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Analysis & Opinion
11.09.09 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: A New War In The Caucasus?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan S. Burger, Alexander Rahr, Sergei Roy

It has now become hard to deny that there is a relapse of terrorist activity in the Caucasus, particularly in Ingushetia and Dagestan, threatening to unravel the stability and calm that has emerged in this war-ravaged region in the last couple of years. What is the Kremlin to do? Has the policy of betting on Ramzan Kadyrov gone wrong, or is it still a reliable tool of fighting terrorism without provoking terror attacks on targets inside Russia? What are the real causes of terrorist activity in Ingushetia and Dagestan?

Until early 2009 it seemed that the policy of “Chechenization,” i.e. giving free reign of Chechnya to Ramzan Kadyrov and his brutal police force, made up of former Chechen guerrilla fighters, in exchange for stomping out the remnants of armed resistance and maintaining calm and order in Chechnya, had succeeded. Not only had the violence and terrorist activity all but stopped there, economic reconstruction also became possible, and the federal authorities even lifted the designation of Chechnya as an area of an anti-terrorist operation – a strong sign of returning to normalcy.

The Kremlin had all but rooted out the al-Qaida terrorist underground in neighboring Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, and set about improving the living standards of the people there.

But things changed dramatically in the summer of 2009. As the New York Times reports, there is an undeniable outbreak of violence in the region. Explosions and shootings have been a daily occurrence in the region all summer. Between June and August, 436 people have been killed, compared with 150 during the same months in 2008. And the number of attacks jumped to 452 from 265, according to statistics compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private research group based in Washington.

High-ranking officials have been strafed with machine-gun fire, targeted by snipers as they strolled out of restaurants or rammed with cars packed with explosives. A prominent human rights worker was snatched outside her apartment, killed and left on a roadside.

Ingushetia has seen the worst outbreaks of terrorist activity with suicide bombers nearly killing its new President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, and then detonating a car bomb at a local police station, killing dozens.

In Dagestan, terrorist attacks on police officers and police stations have become a daily occurrence. The chief of Dagestan’s police force was assassinated in broad daylight at a friend’s wedding in May 2009.

And in Chechnya itself, suicide bombings against Kadyrov’s police force have started anew, signaling that Kadyrov’s grip on Chechnya could be tenuous and that the insurgency is still out there.

This leaves Moscow with a dilemma: to stick with the policy of “Chechenization,” gradually expanding Kadyrov’s reach toward neighboring Ingushetia and even Dagestan, or to try to change course and impose a new type of leadership, based on personal public accountability of the top officials, anti-corruption campaigns, and a more open engagement of political opponents, critics and NGOs.

However, the recurrent suicide bombings and, particularly, a brazen attempt on Yevkurov’s life, have made experimenting with a softer approach much more difficult and perhaps politically untenable for President Dmitry Medvedev (who cannot risk appearing “wobbly” in the face of terrorism).

What is the Kremlin to do? Has the policy of betting on Kadyrov gone wrong, or is it still a reliable tool for fighting terrorism without provoking terror attacks on targets inside Russia? Does it contribute to this growth in violence, or has it helped to keep it under control? What are the real causes of terrorist activity in Ingushetia and Dagestan? Should the Kremlin try to replace Kadyrov with a more modern leader, or would such a move trigger a new war in Chechnya? Are there any good options for Medvedev?

Alexander Rahr, Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin:
President Medvedev should take the situation in the Northern Caucasus under his personal supervision. Without a successful war on corruption in the republics and in the responsible offices in Moscow, the overall situation will not improve. Who keeps on delivering weapons to the extremists in the Northern Caucasus?

Medvedev should order the Federal Security Service (FSB) to investigate whether a country like Iran may have started to support terrorist activities in Chechnya and Ingushetia – as a warning to Russia not to join the U.S. led anti-Iranian coalition. It is doubtful that Georgia has again opened the Pankisi Gorge for Islamic terrorist insurgence into Russia.
Turkey is becoming a stronger player in the Caucasus lately. Russia should forge a joint anti-terrorist pact with Ankara. Turkey is helping the Abkhazian economy by opening up trade with that republic. Medvedev should use this as an example to invite other moderate Islamic states to invest directly in the economies of the North Caucasus republics, opening something like a free trade zone there.

The rise of Islamic terrorism is not only happening in Russia’s southern regions. It is a global phenomenon. To fight this biggest challenge for European civilization, Western states and Russia must join forces on a much larger scale. If NATO loses in Afghanistan, insurgence into Russia on behalf of terrorist groups will increase.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

"Chechenization" has less chance of succeeding than "Vietnamization" did. After the United States' abandonment of South Vietnam following the Paris "Peace Accords," America did not honor its pledge to intervene militarily to defend the Saigon government if North Vietnam broke the agreement, which of course it did. The North Vietnamese lacked the ability and will to continue the war on U.S. soil, but the Russian people are less fortunate. Chechen forces (consisting of patriots, individuals seeking revenge for lost loved ones, terrorists, and their Islamic extremist allies) can readily attack both legitimate military targets as well as innocent civilians within the Russian Federation.

