The Russian invasion of Crimea and the tensions with the West that followed it have created a new public climate in Russia with regard to the North Caucasus. “Today, when Russia has found itself practically on the verge of war with its closest neighbor, all resources—law enforcement personnel, journalists, etc.—are being dispatched to the Ukrainian front,” Dagestani expert Ruslan Kurbanov wrote in the newspaper Novoe Delo. “In this situation, the [North] Caucasians can breathe freely and realize that it is possible to live and not to be accused of all mortal sins all the time.” According to Kurbanov, now Russia’s enemies are not depicted as “evil, bearded Caucasians,” but as radicals from the Right Sector and the West’s “helpers” in Ukraine. Moscow also notably attempted to rely on the assistance of the leaders of ethnically non-Russian Muslim regions, such as Mintimer Shaimiev, the former president of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, its current president, and the ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov (https://ndelo.ru/politika-5/2905-chem-krym-kavkazu-otzovetsya).
Anecdotal evidence suggests the Ukrainians have replaced the North Caucasians almost literally as “terrorists.” On April 3, the Russian security services announced that they had intercepted 25 Ukrainians on suspicions of terrorism. “According to the security services, the terror attacks were supposed to have taken place during the period of March 14–16 in seven Russian regions—Rostov, Volgograd, Tver, Oryol, Belgorod and the republics of Kalmykia and Tatarstan. All the detained individuals, 25 people, including three Right Sector activists, have confirmed receiving instructions from the Ukrainian security services” (https://ria.ru/defense_safety/20140403/1002423060.html#ixzz2yYGguK8d).
On April 9, Russian media announced that the government was expelling three Right Sector activists from Russia. The only penalty that the Russian authorities imposed on the suspects was a ban on entering Russia for three to five years, which is an extremely soft punishment for people suspected of terrorism by Russian authorities (https://www.interfax-russia.ru/South/news.asp?id=489225&sec=1672). Given the short interval between the moment of arrest and the moment the suspects were expelled—about one week—hardly any investigation of the case ever took place.
States often treat similar domestic and foreign policy issues differently. Even though this phenomenon of “double standards” is not new, it does not mean that people are easily reconciled with it. Russian citizens in the North Caucasus are currently, perhaps, the most vociferous about Russia’s double standards in relation to Crimea and the North Caucasus. President Vladimir Putin defended the right of Crimeans to self-determination and said Russian forces in Crimea were needed to provide a safe environment for the referendum. Two bloody Russian wars against Chechen independence claims were not forgotten in the North Caucasus. The fact that Moscow hailed the right for self-determination for ethnic Russians in Crimea and cracked down on ethnic Chechens for seeking self-determination makes the Russian government look even worse in the Caucasus, as the nationalist overtones of the difference are all too obvious.
The conflicts in the North Caucasus are not limited to the Chechen wars. In 1992, the North Ossetian–Ingush conflict erupted over disputed land in the Prigorodny district of North Ossetia. Even though the conflict was officially declared “resolved” in the late 2000s, many Ingush people still resent the Kremlin-sponsored resolution, which left the disputed land in the possession of North Ossetia. Following the quick grab of Crimea, Ingush activists from Niyskho organization addressed President Putin. Expressing their support for the annexation of Crimea and enumerating the Ingush people’s services on behalf of Russia, the Ingush activists asked for help with their disputed territory: “In 1991, the law of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR [The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic] on the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples was passed and in 1992 the law on the Establishment of Ingush Republic was adopted. Most of the Ingush homes in Prigorodny district are occupied by people from South Ossetia, who have their own independent state. Esteemed Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], you can solve our problem—solid legislation underpins the resolution of our issue, the only thing that is needed is the goodwill of the President of Russian Federation” (https://mehkkhel.org/?p=8950).
President Putin is unlikely to start redrawing borders inside the Russian Federation now, but the Ingush activists’ appeal shows that people in the North Caucasus discern the inconsistent behavior of the Russian government and will remember this in the future.
While some North Caucasians are happy that the attention of the Russian media has been diverted to vilify the Ukrainians, others say that Russian state-sponsored propaganda will inevitably return to the North Caucasians, as Russia cannot live without enemies. According to the analyst Ruslan Kurbanov, up to the mid-2000s, Russians viewed the North Caucasus as a region to be conquered, but as time went on without a successful conquest, the Russian elites grew increasingly disappointed in their plans for the region. After the mid-2000s, and especially in the 2010s, a significant part of the Russian elites started to play with the idea of turning the North Caucasus into a satellite region of Russia that would have no formal affiliation with the country, along the lines of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia’s Crimean gamble has reversed that trend, in Kurbanov’s view, but only for the time being, because in his view, after Ukraine, Moscow’s attention will turn back to the North Caucasus (https://www.ndelo.ru/politika-5/2943-otchego-kavkaz-vypadaet-iz-rossii).
A Dagestani blogger wrote that Putin’s speech on Crimea, in which he referred to gathering “Russian lands” will intensify the demands of the myriad ethnic groups in the republic. Dagestan experienced ethnic mobilization in the 1990s and multiple land disputes have persisted ever since (https://www.bbc.co.uk/russian/blogs/2014/03/140320_blog_caucasus_crimea_dagestan.shtml).
The ethnic-ization of Russian foreign policy, as Moscow declares its determination to defend ethnic Russians abroad using war, is bound to have a detrimental domestic impact in the Russian Federation. Ethnic minorities in the country, especially the North Caucasians, are likely to feel mounting pressure from the central government in the near future.