The North Caucasus: Spiraling Out of Control?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 7

The March 2005 killing of Aslan Maskhadov was hailed by Russian officials as a sign of progress toward the restoration of Moscow’s rule in the war-torn North Caucasian republic. But the wider trends in Chechnya and the North Caucasus betray a much bleaker picture. In the past year, with increasing violence across the North Caucasus, Moscow’s control over the restive region has shown clear signals of slipping, very much as a result of and not in spite of Moscow’s own policies.

For several years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been arguing that the war in Chechnya is an anti-terrorist operation and that the situation in the war-torn republic is normalizing. However, events in 2004 provide ample evidence that the official Russian description of the situation is increasingly out of touch with reality. Not only is Russian control over Chechnya as elusive as ever, the situation in the North Caucasus as a whole is rapidly degenerating – mainly because of Moscow’s heavy-handed attempts to impose stricter control over the region.

All but Normal: The Resurgence of Violence

Throughout 2004 there were signs that the violence afflicting Chechnya was intensifying and spreading across the North Caucasus. Following the removal of Ingushetia’s respected leader Ruslan Aushev, the Kremlin ensured the election of its handpicked favorite, FSB officer Murat Zyazikov, to the Ingushetian presidency. Concomitantly, repression in the republic grew in the first half of 2004; increasing numbers of civilians were abducted or disappeared and media censorship intensified.

On May 9, 2004, pro-Russian Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov was killed by a bomb buried under the VIP section of the Grozny stadium, as Kadyrov was attending a Victory day parade. The killing was a severe blow for President Vladimir Putin, whose policy had been to eliminate all possible rivals to Kadyrov and rely on him for Russian control over Chechnya. After the killing, rebel attacks intensified, leading Russian observers to state that the situation had reverted to that of two or three years earlier. Indeed attacks were once again taking place inside the capital Grozny. On July 13, rebels narrowly failed to assassinate the interim President of Chechnya, Sergei Abramov, but managed to kill his bodyguard.

Armed guerrillas on June 21 attacked the headquarters of the Interior Ministry in Ingushetia and several other government buildings, in the first large-scale rebel infantry attack in several years and the first on a territory outside Chechnya since 1999. The attack proved that the rebel forces possessed planning and coordination capabilities that many observers thought they had lost. More importantly, the raid was carried out by mainly Ingush fighters, including veterans of the Chechen war and a growing number of young Ingush who had turned to Islamic militancy as a result of the poverty, corruption, and increasingly harsh repression in the republic since Zyazikov’s appointment. The ascension to power of an FSB officer, engineered mismanagement, insensitivity and repression, thus alienated and radicalized considerable parts of the population.

In its quest to portray a progressively “normalizing” situation in Chechnya, Moscow staged a presidential election in late August. While reporters noted empty streets and polling stations, the Kremlin claimed 85% of eligible voters cast ballots, electing Moscow’s handpicked successor to Kadyrov, the pro-Moscow government’s Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov, with 74% of the vote. These elections were little more than a farce, and Moscow was unable to capitalize on their momentum.

In the last days of August 2004, two Chechen women blew up two commercial Russian airliners in flight, and a Moscow metro station was also bombed. On September 1, a group of Chechen and Ingush gunmen seized a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, a republic bordering Ingushetia with which the Ingush have a long-standing territorial conflict. The terrorists, apparently operating under the orders of Shamil Basayev, kept over a thousand children and adults hostage for several days under appalling conditions. After two days, the hostage-taking descended into chaos as a bomb went off under murky circumstances and Russian troops stormed the building, leading to the death of several hundred hostages, mostly children. While creating considerable sympathy for Russia, the terrorist act showed the complete lack of readiness of Russia’s counter-terrorist forces for an operation of this type. The failures of Russia’s crisis management system were so severe that President Putin was forced to publicly acknowledge the failure and vow to implement a comprehensive overhaul of Russia’s counter-terrorism and crisis management systems.

