Russia’s Stunning failure in Chechnya

Joshua Yaffa, writing on Foreign Policy, says that Russians brought the Domodedovo terrorist attack upon themselves:

For over a decade, suicide attacks have been a persistent and macabre feature of Russia’s battle with militants in the North Caucasus. The suicide bomber who took the lives of 35 people in the arrival hall of Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on Jan. 24 provided only the latest chapter in a dark history that, for many Russians, is also the history of Chechnya’s struggle for national self-determination. In reality, however, the violence is no longer political — for the residents of this troubled region, it has become something much more noxious and potentially unsolvable.

Under Vladimir Putin, whose rise to power was intertwined with Russia’s second invasion of Chechnya in October 1999, Moscow marginalized the nationalist, secular wing of the Chechen rebel movement. The conflict’s unapologetically violent extremists, inspired by the language of global jihad, filled the gap — allowing the Kremlin to plausibly claim that further negotiations were impossible. The current generation of militants is not motivated by the prospect of a realistic political settlement — unless the establishment of an Islamic “emirate” in the North Caucasus can be called realistic.

Indeed, many of those fighting in the North Caucasus today articulate their amorphous list of grievances — corruption, brutal policing, ineffectual local governance, and widespread unemployment, which reaches 50 or even 70 percent in some parts of the region — in the language of Salafism, Islam’s most puritanical religious sect. For most self-proclaimed Salafists in the North Caucasus, Islam offers a salve to the maddening impotency caused by their collapsing economies and broken state structures; for a few, however, religion serves as a gateway to violence. Abuse at the hands of local security forces is often the final trigger for radicalization.

As the conflict in the North Caucasus has evolved, it has also spread, especially into the republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. The Islamist insurgency of today is not a counter-government force, like the Chechen rebel fighters of the 1990s, but something closer to an entire counter-society. The insurgents’ main enemies are not the rulers in distant Moscow but local leaders whom they consider immoral, corrupt, and un-Islamic. A growing number of militant attacks have targeted not Russian officials, but local movie theaters and stores that sell alcohol. That said, these militants still consider dramatic, high-profile attacks in Moscow — like January’s airport bombing — a legitimate means to strike at the country’s political and financial heartland and thus acquire power in the North Caucasus.

Local security forces in the North Caucasus have responded to the rise of militant cells — known as jamaats — with indiscriminate crackdowns, harassing anyone with a long beard or a skullcap. Young men go missing in “disappearances” and wind up dead in extrajudicial executions, further radicalizing a population that is already alienated from the state and has a long tradition of blood feuds.

This past summer, when I traveled to the North Caucasus with researchers from Human Rights Watch, I spoke with the family of Shamil Gaziev, a 22-year-old mentally disabled man accused of helping to plan a suicide bombing in the city of Kizlyar that killed 12 police officers in late March, just 48 hours after two explosions in the Moscow subway left 40 people dead. Masked men with guns came for Gaziev in the middle of the night, taking him to the regional police headquarters. He was held for four days without access to a lawyer or his family being notified. When his lawyer finally saw him, Gaziev had been beaten so badly that he could barely stand, his body was covered in dark, pulpy hematomas, and he appeared to be under the influence of psychotropic drugs. He had confessed to participating in the bombing. At first, he appeared to be the latest victim of Dagestan’s incompetent and overzealous police officers, who are under considerable from their superiors in Moscow pressure to “solve” terrorist crimes quickly.

Yet Gaziev’s confession dovetailed with other details acquired in the investigation. Gaziev was, in fact, a member of the militant cell that carried out the bombing. In the days before the attack, the group’s leaders gave Gaziev three bags of chemicals with which to make the bombs; he spent the next 10 days grinding the chemical into a fine powder in a coffee grinder in a shed at his parents’ house. The police had managed to arrive at the truth, but, in the process, they entirely discredited themselves — and only added fuel to the local hatred and mistrust of both the local and federal authorities.