The recent wave of violence in the Caucasus is the latest chapter in a conflict that will not end without a negotiated solution. This will not occur until the parties to the conflict recognize that the human and material cost of the violence outweigh any benefit they will obtain. It is critical that the parties appreciate the political goals of the other combatant that can arguably be regarded as legitimate, and the fact that without a political solution, the conflict may ebb and flow, but will never end.

Today, the Prussian Carl von Clauswitz is well known for his observation that "war is merely a continuation of politics by other means." Writing in the 1830s, his experience reflected that of a staff officer who had examined war between nation-states, each regarding the other as legitimate. He was a product of his time and in many ways his writings’ relevance is limited, albeit quotable. He was an individual who did not fully appreciate concepts such as nationalism, terrorism, or total war.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I think that there is no legal basis for the Russian Federation’s leadership to assert sovereignty over Chechnya, since the latter never ratified the Federation Treaty nor approved the 1993 Russian Federation Constitution in what any trained, neutral observer would term a fair and free referendum, and both Chechen and Russian leaders who ordered or condoned attacks on civilians have committed crimes against humanity under international law, and should be regarded as war criminals by the international community.

The ongoing conflict is not worth the life of a single Russian or Chechen. The Russian political leadership is deluding itself if it believes that it and its collaborators can physically eliminate the enemy and appease the remaining elements of the Chechen population. Blood feuds tend not to end without generational change or the political and military leadership recognizing the fruitlessness of their endeavors.

It is impossible for the Russian government to successfully protect the country’s population from terrorist attacks if its armed forces cannot defend themselves. The Russian government lacks the resources to protect the country’s infrastructure from sabotage. Each failure undermines the Russian population’s confidence in the government.

The Soviet and now American experience in Afghanistan cannot be ignored. Just as eventually the Israelis will have to accept a two-state solution; so must the Russians and the Chechens. The only uncertainty is the amount of time this will take, the amount of time before the other side is willing to accept the right of the other to live within a sovereign, viable state in peace, the political concessions that will have to be made on both sides before this is achieved, and the number of people who will have to die for this to happen.

Lastly, I would highly recommend to people who have not seen it to view Nikita Mikhalkov's recent film "12," which is based on the U.S. film "12 Angry Men." It involves the story of a young Chechen boy accused of murdering his adoptive Russian father, a retired Russian officer. While the film's characters are not entirely realistic, Mikhalkov's message should strike a responsive chord with all Russians.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

As often happens in the fast-paced modern world, several aspects mentioned in the introduction have been “overcome by events.” There was indeed a substantial increase in terrorist attacks in the region during the past few months, but most recently, several decisive successes by the area’s law enforcement have counteracted terrorism.

In several firefights a large number of terrorists have been killed, including an individual known as the architect of terror and the al-Qaida leader for the region. At least three would-be shahids were captured before suicide, and one supposes that the prisoners are now unraveling terrorist activities for counter-terrorist investigators.

The al-Qaida link emphasizes what one hopes is now a common understanding that terror in the Northern Caucasus is part of a worldwide extremist conspiracy, which has nothing to do with legitimate aspirations of national, cultural or religious identity.

Regrettably, in the past such understanding was lacking, and in a pattern set as far back as the 19th century, terrorists were designated as “freedom fighters” or “insurgents,” depending on the political position of the speakers and their perceptions of political expediency. To some, self-declared terrorists like Leon Czolgosz or Andrei Zhelyabov were “freedom-fighters,” and this manipulation extended through the 20th century. It took a tragedy on September 11, 2001, to force the civilized world to recognize that extremist terrorism knows no boundaries and is not an acceptable, relativistic variant for geopolitical engineering.

The description of social development in Chechnya as “Chechenization” is not entirely suitable. The term suggests that the government of Chechnya and the republic itself are somehow disconnected and isolated from the rest of Russia. In fact, we see full support and backing from the central Russian government for Chechnya and its president Kadyrov (the same as for Ingushetia with its president Yevkurov, as well as their peers in other North Caucasus regions). It is normal and correct that local citizens and government are the primary actors for their own social development – the affairs of the State of California are primarily the bailiwick of Californians – yet Chechnya, Ingushetia and others probably enjoy a greater measure of active support from Russia’s government than California gets from Washington.

The most recent events in the region are the result of an intensified process for prevention and deterrence of terrorism. Rule of law in these circumstances is demonstrated by active prevention and deterrence of terrorism, as well as clear evidence of swift pin-point retribution.

An additional positive aspect is evidence that citizens in the region are enjoying their peace and relative growth of prosperity, and do not support extremist terrorism. This genuine citizen support is key for future peaceful social development and for rejection of extremist intolerance.

Personalities are important in the Caucasus. However, this significance should not be exaggerated. Even if persons like Kadyrov or Yevkurov were to disappear from the scene, the social climate is such that new leaders will emerge to continue the present constructive trend. An algorithm that combines tradition and progress has appeared and will continue to operate. All citizens prefer life in peace, security and prosperity, instead of terror and destruction. They have learned that such an alternative is real, and they will support this alternative in the future.

