August 25, 2015

Russia on Fire: the North Caucasian Front

The Independent Analytical Center “Borysfen Intel” has more than once covered problems that have been increasingly grasping Russia since the beginning of V. Putin's regime's armed aggression against Ukraine. Another such problem, since the second half of 2014, has become revitalization of activity of Islamic extremists in the North Caucasus of the Russian Federation.

The main reason for this problem is a series of external factors that are the catalyst for destructive processes in the region. First of all, it concerns the strengthening of the negative consequences of Russia's armed aggression against Ukraine to the Russian Federation itself, as well as the integration and coordination of efforts of the North Caucasian Islamists with the radical extremist organization “Islamic State” (IS) in the Middle East and North Africa.

Thus, a steady tendency to the deterioration of the Russian economy under the influence of Western sanctions has led to a significant complication of the situation in the majority of regions of Russia. First of all, it is felt in the North Caucasus republics of the Russian Federation, most of which by 80-90 % depend on federal government subsidies. Under such circumstances, the reduction of revenues from Moscow has led to the critical increase in the deficit of the republican budgets in 2015, including in Dagestan — up to 1.9 billion rubles, in Ingushetia — 3.6 billion rubles, in Chechnya — more than 4 billion rubles. All this has forced the governments of North Caucasian republics to drastically reduce the cost of implementing the programs of support and development of local economies and social welfare.

In turn, the decline in living standards, rising unemployment and higher prices for basic goods and services has created conditions for the spread of protest moods among residents of the North Caucasus, as well as for the spread of radical Islamist ideology. Evidence of this is the increase in the number of religious Wahhabi communities (banned in Russia) headed by local leaders and descendants from Islamic countries (Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia included).

So communities are well consolidated and organized, and this allows them to effectively resist the government in its efforts to stop their activities. Thus, in the region, actions of civil disobedience of believers are consistently gaining momentum, and the cases of counteracting Russian power structures' measures to arrest leaders, preachers and activists of the Islamist movements have become more frequent, including by blocking of police units, their stations and vehicles. In particular, lately there have been similar cases in a number of settlements of Ingushetia and Dagestan.

Worsening of the economic situation in the North Caucasus republics has led to intensification of the struggle between different local clans for redistribution of financial flows, markets, economic institutions and spheres of influence. The consequence of this struggle is the increased number of hostile takeovers of private companies and markets including with a firearm. According to official data of the Interior Ministry, since the beginning of 2015 there have been reported about 60 armed clashes related to the redistribution of spheres of influence between different clan and criminal groups. Besides, to put pressure on competitors and to destroy their property, there have actively been used arsons, explosions, mining of residential and commercial buildings, and vehicles.

At the same time, the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict in the East of Ukraine essentially complicates the crime situation in the South of Russia as a result of leakage of weapons and fighters who participated in the fighting on the territory of Ukraine and are unable to return to civilian life, as well as representatives of criminals, mentally ill persons, drug addicts, and so on and so forth. Despite the Russian law enforcement agencies' measures to close the border with Donetsk and Luhansk regions and seizure of weapons and ammunition, criminal activity in the region continues getting activated. Thus, according to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, in the first six months of this year the number of criminal offenses in the North Caucasus had increased by more than 35 %.

At the same time, due to the involvement of units of Russia's Armed Forces and other security structures in actions against Ukraine, Moscow is actually losing control of the situation in the North Caucasus. In particular, as part of company and battalion tactical groups, as well as of other units of the RF Armed Forces that are on the territory of Ukraine and near the Ukrainian border, there are more than two thousand Russian military servicemen from the North Caucasus. In turn, this greatly unleashes radical extremists, criminal elements and drug traffickers in the republics of the North Caucasus.

The above-mentioned problems are used by leaders of the “Islamic State” to strengthen their influence in the North Caucasus. In June 2015, against the backdrop of the increased activity of the IS' armed groups in Syria, Iraq and Turkey, the Press-Secretary of the Organization M. Al-Adnani announced an agreement with the leaders of North Caucasian Islamists to establish a provincial “Islamic State” also in Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. He also announced the start of a joint war against the Russian Federation (earlier the leaders of the IS had declared jihad to Russia for its support for the regime of B. Assad in Syria).