This, even beyond the countless individual tragedies, is the toll of a counterterrorism strategy that relies on forced confessions and extrajudicial executions. Police investigations and the courts have been made virtually irrelevant tools in the fight against terrorism. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev claims that his campaign against so-called “legal nihilism” is one of the top priorities of his administration, but in the North Caucasus, the rule of law is still a realm of perversion and caprice.

As a result, street violence has become the primary means by which the legions of disaffected young men in the region resolve their conflicts. The North Caucasus, it can be said, is in a state of latent civil war. In early October, Alexander Bastrykin, chair of Russia’s country’s Investigative Committee, estimated that on average five or six local police personnel are killed every day in the region — a rate higher than the losses of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Of course, this assumes that the Kremlin has any idea what is actually happening on the ground in the North Caucasus. In November, Medvedev admitted that law enforcement statistics from the region were “nonsense.”

Just over a year ago, frustrated with Moscow’s seeming inability to do anything about the growing instability in the North Caucasus, Medvedev shifted Moscow’s strategy to focus on social and economic development. He appointed Alexander Khloponin, a businessman and former governor in Siberia, to be his personal emissary to the region. Khloponin was given the task of imparting some order to local governance and delivering jobs and investment. After the suicide bombing in the Moscow metro last March, carried out by two women from Dagestan, Medvedev pointed to poverty and unemployment as the deeper causes of the violence, saying, “People want a normal and decent life, no matter where they live.”

But nothing much changed. Over the summer, officials announced that the organizers of last spring’s subway bombing had been killed in various shootouts or special operations, but no evidence, let alone a trial, was ever produced. Local security forces continue to rely on torture and abductions. For his part, Khloponin put his hopes in quixotic if not ridiculous investment plans, such as a $15 billion project to turn the snowy peaks of the North Caucasus into ski resorts. Unsurprisingly, few investors have shown interest in sending their money to a region so plagued by daily violence.

At a televised meeting in August, Medvedev complained about the lack of tangible progress. Khloponin meekly agreed, calling the situation “miserable.” True enough. In the Russian North Caucasus, misery is the closest thing the Kremlin has to a coherent policy.

11 responses to “Russia’s Stunning failure in Chechnya

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Russia’s Stunning failure in Chechnya | La Russophobe --

  2. The Russian military breakdown in general:

    Vienna, February 15 – The number of draft evaders is now so large in Russia, officials say, that “the militia is powerless to struggle with them,” and MVD leaders argue that “if the army needs soldiers, let the military itself search for them,” testimony to just how serious the problem is and a step that threatens to make the issue even more explosive.

    In “Svobodnaya pressa” yesterday, Sergey Ishchenko reports that the Russian militia, which as of March 1 will be the police “in the course of a year intends to remove from its responsibilities one of the most difficult tasks it now faces – the search for young people who are evading military service” (

    Sergey Bulavin, a deputy minister of internal affairs, says that the task of tracking down evaders and forcing them to show up at draft boards should be undertaken by “the Ministry of Defense itself” and that in order to fulfill that mission, the Russian armed forces “should as quickly as possible create a military police.”

    From Ishchenko’s perspective, “it is possible in principle to understand the position of the MVD.” Such searches are difficult, lead to controversies between the MVD and the defense ministry, and are increasingly necessary given the rapid growth in the number of young Russians who are seeking to avoid service.

    Eight years ago, there were only about 30,000 evaders, but this year, Ishchenko reports, their number had risen to be “in practice comparable to the number of those” who were inducted. Sergey Fridinsky, the chief military prosecutor, said that some 200,000 men who had been called did not show up during the fall draft alone and that the MVD had failed to find most of them.

  3. Despite the expectations of many, the number of national movements seeking their own country is increasing, in part at least because there is no “international standard for the creation” of new states.” Instead, sometimes the international community supports them and sometimes it doesn’t.

    “But the general trend, if one looks at statistics,” Ryzhkov continues, “is the following: when the United Nations was established in 1945, it had 51 members. Now there are almost 200. That is, we see that the general trend in the world is all the same acquisition of statehood by ever newere and newer national groups and peoples.”

