Conflict Localization Reaches Dagestan

The Russian military recently announced that it will form three new battalions in Dagestan, staffed entirely by locals. The first of these battalions, to be located near Makhachkala, is already being trained, while the other two will be formed in the near future and will be stationed in the northern and southern parts of the republic. The total force strength will be around 700-800 people.

The formation of these battalions is, in essence, an admission by the Russian military and other security services that they are failing at containing the spreading insurgency in the region. According to official sources, 104 security service personnel were killed in the region in 2010 (data through mid-November). The sizable contingent of federal forces located in Dagestan now includes the 102nd MVD brigade, the 136th Buinaksk motorized infantry brigade, the Botlikh Mountain Brigade, a naval infantry battalion, and various FSB and MVD special forces units. But despite their presence, the insurgency continues to gain strength.

Russian authorities seem to have decided to try to solve this problem by using one aspect of the Chechen model — the part where they handed over fighting the insurgency to Chechen troops. In fact, NVO reports that the new battalion in Dagestan is being trained by specialists from Chechnya. But Dagestan is not Chechnya and there is no Dagestani equivalent to Ramzan Kadyrov. Instead of a strongman willing and able to use whatever means necessary to either bring insurgents to his side or kill them, Dagestan is run by a complicated set of clans from different ethnic groups all vying with each other for power in the republic as a whole and in various individual districts.

The idea, I guess, is to combine the advantages of local knowledge possessed by locally recruited forces (usually found in the police) with the heavy armament usually possessed by federal troops. Unlike the police, these troops will not have to call in reinforcements with heavy weapons and armored vehicles when they find a group of armed insurgents. They will already have these weapons and equipment on hand.

At the same time, the absence of strong leadership at the regional level may lead to internal conflicts within the battalions, as well as the possibility that their members may defect with their weapons to the side of the insurgents. On the other hand, the presence of locally recruited military units could lead to a loss of federal control over the territory in much the same manner as Moscow has pretty much lost control of Chechnya under Kadyrov. This is especially likely should strong republic leadership emerge at some point in the future and be combined with a successful assault on the insurgency by these units.

Overall, this seems to be a risky strategy on Moscow’s part, driven perhaps by a sense that everything else they’ve tried has not worked. The chances of this tactic working also seem quite low.

Is Tatarstan Facing a Surge of Religious Extremism?

I am now blogging occasionally at the Atlantic Sentinel on broader Russia-related issues. I’ll cross-post here for ease of access. Here’s a post on religious extremism in Tatarstan.


I recently came across an article that argues that Tatarstan is facing an Islamization scenario akin to what has already occurred in Ingushetia and Dagestan. It reports on a talk given at a conference on ethnic and religious tolerance recently held in Kazan. Rais Suleimanov, the deputy director of the Center for Eurasian and International Studies at the Kazan Financial University, points out that youth comprise 40 percent of people who regularly attend mosque in the region. Yana Amelina, the head of the Caucasus department at the Center and another conference participant, notes that radical Islam has over the last few years replaced ethnic separatism as the dominant anti-state ideology in the Caucasus and is now spreading into the Volga region.

When I was last in Kazan two years ago,  I was struck by the sheer number of young women wearing “Islamic” clothing and young men with those beards that act as markers of Islamic identity in the FSU. This was in stark contrast to previous visits, when everyone (and especially young people) wore European style clothing and hair styles. The number of people with such Islamic markers was also much higher in Kazan two years ago than in my visit to Baku last week.

Of course, wearing traditional clothing or a beard is not a sign that one is a wahhabi extremist (though it might be interpreted as such a sign by the local authorities). But I think there is no doubt that young people are more religious now than they were 5-10 years ago and that the religion they are following is not the “traditional (Hanafi) Islam” of the area but less moderate imports from the Middle East.

