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.

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.