The Beslan tragedy, in retrospect, put a break on President Putin’s soaring popularity and generated significant distrust among the population. Indeed, Beslan proved the first of a series of crises for Putin, which included the fallout of the Ukrainian elections in December 2004 and the pensioners’ demonstration in early 2005. But Beslan also showed that Russia’s ability to secure and control the North Caucasus had failed. In the most pro-Russian republic of the North Caucasus, North Ossetia, and only a few miles away from Russia’s main operating base in the region at Mozdok, armed Islamic rebels were able to prepare and carry out a devastating terrorist attack that shook Russia and the Kremlin to the core.

Is the North Caucasus Slipping?

The June 2004 raid into Ingushetia and the Beslan terrorist act are not isolated incidents but part of a pattern of increasing political violence in the North Caucasus. Whereas the main threat to the security of the region in the 1990s was ethnic nationalism and inter-ethnic violence, today the chief challenge is Islamic radicalism, which is a mounting problem in areas as far apart as Dagestan and Karachai-Cherkessia. To what extent this is related to Chechnya is difficult to determine. Nevertheless it is clear that Chechnya is both an inspirational and a practical factor in the rise of Islamic radicalism in the region.

Violent clashes between seemingly isolated groups and law enforcement is occurring on a regular basis in the region. In the summer of 2004, the government of Karachai-Cherkessia imposed unofficial martial law, citing the presence of radical Islamist militant groups in the mountains to the South of the republic. In October, following the implication of the President’s son-in-law in a murder, the presidential palace was stormed by an angry crowd. The republic’s government consequently collapsed, forcing the Kremlin to intervene directly. On January 15, 2005, a shoot-out between police and rebels led to the destruction of an apartment building in Makhachkala, Dagestan; a similar showdown took place in January 27 in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria.

The recent violence is part and parcel of the Kremlin’s policy of seeking to exert direct control over the North Caucasus republics, including the appointment of regional leaders instead of their election locally as had been the case previously. While this may give Moscow a sense of control over developments in the region, it is also a chief factor fueling the appeal of the radical forces.

Given the evolving dynamics of the region, it is hardly surprising that the influence of the Federal Security Service is growing in the region and its governments. The heavy-handed methods of the FSB are increasingly disrupting the uneasy political balance that had existed in the region in spite of the dire socio-economic conditions across the North Caucasus. Political opposition, and in particular independent Islamic-related activities, is being suppressed. This is not exclusive to the North Caucasus in the post-Soviet era, as a similar situation has been the norm in the Central Asian states for more than a decade.

The most serious potential fallout from these adverse developments is a situation where substantial numbers of young disaffected men travel to Chechnya and receive training and combat experience with armed formations operating there. Every rebel attack forces the Kremlin to up the ante and further centralize control over the North Caucasus, which in turn implies paying less attention to local sensitivities, thus exacerbating the alienation of the local population.


The longer the Chechen war – and the Russian brutality that characterizes it – persists, the more recruits the militants will find across the North Caucasus. Russia would argue that precisely because Chechnya is becoming a hotbed of extremism and threatening the security of the entire region, it needs to destroy the “terrorists” and restore order in the breakaway republic. But for over five years, Russia has been fighting this current war, and is no closer to victory now than it was at the outset. As long as Moscow does not win the war, it will continue to lose it. The increase in fighting in 2004 and the daring raids and attacks that the rebels have proven able to mount indicate that the war in Chechnya is unlikely to abate in the near future.

Moscow’s response to the evolving crises in 2004 indicates little appreciation of this reality. The killing of Maskhadov, the sole remaining moderate separatist leader, may fulfill Moscow’s short-term ambition of marginalizing moderate separatist forces and thereby silencing Western calls for negotiations with them. But it leaves Chechnya’s young generation with no role models but Islamic extremists, and in this sense it is likely to prove a pyrrhic victory. In fact, Moscow has now decidedly made negotiations impossible in the event that it should one day change its mind and seek a political solution. This does not bode well for long-term stability and security in the region.

Dr. Svante E. Cornell is Deputy Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Johns Hopkins University-SAIS.