian government is likely to put off such plans for now, due to its focus on the ongoing war in Ukraine and out of fear of fueling fresh domestic conflicts.

In an earlier article, Nikishin hails Chechnya’s ruler Ramzan Kadyrov for his role in the Russian war against Ukraine. The author claims that Chechnya is one of the main suppliers of military forces to the Ukrainian conflict zone as well as a base for volunteer combat training. Additionally, the Club of the Regions writer praises Kadyrov for his ostensible talents in the information war: “Today, the Chechen leader’s public relations team stands up to Kyiv’s spokespeople almost better than all the professional Russian propagandists.” Kadyrov’s role in the Russian attack on Ukraine apparently contributed to solving two interrelated problems, according to Nikishin. First, he improved the image of natives of the North Caucasus, which had been tarnished by their involvement in various domestic conflicts and criminal activities in Moscow and other Russian regions. And second, this improved reputation helped reverse Russians’ unwillingness to subsidize the republic and the other North Caucasian non-Russian territories. Yet unwittingly, the Russian observer once again ended up repeating old stereotypes about “criminal Chechens,” thus casting doubt on his own assertions about supposed advances in inter-ethnic relations in Russia (Club of the Regions, May 19).

Russia’s ethnic minority members are dying in Ukraine in large numbers, according to some reports (Meduza, April 10). However, due to the Kremlin’s persistence in obfuscating combat losses, true casualty figures are difficult to evaluate. While the proportionality of battlefield deaths among North Caucasians remains open to conjecture, what is more clear is that this Russian region seems to be the least supportive of the war. According to a May 2–5 survey by the sociological pollster Russian Field, only 41 percent of respondents in the North Caucasus Federal District expressed support for continuing Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, while 31 percent said they would like to see it end; the rest (28 percent) declined to answer. For comparison, 61 percent of those polled in Central Russia supported the continuation of the war (RBC, May 18).

Some anecdotal evidence also seems to back up these statistical results. Notably, at least three ethnic Ossetian women were fined for “discrediting the Russian army” in North Ossetia since February 24, the start of the current Russian attack on Ukraine (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 30). Significant numbers of North Caucasian service members have also reportedly refused to fight in the conflict. Since Russia did not officially declare war on Ukraine, the troops cannot face serious legal charges and usually are only dismissed if they break their contract. For example, 30 former members of the National Guard (Rosgvardia) from North Ossetia are suing their detachment (Number 3724) and the commander of the North Caucasus District of the National Guard Troops, Yevgeniy Zubarev, for sacking them following their refusal to fight in Ukraine. Moreover, 115 Russian National Guard members in Kabardino-Balkaria are suing the agency for sacking them after they withdrew from Ukraine (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 27).

The real numbers of refusals to fight in the Russian war against Ukraine are likely significantly higher than those cited by media outlets. In reality, the attrition rate is record-breaking. For comparison, an estimated 143 service members were killed in the insurgency violence in the North Caucasus since 2014; whereas, during the first three months of the 2022 Russian re-invasion, at least 224 troops from the North Caucasus Federal District had died in action (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 20). Even this significant number is likely vastly understating true casualty figures. According to some estimates, for example, Chechnya alone lost 120 service members fighting in Ukraine (, June 4).

Among the unexpected results of the Russian war in Ukraine: the North Caucasus has experienced the quietest period in terms of insurgency violence in decades. Within the first four and a half months of 2022, there were no rebel-related violent incidents in the region. This was the lengthiest nonviolent period in the region in recent memory. On May 18, that nonviolent period was finally interrupted when the police killed two suspected rebels in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Fading rebel violence in the North Caucasus likely indicates that it is primarily driven not by rebels but by the police. As the Russian government agencies have been distracted by the war in Ukraine and decimated in frontline battles, they have less capacity to engage in killings of rebel “suspects” back home. In their turn, the latter are apparently preferring to stay quiet rather than use the war in Ukraine to ramp up attacks. In previous years, the insurgency suffered serious setbacks as well as a large-scale exodus abroad of its civilian social support base.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has unleashed unforeseen and, for now, still largely unpredictable changes in the North Caucasus. Despite some Russian commentators’ optimism, the region (perhaps Ramzan Kadyrov notwithstanding) does not appear particularly supportive of the Kremlin’s foreign war of conquest. And the longer this armed conflict goes on, the greater the transformative effect it may have on Russia’s most restive region.