But this does not mean that they are all ready to take up arms against the government or support some kind of Islamic Caliphate. The authorities would take that interpretation at their own peril — if they start repressing religious Tatars, they may end up promoting more violence than if the people were left alone to worship as they please.

The proposal in the article that the government should reject any attempts at dialog with the “wahhabi lobby” in Russia and instead ban all “wahhabi activity” seems to be particularly counterproductive in this regard. This is the kind of thing that was tried in places like Kabardino-Balkaria 5-6 years ago and only led to more people taking up arms against the authorities, because of a desire for revenge against authorities who humiliated them or repressed their relatives. Those who follow this topic may well remember the story about Russian interior ministry operatives going into mosques and forcibly shaving people or carving crosses into their hair. The net result of these actions was a rapid increase in anti-government attitudes, followed by Islamic radicalism, and then a spike in violence in the region.

The regional authorities could shoot themselves in the foot by taking excessively harsh measures against non-violent but pious Muslims who reject the traditional Islamic leadership in the region in favor of strands of Islam imported from the Middle East. In that case, one could see the formation of violent bands whose goal is revenge against those who humiliated or hurt them.

If, on the other hand, followers of Salafi Islam in Tatarstan are monitored but not persecuted, the chances for a significant surge of religiously-based violence in the region is pretty remote.

Violence in the Caucasus is due to a combination of religious extremism, a hopeless economic situation, and a perception that the local authorities are all crooks. Tatarstan may have more religious extremists than it used to, but its economic situation is pretty good by Russian standards and its authorities are less blatantly corrupt than those in the North Caucasus. Unless we start seeing massive unemployment among young Muslim men in the Volga region, I don’t think we should worry about the kind of violence and instability that we see in Dagestan or Ingushetia spreading to Tatarstan.

There will be occasional disenchanted Tatar extremists who want to fight, but they will continue to do what they have been doing for the last decade — they’ll go off to the Caucasus, or to Afghanistan, and fight there. Tatarstan itself, as well as the entire Volga region, will become more religious, to be sure, but will nonetheless remain fairly stable and non-violent for the foreseeable future.

Russian military threat assessment stays old school

I recently came across an interesting article in Voennaia Mysl, the most authoritative official Russian military publication on matters of doctrine and military planning. The title translates to “Political-military aspects in the formation of Russian interests on the southern geopolitical vector.” This article, written by Colonel Maruev and Lt. Colonel Karpenko and published last November, serves as a good indicator of how military planners view Russia’s military planning priorities for the near term.

The authors state clearly and up front that the southern sector is the most tense from the point of view of assuring Russian national security. This is a welcome antidote to recent items (including the new military doctrine) arguing that NATO presents the chief threat to Russia.  But unfortunately, this kind of new thinking does not last beyond the first page. In fact, the ostensible NATO threat repeatedly sneaks in through the back door, as it were.

Georgia and the Caucasus

For the authors, Georgia presents the main threat of instability in the region, plausibly enough given the recent conflict there. Blame for the deterioration of Russian-Georgian relations is placed squarely on the Georgian leadership, who “see Russia as their enemy” and therefore make cooperation impossible. Instead, the authors advocate not just supporting Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence, but in fact call for using these territories as a “launching pad for the further expansion of Russian influence in the Caucasus in order to realize [our] geopolitical interests.” This should be done by increasing Russian military presence in the two regions in order to counter Georgian military forces, which are equipped with the latest in modern NATO military technology. (No mention is made of the extent to which “modern” Georgian military forces failed in their war with Russian forces using almost exclusively with Soviet-era equipment — equipment can help win wars, but not if facing a vastly more numerous and better trained force.)

