After a brief easing following the Sochi Olympics in 2014, which elevated attention on the Circassian issue to the global level, tensions between Moscow and the Circassians ebbed during the first part of the past decade only to rise again at its end (see EDM, October 5, 2021; May 19, 2022). But any chance that these tensions would ease again were dashed at the end of that decade, with Kyiv, as its fraught relationship with Moscow escalated, expressing increasingly active support for the Circassians and other non-Russian groups (Window on Eurasia, December 9, 2018; April 17, May 30, 2019). And these tensions have exploded again as a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expanded invasion of Ukraine and Kyiv’s increasing support for non-Russians within the Russian Federation as allies against Moscow’s mobilization.
On the one hand, the war has radicalized Circassians both inside Russia, where there are as many as 700,000, and in the diaspora, where there are ten times as many, leading ever more of both to conclude that the time has come to press their national goals (Ku.life, September 30, 2022; Siberia.Realities, May 20). On the other, an alarmed Moscow has launched new efforts to repress Circassians at home, penetrate and geld Circassian national organizations abroad and seek to isolate the Circassians from their international supporters by suggesting that growth in Circassian activism will lead to the rise of Islamism in the North Caucasus and elsewhere—moves that have only led the Circassians to take new steps to block the Kremlin’s efforts (see EDM, February 16, June 8; Ukraina.ru, May 12; Bloknot.ru, May 17).
The increasing support Ukraine is giving to the Circassian cause fully justifies the conclusion that Putin’s war is transforming the Circassians’ national movement, leading to its further activation and radicalization and making it a central player in the North Caucasus. Thus, this development provides yet another sign of the ways in which the Russian invasion has backfired for Moscow. Many in Kyiv are pressing the government to take an even more active role (Abn.org.ua, June 19), appeals that the Ukrainian side appears to be taking up and that the Circassians welcome. The latest evidence that neither is backing off comes from a press release of the new United Circassia organization concerning the International Conference on the 105th Anniversary of the Northern Caucasus Mountaineer Republic held in Kyiv at the end of May 2023. In the release, United Circassia made clear where it stands on key issues, including independence and relations with Ukraine (United-circassia.org, accessed June 22).
The document declares that, since its founding earlier this year, “the Council of United Circassia’s primary goal has been to establish an independent Circassian state on the historic Circassian lands. Every activity of our Council is aimed at achieving this fundamental goal. We continue to pursue our activities within the framework of the law, remaining faithful to our core objective.” And therefore, despite the fears and objections of some, “it is only natural for Circassians to participate in a conference commemorating the Mountaineer Republic, which is a milestone in Circassian history,” especially since the meeting in Kyiv did not have its aim on rebuilding that short-lived republic and did not discuss that possibility.
At the meeting to which the Circassians were invited by the Ukrainian and Chechen Ichkeria governments, “The Council of United Circassia has once again reaffirmed its goal of establishing an independent Circassian state on the historic Circassian lands to the entire world” and that “no entity other than a sovereign Circassian state will be accepted on the historic Circassian lands. Our expectations for the recognition of our rights and interests on Circassia and the respect for these rights and interests in accordance with international law have been conveyed to all stakeholders” (United-circassia.org, accessed June 22).
Moreover, the release declares that “138 Circassians and approximately 2,000 Caucasians have lost their lives fighting on the Russian side since the start of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.” It reiterates its earlier calls for Circassians not to take part in Russian aggression and calls for recognition “by everyone” that “Russia’s attempt to sow hostility among these peoples by involving North Caucasians in the Ukrainian front is an evil plan.”
“During the conference,” United Circassia says, its representatives spoke “with Chechen leaders as well as with representatives from Tatarstan, Dagestan, and Crimea, and new relationships were established … on cooperation and solidarity among the indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus. … As Circassians, we remind everyone that we must collaborate and act in solidarity with the indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus for the stability and security of the North Caucasus in the post-Russia era. These peoples will be our border neighbors. It is inevitable to establish intergovernmental relations with these peoples once Circassia achieves independence.” Moscow is naturally worried by all this, United Circassia says, and has launched a disinformation campaign on social media that unfortunately has taken in some “well-intentioned” individuals (United-circassia.org, accessed June 22).
But that is far from the only thing that the Russian authorities have done since the end of May 2023 to try to undermine and derail the Circassian national movement. They have continued to issue statements claiming that Ukraine can do nothing for the Circassians or other non-Russians despite claims to the contrary (Idel-ural.org, June 4). They have played up differences between Circassians and Ukrainians over the Kuban through which their common border would run and suggested that any strengthening of Circassians will lead to the rise of Islamist extremism more generally (EurAsia Daily, September 7, 2022; Kavkazgeoclub.ru, accessed June 22). And they have launched a pointed attack on United Circassia, its leaders and its supporters in the West—Ukraine and The Jamestown Foundation in particular (Vpoanalytics.com, June 17).
Most of this attack is nasty and ad hominem, but the title of the lead VPO article in this case is telling: “‘The Circassian Card’—Before and After the Beginning of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine.” As seems customary, Moscow treats the Circassian movement not as an expression of the feelings and aspirations of the people involved but exclusively as the handiwork of Western governments. However, as the statements of the Circassians themselves show and their work to counter Russian active measures and to cooperate with other non-Russian movements indicate, the Kremlin, in fact, has something far more serious to worry about—namely, the emergence among the Circassians of a mature, self-confident and increasingly influential national movement among a people the Russians first expelled and then subdivided but can no longer assume has been effectively subdued.