    “If this trend continues,” he remarks, then in the 21st century the number of states may double again in the course of the 21st century.” Moreover, if Moscow handles the situation poorly, the Russian Federation itself could contribute to their number, something that would leave the country centered on Moscow much reduced.

    Ryzhkov cites the observation of the great British ethnographic theorist Ernest Gellner that “Russia has few chances [to retain its current borders] because it is a large multinational state whose people ever more frequently recognize their national identities,” something Gellner regretted but concluded as true.

    Russia has three “models of development,” Ryzhkov suggests, two of which will prove fatal. The first is a Reich, or “the construction of an ethnic Russian multi-national state, a ‘Russia for the Russians.’ This would mean collapse in the course of the country in the course of the [next] five or six years.”

    The second scenario is the Byzantine one, and this, Ryzhkov says, is what is “takin place in Russia now,” something he describes as “the latest attempt to build an imperial state with a strong center in Moscow which will govern the borderlands including the national ones with the help either of local cadres or appointed governors.”

    This path too is “dangerous: the extraordinary bureaucratization and centralization of administration will step by step create the basis for separatism because the powers assigne dyb Moscow will ever less be positively viewed by the local population” and “dissatisfaction [with them] will automatically mean dissatisfaction with Moscow.”

    “This crude bureaucratic imperial path has already led to the country to collapse twice, in 1917 and 1991,” Ryzhkov argues. And it can do so again.

    Only federalism and genuine federalism at that can save Russia, Ryzhkov argues, and consequently, Moscow must “return now to the very fruitful model of a federation which is written in our Constitution but not [yet] realized. In that way we will be able to avoid the danger of the collapse of the country.” But that is not just the best way but the only one.

    Read more:

  4. Despite the threats and reprisals meted out over the past couple of years by the pro-Russian Chechen leadership to the parents of young men and women who “head to the forest” to join the insurgency, there are few signs of that exodus abating.

    An aide to North Caucasus insurgency leader Doku Umarov told the insurgency’s main website,, in October that over the previous two months, over 180 young men had joined the insurgency ranks. Some of them are shown here being instructed in the rudiments of survival in the forest by Umarov’s deputy, Supyan Abdullayev.

    The recruits whom Abdullayev lectures who have not donned masks to protect their families from harassment appear to be in their early 20s. But Sulim Yamadayev, the commander of the Russian military’s Vostok Battalion who was gunned down in Dubai two years ago, apparently on orders from Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, told in November 2007 that of some 100 defectors to the insurgency from three eastern districts of Chechnya that year, the majority were aged between 15-16, 19 at the most, and had lost a father or brother in the fighting.

    That trend is not unique to Chechnya. Salakhaddin Zakaryayev, the 17-year-old Kumyk lad who was killed alongside Daghestani emir Magomed Vagapov (aka Seyfullakh Gubdensky) in a shoot-out with security forces last August, was the son of Abdulgafur Zakaryayev, a mid-level insurgency commander who was killed in March 2009.

    Presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District Aleksandr Khloponin claimed last week that the average age of the insurgents across the North Caucasus is now 18. The fighters subordinate to Khusein Gakayev, commander of the more moderate Chechen fighters who split with Umarov last summer, are almost all in their late 20s and 30s. By contrast, the young fighter who accompanies Tarhan Gaziyev, Gakayev’s second-in-command, on a recent hunting expedition to restock the larder, looks barely 20, while some of the other boys pictured with Tarhan three years ago were even younger.

    Such Chechen fighters, born in the early1990s, will have no memories of a “normal” existence prior to the Russian military intervention in Chechnya in December 1994 to “restore constitutional order.” They will have grown up with insecurity, deprivation, destruction, the death or unexplained disappearance of their nearest and dearest, and constant fear.