As part of practical implementation of the above-mentioned intentions, the leaders of “Caucasus Emirate”, as well as majority of militants operating in the North Caucasus, swore allegiance to the IS. At this, they abandoned the plans to establish a separate Islamic state in the Caucasus region and joined the larger project — that of creation of the Caliphate of the whole Muslim world. The leader of the Dagestanian underground Rustam Asilderov (Abu Muhammad al-Kadari) was elected the Amir of the new Wilayah of the “Islamic State” in the Caucasus.

Combining the efforts of the “Islamic State” and “Caucasus Emirate” has led to greater organization and commitment of the activity of the Islamic underground in the North Caucasus. At the same time North Caucasian extremists have received additional funding from the sponsors of the IS. Apart from this, there has begun the return to the North Caucasus of natives of the region participating in the hostilities on the side of the armed forces of the IS in the Middle East and North Africa (all in all up to 3.5 thousand people). Such persons have considerable combat experience and have been indoctrinated in religious institutions of the “Islamic State”, which increases the motivation and the effectiveness of their fight against Russia.

All this causes a gradual intensification of extremist activities in the North Caucasus after a relative stabilization of the situation in the region as a result of quite effective counter-terrorism measures of the Federal troops (especially during the preparation and holding of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in early 2014). Since July-August, this year has been noticed a significant increase in the number of armed clashes (actually every day) and their transition to a qualitatively new form in terms of the Federal Forces' use of heavy weapons, in settlements included.

In addition, the armed forces of the Islamists also use more powerful weapons, including Air Defense. In particular, on 10 August 2015, in the airspace over Dagestan, a combat helicopter of power structures of Russia was shot down — for the first time since the end of the active phase of the second Chechen war in 2000.

At the same time, has grown the number of casualties among the personnel of the Russian law enforcement agencies and armed militias. Thus, according to official data of the Interior Ministry, in July 2015, during the fighting, in total, both sides lost 36 people (in 2014, irrecoverable losses of the federal troops were about 60 people, and the number of killed militants was 250 people).

At the same time, the Russian side traditionally underestimates its own losses and declares exaggerated number of dead extremists, including civilians killed into their lists. At this, lately, such information is generally closed. Due to the numerous facts of deaths of Russian soldiers and officers during the fighting in the East of Ukraine, in May of this year, Russian President V. Putin by his next decree amended the list of information constituting a state secret, and forbade to publicize the information about the losses of Russia's power structures in peacetime.

According to Russian non-governmental organizations, in particular the human rights organization “Memorial”, which monitors the situation in the major cities of the North Caucasus, the real losses of federal forces can be 2-3 times higher.

In order to bring the situation under control, Russia strengthens measures to combat terrorism, including by sending to the North Caucasus additional units of the Russian troops, who have been or, as a rule, will later be involved in Moscow's armed aggression against Ukraine. Besides, recently from Ukraine has been withdrawn most of the Chechen rebels, who are subordinated personally to the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov — V. Putin's “main support and hope” in the Caucasus.

There are also large-scale actions to identify, open criminal cases and arrest Islamist supporters from among the leadership of the North Caucasian republics. In particular, since the second half of July this year, in Dagestan alone were initiated criminal proceedings against four heads of districts and dozens of other members of clan and criminal gangs.

For example, a group of Moscow FSB officers arrested the Chairman of Kizlyar district A. Vinogradov. During the arrest, the law enforcement officers were forced to engage in a physical confrontation with the Dagestani official's body guards. There has been issued a warrant for the arrest of A. Vinogradov's relative — S. Murtazaliev, who is the head of the republican branch of the Pension Fund of Russia, a member of Parliament of Dagestan, Vice President of the Wrestling Federation of Russia and the leader of the Avar clan.

A separate direction of ​​actions of the Russian leadership within the framework of its struggle against the “Islamic State” and strengthening of its influence in the North Caucasus is trying to establish cooperation with Saudi Arabia (Sunni state), which is one of the main opponents of the IS in the Middle East. In particular, to this end, in July, 2015, Saudi Arabia was visited by Ramzan Kadyrov, who has quite close personal ties with some representatives of the Saudi leadership. This issue was even discussed on the 11th of August during the meeting in Moscow of the Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov and Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia – A. Dzhubeyr.

Under such circumstances, since July 2015, the issues of combating the “Islamic State” have been discussed at every meeting of the Russian Security Council, which indicates the Russian leadership's significant concern about the problem.