The authors then turn to the pernicious role of US efforts to take the states of the Caucasus out of the zone of Russian influence by bringing them into western political-military structures. Countering this effort in Georgia is seen as very difficult, but can be achieved by fulfilling all obligations made by Moscow in the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan and thus showing the Georgian population that Russia does not have any aggressive intentions toward their country. The hope is that this method of rebuilding trust would lead to a political change in Georgia that would bring to power more pro-Russian politicians. The contradiction between “fulfilling obligations made by Moscow in the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan” and increasing Russian forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia  is not addressed, which leads me to think that Russian military planners interpret these obligations as requiring the withdrawal of forces merely to the borders of the “newly independent states,” rather than back into Russia proper.

Armenia is seen as a critical country in the region because of the presence of Russian military bases on its territory and its consequent role in containing Turkish and Azerbaijani interests. Maintaining Russian influence can be accomplished by not allowing the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the consequent end of Armenia’s transport and economic isolation through a scenario designed by the West. All I can say is that they better hope that Armenians don’t read this article.

Actually, the same goes for Azerbaijan, where the authors argue that the main problem for relations is that Baku is trying to connect relations with Moscow to the solution of the Karabakh conflict along lines that benefit Azerbaijan. (Shocking, I know…) They advocate using some flexibility in dealing with Azerbaijan, because of the country’s geopolitical importance.

In true zero-sum neo-realist fashion, the authors argue that Russia needs to make clear to the Caspian littoral states that their developing close relations with external powers would destroy their traditional links to Russia, thus causing them significant economic and political-military problems.

The Near East and Iran

In the concluding section of the article, Maruev and Karpenko turn to the Near East, focusing on Russia’s close relations with Lebanon and Syria, and also on the possibility of forming a pro-Russian lobby in Israel that could be used to further Russian interests in the region. (Fifth column, anyone?)

Relations with Syria are primarily supposed to focus on arms sales and the development of the Russian naval base at Tartus, while Lebanon should receive economic assistance in order to prevent it from drawing closer to the US. Iraq is mentioned  in the context of trying to revive Russian economic positions, particularly in the energy sector.

Finally, the authors argue that the current tension around Iran’s nuclear program partially benefits Moscow by keeping energy prices high, while also posing a danger because of the potential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They essentially advocate continuing to play both sides to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons while also trying to convince Western powers to be more flexible.


All I can really say is that I’m glad the Russian military has so little influence in Moscow’s corridors of power these days. If the sentiments expressed in this article were actually Russian policy, I would have to go crawling back to George Friedman to ask for forgiveness. But fortunately (both for me and for the world), this article is more of a last gasp from a dying breed of Russian military strategists who continue to see threats from the West lurking around every corner and hope that politicians will believe them so they can get more resources for the army.

This is not to say that they are wrong on all aspects. Clearly, Russian leaders would love to have a more pro-Russian Georgian government in power and have taken political steps to try to make such an outcome more likely. I don’t see this as any different from steps taken by every other significant power in the world (and particularly the US) to try to change hostile regimes in strategically significant countries. The key question is not whether states try to influence the politics of other states, but whether they do this through illegal and/or destabilizing means, such as by fomenting coups. So far, since the war Russia doesn’t appear to have crossed this line Georgia, but it has come close.

I would argue that Russian policy in the region is far more subtle than the brute force zero-sum security thinking of the authors. Russian leaders are perfectly capable of conducting a far more subtle foreign policy that allows for close relations, for example, simultaneously with Armenia on security issues in the Caucasus and Turkey on trade and energy, as well as Black Sea security. Furthermore, Russia has been maintaining fairly cordial relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia for years now and there’s no reason to think it can’t continue to work with both states. Furthermore, I would argue that solving the Karabakh conflict is actually very much in Russia’s interest — both because it would eliminate a significant source of instability in the region and because Armenian economic revival would promote economic growth throughout the region, which would help Russian economic interests in the Caucasus.

Hopefully, we will eventually see a new generation of Russian military analysts take over, with more nuanced positions on Russian security. In the meantime, I guess I’m glad that the ongoing Russian military reform has significantly reduced the old guard among the General Staff.