The situation described above is considerably different from other loci of terror and social disintegration elsewhere. Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan are physically connected with one of the largest economies in the world, and their populations have learned the value of peaceful participation in this bounty. They see an alternative to terror and social decay. This is the main element of peace-building in the region.

Sergei Roy, Editor,, Moscow:

An upsurge of violence in the North Caucasian republics of Russia in the summer of 2009 has raised lots of sentiment – fears in some quarters, hopes in others, wishful thinking in still others. The emotions are focused on the possibility of increased violence leading to an all-out war. One even hears talk of not just yet another local war, but of a crisis engulfing the whole world, “when the fighters of the Caucasus Emirate link up with their jihadi allies in Central Asia, turning much of the southern rim of the former Soviet Union into a zone of low-intensity warfare,” as Paul Quinn-Judge stated in his article “Russia's Brutal Guerrilla War. How the Crisis in the North Caucasus Could Go Global.”
The obvious conclusion from this apocalyptic scenario is this: the Kremlin’s policy is all wrong, it is one of “blind brutality;” if Moscow adopts some other policy, everything will be just fine there. Pity the analyst does not suggest a policy to be adopted. The federal center’s policy of “blind brutality” includes subsidizing the economies of the North Caucasian republics to the tune of 70 to 80 percent of their annual budgets – maybe the Kremlin should stop that?
An apparently more reasonable suggestion is that the Kremlin might impose a new type of leadership on these republics, one that is based on personal public accountability of the top officials, anti-corruption campaigns, a more open engagement of political opponents, etc. All these are highly desirable things, but “imposing” them from the outside? First, a snap change of popularly elected leaders is unconstitutional, and second, it would be more likely to stir up greater trouble than there is.

Not unlike in some more civilized lands, in Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, etc., the rise of some individual to supreme power is the result of compromise between various forces. In Dagestan, these are extremely numerous tribes called “nationalities;” in Chechnya, consensus between clans called teips is important; similarly in Ingushetia. As a rule, the balance of power is quite fragile, and messing with it, even with the best intentions, is fraught with worse chaos than the usual simmering kettle of inter-clan hatreds. The (fully constitutional) “imposition” of Yevkurov on Ingushetia, which had become home away from home to Chechen gunmen, was a harsh necessity, and we should be prepared to reap all the consequences of the move. A similar act in Chechnya and/or Dagestan would be definitely counterproductive.

No, the Kremlin cannot pull a rabbit out of a hat and produce some policy that would change the realities of North Caucasian politics overnight. These realities include not just the clan mentality alluded to here, but also militant Islamism, of which Chechnya became a hotbed with a great deal of support from the outside in the 1990s; and, perhaps more importantly, the “abrek ethos,” the preference for banditry over honest toil as a means of subsistence, an ethos that neither the Czarist government nor the Communist Party were able to eradicate.

In a series of articles published in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily and elsewhere back in 1999 I suggested a nine point program for action in the North Caucasus, the gist of which was simple: containing the conflicts within the region, localizing them, rooting out the hostile forces and cultivating the more peaceable ones. Something like what was done for Scotland by England all those centuries ago.

I am happy to see that the present “Kremlin policy” broadly follows this formula. It should be borne in mind, though, that the policy is so long-term that setbacks and even defeats on this path are inevitable – though that’s no reason for apocalyptic scaremongering.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

The real causes of the upsurge of terrorism in the Caucasus lie in centuries of Russian misrule compounded by the rise of a brutal implacable Muslim fundamentalist network of terrorist organizations.

It simply is not the case that the region had been pacified after 2005, even if the incidence of violence fell. That fall may be due to temporarily better policies as suggested by Putin's emissary Mikhail Kozak, or to the temporary benefit provided by Kadyrov's brutality.

Today, however, that policy's positive effects, if there were any, have worn out. Legitimacy in Chechnya extends no further than Kadyrov, but he is perhaps more free to do as he pleases than was Djohar Dudayev or Aslan Maskhadov, so the Kremlin has only a tenuous hold on Chechnya.

As for the other parts of the North Caucasus policies, to restore the legitimacy of the government and to introduce genuine economic opportunity are, in the strategic sense, necessary, but I have no faith in this government's ability to apply this to stop what must be admitted to be a ruthless and implacable threat posed by Islamic extremists.

Russia's government and its North Caucasian satraps are corrupt to the core and rule by brutality alone, a favorite past response of Russian rulers. Possibly the direction suggested by the appointment of General Arkady Yedelev is not going to work in the face of a determined enemy if it is not buttressed by appropriate political and economic reforms in the North Caucasus.

We must understand that this threat is bigger than has been reported; indeed, as of 2006 Russia had 250,000 Interior Ministry and regular army forces in the North Caucasus, and failed to stop it. But whether new policies will work even if "theory" calls for them is a very problematic question for which no answer is readily available.
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