However, all Russia's efforts, by and large, are futile. Thus, the expansion of anti-terrorist operations, accompanied by repressions against civilians, civilian casualties and destruction of houses, contributes to the escalation of tensions in the North Caucasus. Extremely negative was the reaction of local residents to Ramzan Kadyrov's order to destroy the premises of persons involved in terrorism, including relatives of terrorists — without any court trial. Especially because this mechanism is systematically used by various groups and clans to settle personal scores.

Dangerously enough is developing the situation around of Chechen leader – R. Kadyrov himself, who in fact has come into open conflict with the leadership of Russia's law enforcement bodies. Evidence of this was the arrests of persons from Kadyrov's entourage on suspicion of involvement in the murder of the well-known Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in March this year, as well as R. Kadyrov's order to use weapons against representatives of federal power structures, if they act on the territory of Chechnya without the knowledge of the republican authorities.

R. Kadyrov's position on the latter issue is supported by leaders of other republics of the North Caucasus. Despite the repressions on the part of the federal government, a significant part of local authorities one way or another continues to cooperate with the Islamists both for ideological reasons and because of kinship and clan ties, and under pressure from the rebels. At this, the reduction of the region's financial subsidies from the federal government has automatically led to a decrease in the local leaders' loyalty to Moscow.

Internal channels of financing of Islamic groups at the expense of racketeering of local businesses and income from religious communities and individual supporters of the insurgency continue to operate.

Some foreign experts believe that Russia's hopes for help from potential foreign partners, in particular, from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), will not help it. The reason for this is fundamental disagreements between Moscow and the Arab Kingdom on how to address a number of important issues in the Middle East, including on the future of the regime of B. Assad in Syria, namely: while Russia is trying to keep him in power, Saudi Arabia is in favor of an unconditional change of the Syrian leadership. Absolutely different are also Riyadh and Moscow's positions concerning the Iranian issue.

However, a certain wariness of the US and Iranian experts was caused by the resonant news about the signing on June 18, 2015, of 6 (six) agreements between the KSA and the Russian Federation on the development of the nuclear program and the transfer of nuclear technologies (Russia is supposed to build 16 nuclear reactors in the territory of the KSA). But this is a separate issue for research and estimates — what for does Saudi Arabia need Russian atom?

But then, according to some Russian experts, there should not be ruled out the possibility of the United States and Saudi Arabia's purposeful coordinated policy of “engagement” of the Russian Federation into the struggle against the “Islamic State.” In this connection, they count on the IS' response — by stepping up subversion and terrorist activities on the Russian territory.

These circumstances create opportunities for Islamists to achieve their goals in the North Caucasus, as the “Islamic State” is now doing it in other regions of the world. In turn, this will inevitably lead to deterioration of the situation in the neighboring regions of the Russian Federation, primarily in Krasnodar and Stavropol territories and Rostov region of the Russian Federation, where has already been formed a powerful set of internal conditions for the development of crisis processes. In particular, such conditions are the growth of social and economic tensions and ethnic conflicts in the region, which will further grow due to the common problems in the Russian Federation, sources of instability in the conflict zone in the Donbas, and the spread of radical Islamism from the North Caucasus.

In the nearest future, all this does not exclude the emergence of outbreak of a large-scale social unrest and armed conflict in the territories from the East of Ukraine to the North Caucasus with inclusion into it of Slavic territories in the South-West of Russia. At this, taking into consideration the involvement of all the resources and reserves of the Russian Federation to the confrontation with the West and Ukraine, Putin's regime will not be able to influence the situation, which can be used by the “Islamic State” to strengthen its positions in the region.

In future, such a development of the situation will have immediate consequences for Ukraine in the context of shifting of the focus of threats to its security — from Russia's armed aggression to the danger of emerging of a powerful center of radical Islamism at the south-eastern borders of our state.

At the same time, the threat of radical Islamism automatically combines Ukraine's interests with the interests of the Slav (the majority — ethnic Ukrainian) population of southwestern regions of Russia, which today is compelled to support V. Putin's regime. At this, in contrast to the ghostly advantages of ideas of the “Russian world”, this danger will be quite real.

Dangerous consequences of V. Putin's criminal policy in fact pave the way for the spread of radical Islamism in the Russian Federation, and in the future — in the whole Slavic world.