Shifting Battlefields of the Chechen War

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 16

The constant stream of “small bad news” from Chechnya and the North Caucasus creates the impression of a stagnant local war and a region-wide condition of “stable instability,” with smoldering tensions only occasionally bursting into open hostilities—as in Nalchik in October 2005. This impression underpins the fatalistic conclusion about the intractable nature of the overlapping conflicts that can only be endured until they somehow exhaust their dynamics. Up to 59 percent of Russians now expect that the situation in the North Caucasus will remain unchanged in the next year (according to a Levada Center poll from mid-March), but the situation is in fact more fluid than most commentary suggests. The criss-crossing interplay that shapes the logic of events can be roughly grouped into three main drivers.

The first one can be labeled “the Kadyrov factor,” and it refers to Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov’s steadily strengthening grasp on political power in Chechnya. Over the course of the last three years, Moscow organized a number of referenda and elections in Chechnya aiming at building several local centers of power, but it now has to recognize that all the levers of control have ended up in one set of hands, and quite brutal hands at that—those of Kadyrov Jr., who lacks the moral authority of his father. Seeking to take the war under control, Moscow has created a monster, and has few reasons to expect that Kadyrov would remain controllable. The prime minister is already demanding a three-fold increase in federal funding for the “reconstruction” of Chechnya, which effectively means his own personal budget, and his appetites are only growing.

The second driver is shaped by the changing patterns of terrorist attacks and, accordingly, counter-terrorist measures. While it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between a terrorist hit and a criminal razborka (literally, sorting out), it is generally clear that for the last year-and-a-half, the terrorist campaign has concentrated on the North Caucasus. Moscow saw the electricity blackout in the summer of 2005 and the market roof collapse caused by heavy snow in February this year, but there has not been a single suicide bombing since the summer of 2004. That has eased the fears inside various special services, so now the FSB has accepted responsibility for handling the problem with the newly-created National Anti-Terrorist Committee. This essentially means that Putin’s loyalists at Lubyanka Square will organize a raspil (literally, sawing to pieces) of the generous federal budgeting for protecting the G8 summit in St. Petersburg in July from terrorist attacks.

The third driver involves the distribution of federal funds in the North Caucasus, which have been significantly increased because of the huge inflow of “petro-rubles” into the state coffers. Taxation represents only a small fraction of republican budgets and Moscow is able to keep them greatly dependent upon financing from the center, which constitutes the main lever of influence for Dmitry Kozak, presidential envoy in the Southern Federal District. He has managed to orchestrate several changes in the republican leadership, most recently forcing into retirement Magomedali Magomedov, who presided over politics in Dagestan for 13 years. Kozak’s achievements, nevertheless, remain limited, since the tightly knit political clans have expanded their bureaucratic ranks proportionally to the expansion of funding from Moscow.

The impact of these three drivers have reconfigured the structure of the conflict, so that Chechnya no longer resembles a “black hole” that was created by the efforts aimed at isolating the war, but looks more like the eye of a storm engulfing the whole region. In the dead center of this slow-moving cataclysm is the area that could be called “terrorized Chechnya,” where Russian troops are stationed but most of the dirty work is done by armed gangs of kadyrovtsy. The intensity of combat operations across the lowlands and urbanized foothills of the republic has clearly subsided, but, by any stretch of even the propagandized imagination, the situation cannot be described as “normalized.” For now, Moscow can ignore the unrestrained tyranny of gangsters in this area, but it cannot expect this sort of self-rule to last long. On the one hand, the increasingly arrogant Kadyrov challenges the authority of the federal forces and deliberately provokes clashes with the Interior Ministry units. On the other hand, his own authority among the pardoned field commanders is far from rock solid; in many ways, it is quite unnatural from the point of view of Chechen warrior traditions that all clans should come under the command of one chieftain, unless that chieftain can claim the status of Imam Shamil. Kadyrov is clearly not in this category and the stifled reports about desertions could indicate the beginning of his demise.

In the immediate neighborhood of this zone of terror is the area that could be called “no-go highlands,” which include the mountainous areas of Chechnya and western Dagestan, most of Ingushetia and the southern part of Kabardino-Balkaria. These territories are effectively outside of any control from Moscow or the republican capitals and the periodic incursions of Russian troops cannot “tame” the highlanders of various ethnic origins. The forms of local rule also vary considerably, from Islamic communities that live by Sharia law to bandit strongholds ruled by the gun. Most of the bases of the Chechen resistance are concentrated in this area, but it should be noted that the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, which a year ago was portrayed by Moscow as a “safe haven” for terrorists, is effectively out of the picture.

The wider area around the war zone includes all the republics of the North Caucasus—and every of them have their peculiar combination of tensions and risks that come together in a broad landscape of smoldering instability. Dagestan, during the last couple of years, has seen no fewer ambushes and fire-fights than Chechnya, and the change of leadership there has not brought any visible improvements. Clans that have monopolized political power in these republics rely on the loyalty of law enforcement structures that are deeply infected by corruption and that feed the “brush-fire” of criminalized violence. Societies have developed various informal mechanisms for self-healing, including the networks of Islamic solidarity, the so-called jamaats. Anger against the corrupt elites channeled through these networks feeds the “underground fire” of armed resistance that was not extinguished by the post-Nalchik repressions in Kabardino-Balkaria and only slightly reduced by the removal of the Interior Minister Khachim Shogenov, who had encouraged police brutality.

While new hot spots like Adygeya, which is reluctant to be “swallowed” by Krasnodar Krai, appear inside this area of moving fire-storms, instability is also increasing in the “wider neighborhood” of the Chechen war, which includes Georgia to the south and several adjacent Russian regions to the north. In the southern part, the noisy quarrels between Moscow and Tbilisi about the Russian ban on import of Georgian wines and mineral water are merely a symptom of the deep hostility in the Kremlin against the Saakashvili government. The Russian leadership has no possibility to reverse the first of the “colored revolutions” but is trying to provoke the Georgians into risky actions by exploiting the painful deadlocks around Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Any escalation of these chronic conflicts could resonate across the North Caucasus, but Moscow appears ready to take chances.

To the north of the zone of instability stretches the strategic energy route from the Caspian to Novorossiisk—and it is even surprising how little it has been affected so far. From the start of the second Chechen war, Moscow has made every effort to isolate the area of combat operations from the transport “corridors” for the Caspian oil. It has succeeded in this more than with any other military goal, but the perfectly executed sabotage that interrupted the delivery of gas and electricity to Georgia last winter may have marked new targets for terrorists. The carefully planned debates on energy security at the July G8 summit could be completely derailed by a massive collapse of the pipeline that crosses Volga River in Astrakhan Oblast or by a spectacular explosion at the Novorossiisk oil terminal. Pouring the “oil money” over the Caucasian troubles might gain Moscow some respite, but the Chechen detonator could trigger any of the conflicts that are currently being manipulated rather than managed.

The article is based on a presentation to the Aspen Atlantic group seminar at Wilton Park, April 8, 2006.