North Caucasus Federal District

Yesterday,  President Medvedev split the Southern Federal District into two parts, creating the North Caucasus Federal District. The new district includes Stavropol krai and the ethnic republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, North Osetia, Karachaevo-Cherkesia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. The district will be headed by Alexander Khloponin, who was previously the governor of Krasnoyarsk krai in Siberia. He will be both the presidential representative to the district and a vice-premier in charge of the region.  The capital of the new district will be in Piatigorsk, a fairly small resort town (~150,000) in Stavropol.

What does this mean for Russian politics and the region?

First of all, there’s the question of why the region was divided in the first place. One hypothesis is that it was done to separate the troublesome ethnic republics of the North Caucasus from Sochi, the site of the 2014 winter Olympics. I find this vaguely plausible but not very likely. Nobody outside Russia (other than a few scholars) really cares about the federal districts. And renaming and reorganizing things doesn’t change the essential geography. No matter what district they’re in, Sochi is still not that far away from places with a bad international reputation, such as Chechnya and Beslan.

It seems more likely that this was done  to increase Moscow’s control of the region, both by making it more geographically focused (and thus hopefully improving governability/control) and by bringing in the right person to take charge.

This brings me to the second question: why Khloponin? While there are some rumors circulating that Dmitry Kozak was offered the position but turned it down, Khloponin nevertheless seems to be ideally suited for the job. He is an outsider who is not beholden to any of the clans that run political and economic life in the district’s republics. This is an absolutely critical factor, as he will have the task of reducing the influence of these elites, who until now have largely traded on the threat of more instability in the region to receive continued financial subventions from the center.

Khloponin is also an excellent manager, with a proven track record both in business (as chief of Norilsk Nickel) and in politics (as governor first of Taimyr okrug and then of Krasnoyarsk — one of Russia’s largest and most economically significant provinces). He has received high marks in both positions and was instrumental in effectively carrying out one of the first regional mergers — by folding Taimyr and Evenk autonomous districts into Krasnoyarsk. He is also not considered a member of either Putin or Medvedev’s teams, thus allowing him to have access to both leaders.

One thing he is not is a general (or a silovik of any kind). Russian papers are speculating that this is a sign that Russian leaders have decided it is time to shift from a policing/counter-insurgency strategy in the North Caucasus to one of hoping that economic development leads to a reduction in violence and an increase in stability. Military and quasi-military operations will still be necessary from time to time, but these will be handled either by provincial leaders (such as Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya) or by existing quasi-military structures (such as the local branches of the Ministry of Internal Affairs). Khloponin, on the other hand, will be responsible for overall coordination and particularly for the district’s economic development.

To this end, the unique combination of giving Khloponin the positions of both presidential representative and vice-premier is particularly significant. This allows him access to both President Medvedev and Prime-Minister Putin and puts him in charge of not just the power ministries. As Vice-premier, he will have the authority to give orders to representatives of all federal ministries in the region. The unique nature of the position is also meant to serve as a signal to regional leaders that he is someone with direct access to the top leaders in the Kremlin; in other words, he is someone to be respected and obeyed.

Finally, there is the question of why Piatigorsk was made the capital of the region. This seems fairly straightforward — it is close to all of the regional capitals without actually being one of them. If the capital of the new district was placed in one of the republics, it would give that republic an advantage over the others, something that would not go over well in the region. Placing the capital in the city of Stavropol was possible, but it is farther removed from the republics. Piatigorsk is only an hour or so drive from any of the other capitals in the district. It hosts the Liudmila market, which is a central meeting point for traders from the entire region. And last but not least, it is a resort town, which will make it an attractive place to live for the federal bureaucrats who will now be based there (and also an attractive place to visit for officials from Moscow…).

Overall, this seems to be a very successful decision on the part of Medvedev and Putin, allowing them to reap the benefits of Khloponin’s potential success in the region, while giving them the necessary distance from their new viceroy to lay the blame squarely at his doorstep should things go badly awry.