    They are the generation that former Russian parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov predicted 11 years ago would join the insurgency if low-level hostilities in Chechnya continued indefinitely. Khasbulatov envisaged those young men as “completely uneducated, speaking only bad Russian…[with] no knowledge of contemporary culture, or any conception of morality, [they will be] strong and merciless fighters who do not acknowledge even family ties, [and] who reject the centuries-old mountain rules of etiquette, traditions, and adat,” or traditional common law.

    Tarhan’s hunting companion indeed speaks bad Russian, but in other respects he does not seem to conform (yet) to Khasbulatov’s stereotype of cruel and amoral fighters who acknowledge no authority. When he triumphantly digs out of the snow the mountain goat whose mother they have just killed, he strokes its nose, rather than simply putting a bullet through its head.

    If these young men have not become the callous brutes Khasbulatov anticipated, much of the credit must surely lie with the older commanders who were fathers before they became fighters, and have since assumed the role of father figures to the younger generation of insurgents: the natural-born pedagogue Abdullayev; Tarhan; Mansur; and even Umarov, seen receiving a filial embrace from Hadji-Murat at the very end of this clip.

    If the fighting continues another five or 10 years, however, the younger fighters may indeed come to surpass the present generation of commanders in cruelty. Speaking at the side of a young fighter in shock after being wounded, Gakayev warns that “we may be killed, but others will come forward to take our place, Inshallah, and they will be even more ruthless.” How that younger generation of fighters will adapt to civilian life when/if the fighting ends is another question entirely.

  5. Selimkhanov said his “recommendation” was “purely advisory.”

    But Caucasian Knot news agency reported that he had signed a document stating that Muslim dress was “essential” for state workers.

    The Kremlin relies on Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to maintain relative stability in Chechnya, site of two separatist wars since the Soviet collapse 20 years ago.

    Analysts say that in return, Kadyrov is allowed to usher in his radical vision of Islam, and the Kremlin watches uneasily as central power yields to Islamic tenets in the region.

    Here are past aspects of Islamic-style policies in Chechnya, which have been ordered by Kadyrov’s government and religious authorities.

    “As long as Kadyrov lives, there will be no alternative to him,” said Maxim Agarkov, a Caucasus analyst with the SK-Strategia think tank.

    Kadyrov, whose first term expires in April, has ruled Chechnya with an iron grip since 2007, when he assumed the presidency at the age of 30.

    Human rights groups say that, under his rule, all dissent and opposition has been crushed, while opposition activists have criticized the federal government for effectively ceding all power in Chechnya to Kadyrov.

    But Kadyrov’s claim of being indispensable to the Kremlin rests on his ability to control the violence in his republic, said Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

    “As long as he controls all armed formations in the republic, he can carry on his rule,” he said.

    (Ramzan K “crushing all opposition” and “controlling all armed formations in the republic” is certainly news to me and I wonder what people in the forest would say about this.)

  6. President Bush was furious over 9-11. His answer was an attack on Islam itself. He choose Iraq and after a huge effort managed to establish a functioning democracy. The purpose was to destablize Islam itself. Everybody laughed a Bush for attempting the impossible, but now the chickens are coming home. Those crazy Islamic peoples think they should live decent lives like other people in the world.

    When the people of Iraq stood fast in the initial voting lines while blo0d was actually running in the gutter the present disorder in the middle east should have been predictable. The fear that the “brotherhood” or other radical types will take over in the middle east is absurd. These people want freedom and they will not accept anything less. It will be messy, but not much worse than Chicago.

  7. “The purpose was to destablize Islam itself.”

    I think you are mistaken. The purpose was to prevent another 9/11, and so far that has succeeded.

    Read “War and Decision”.

  8. 23 February is Chechnya Day.

    On this day in 1944 Stalin obliterated the nations of Chechnya and Ingushetia and started the deportation of their entire populations from their homeland to perish in labor camps, gulags, in Siberia and Kazakhstan. Operation “Lentil” was carried out by 100,000 Soviet soldiers and 19,000 officers.

    It is estimated that half the Chechen people who were deported either perished during transportation or thanks to the extreme conditions in exile. This heinous crime against humanity was characterized as genocide by the European Parliament 60 years later – in February 2004.

    Stalin died in 1953, and in 1956, at the famous 20th Communist Party Congress, Nikita Khrushchev was outspoken in criticising the crimes against the Soviet people during the Stalin years. He rehabilitated the Chechen-Ingush nation and allowed its people to return as of 1957.

    In 1994, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia again sent its army into war against Chechnya, a tiny mountainous republic in the Northern Caucasus with just one million inhabitants. They lost the war and had to pull out in 1996, forcing Russian president Yeltsin to sign a peace treaty with Chechen president Maskadov in May 1997. Yet Russia again went to war on Chechnya in autumn 1999 under its new prime minister, later president, and now prime minister again: Vladimir Putin.

    This war has never ended.

    During the first war of 1994 and the subsequent war that I and many others believe is still being waged against Chechnya another quarter of a million people have died. It is clearly the greatest war crime in Europe since World War Two.

    Russian policy in the Northern Caucasus is a complete failure. Vladimir Putin has given carte blanche to the thug Ramzan Kadyrov and his henchmen to rove the region unchecked. The result has been regular disappearances, torture and extra judicial killings – a regime of fear and oppression. Freedom of expression does not exist, political opposition is unknown. Unemployment is running at 70 per cent and the society is in tatters. Russian leaders have through autocracy and suppression of democracy and rule of law finally undermined their own position – and violence, extremism and terror are spiraling out of control as a result.

    This situation was well described in the Council of Europe’s damning report on human rights in Chechnya, the so-called Dick Marty Report, which was unanimously adopted by its Parliamentary Assembly in June last year. A similar resolution, also very strong in its tone, was passed in the European Parliament last October.

    The Council of Europe and the European Parliament, having made such accurate observations of human rights and legal matters in Russia, should now come together and translate this identification into real political pressure towards Russia, and force its compliance to the European Convention of Human Rights and to democratic and civilized values. What the Northern Caucasus needs desperately is to rid itself of Russian tyranny and claim self determination and its right to an independent government through properly monitored free and fair elections.

    There is no time to waste, we must act now.

    Ivar Amundsen
    Director, Chechnya Peace Forum

  9. As is customary in the East, the two leaders did not stint lavish praise of each other. With his characteristic directness, Kadyrov said that Gaddafi was one of the recognized leaders of the Muslim world and that therefore his opinions carry a great deal of weight with the Chechen Republic and its leadership. The Chechen President told the guest he knew that each year Gaddafi marks the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad in one of the countries of the Muslim world. In this connection Ramzan Kadyrov invited the Libyan leader to come to Chechnya and spend the holiday there in 2010.

  10. Vladimir the Impala

    We give you the biggest Mosque in Europe, we give you Islam (are not the girls wearing Hijab?), we are bringing you the Olympic games. You have Ruud Gullit in charge of FC Terek, Crystal Callahan and her ‘shopping in Grozny’ series, we have removed all ugly beardy weirdy types from Chechen shop window, we are allowing polygamy for the men, origami for the women, you’ve had Mike Tyson teaching the boys how to box, we are investing in tourism to bling up the Caucasus to scratch with Euraspirations. the boss pops down regularly to keep an eye on things, you have Kloppo the friendly bank manager ever ready to serve and all you people can talk about is grievances!

    Get real internet nerds, come see Chechnya for yourselves. Its super. Everybody is returning from Europe now. They all see the light. Mr Omar Sugaipov was wasting his life in UK, but now he has a nice new house, 4×4 and new 18 year old wife. What more can anybody want?

    Az hu da deeza?!? as we say in Chechnya.

    I need this website shut down asap. Kim would you be ok with $10 million to shut up a little bit. Get yourself a nice new apple or something?
    You know Chechen press centre ‘for make great knowledge of Chechen success story’ are always looking for star writers to open up shop in nice Europe or US.
    pleeeeeeeze- i wont ask again….

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