Volume II, Number 2; 20 March 2013

Eurasia Analyst

A publication of independent researchers

Volume II, Number 2; 20 March 2013

In this issue:

New Thinking About the North Caucasus

By Professor Stephen Blank

Although the insurgency in the North Caucasus that grew out of the wars in Chechnya is over a decade old it, remains an analytic stepchild.  Few experts seem to take notice of it and the Western media barely reports it. That defect in our analysis and reporting ought to change quickly because its implications are international.  The recent arrest of three Chechen terrorists in France as part of a joint Franco-Spanish operation furnishes more than ample justification for taking this insurgency seriously as a phenomenon with significant international implications.

These men were arrested after the August 2012 raids in the city of Linea de la Concepion on the border with Gibraltar, indicating links to France, Spain, and possibly the UK.  The ringleader of the group arrested, Eldar Magomedov, hails from Dagestan, the epicenter of the North Caucasus insurgency.  He is allegedly a former Russian “special forces commando” (terms that do not equate with Russian nomenclature) who had attended training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  In 2008-11 he operated both in North and South Waziristan, as well as in Dagestan and has ties to Al-Qaida and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU—an Uzbek terrorist organization that is affiliated with Al-Qaida and was involved in a 2007 plot to kill US forces in Germany).  While in France he established links with persons of North Caucasian origin who were under police surveillance for their suspected ties to Chechen Jihadists. (1)

These arrests demonstrate the links between Al-Qaida and other Jihadi groups like the IJU and the Caucasus Emirate, which is the leader of the North Caucasian insurgent groups and provides connections to European networks aiming to launch terrorist operations in Europe and against US targets.  The war in Chechnya, as well as the overall North Caucasus insurgency can be described as epitomizing the trend towards “glocalization” in world politics, a development characterized by local actors exploiting globalizing phenomena, like information technology, to impart global and transnational implications to their cause or activities. (2)  The insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus not only represents a threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian state, it clearly has spawned cadres who are ready, willing, and able to perform terrorist operations beyond Russia in conjunction with Al-Qaida and other similarly affiliated groups.  This development demonstrates that the globalizing trend towards networks rather than hierarchies extends into terrorist organizations.   As recent analysis also illustrates, this insurgency comprises potential threats to the Sochi winter Olympics in 2014, conducts a constant information war over the Internet, involves foreign NGOs, transnational criminals as well as terrorist networks, and refugees abroad.  (3)

But the international or global significance of this insurgency hardly ends there.  As Winslow, Moelker and Companjen recently wrote,

In the past, Russian oil transportation naturally followed the line Baku-Grozny-Tikhoretsk-Novorossiysk (Black Sea).  Because of the Chechen-Russian war, Chechnya had to be bypassed and Baku oil had to be transported around Chechnya by train, slowing the flow dramatically.  The Chechen invasions of Dagestan [in 1999-author] even threatened this plan and brought swift Russian retaliation thus precipitating the second Chechen war. (4)

This episode underscores the acute linkage between terrorist threats in Eurasia and energy security, given the relative proximity of so many crucial energy sources to sites of terrorist activity.  This aspect of the terrorist threat is not confined to the North Caucasus.  Andrei Novikov, Head of the CIS anti-Terrorist Center, recently warned that the decision to pull US and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) troops out of Afghanistan in 2014 has created a new strategic situation in Central Asia and Afghanistan.  He warned that once ISAF and the US forces leave, the terrorist and guerilla activity in Afghanistan may devolve into a struggle for control of its raw materials and energy resources in order to prevent foreign businesses or governments from exercising control over those resources. (5)

Thus terrorism may become rooted there in the struggle for the redivision of Afghan and Pakistani natural resources and control of anticipated pipelines, such as the projected Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India or TAPI pipeline.  Undoubtedly such concerns apply with equal force to the possibility of terrorist activity not only in the North Caucasus but in the South Caucasus as well.  Moreover, Novikov extrapolates from these terrorist campaigns and the ongoing civil strife in Syria and the Middle East more generally to argue that terrorism is increasingly being used as an instrument of policy (i.e. by the United States and its allies) as a means of settling problems in large-scale infrastructural projects and in economic relations between rival clans in the “theaters” of these conflicts.  Terrorists and/or mercenaries attack the infrastructure of sovereign states on a regular basis. But things do not end there.  According to Novikov, and no doubt many of his colleagues, “We are dealing with a new type of state crisis, whose models and techniques have been tested.  These are the permanent “Arab Spring” and crises of the “Syrian scenario,” actually we are witnessing local armed conflicts.” (6)

Novikov implicitly links together the North Caucasus, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring, in keeping with official Russian statements, as being at the same time terrorist manifestations and the outcome of deliberate actions against Russia or its allies by other states (presumably the US and its allies).  In this respect he builds on the line promoted in 2011 by then President Medvedev regarding the Arab Spring. In March 2011, he stated,

Look at the current situation in the Middle East and the Arab world. It is extremely difficult and great problems still lie ahead. In some cases it may even come to the disintegration of large, heavily populated states, their break-up into smaller fragments.  The character of these states is far from straightforward. It may come to very complex events, including the arrival of fanatics into power. This will mean decades of fires and further spread of extremism. We must face the truth. In the past such a scenario was harbored for us, and now attempts to implement it are even more likely. In any case, this plot will not work. But everything that happens there will have a direct impact on our domestic situation in the long term, as long as decades. (7)

As this statement demonstrates, Russian officials have publicly claimed and still hold to the view that the US has a conscious plan to promote revolutions to democratize Central Asia that it already has implemented. (8)  Indeed, on April 13, 2011 anxiety about the possibility of the Arab revolutions spreading to Central Asia was the topic of a public discussion in the Russian State Duma.  Accordingly, members of the Duma and Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin called on these states to make timely reforms from above lest they be swept away like those in North Africa.  Since Russia’s goals are stability, without which these states cannot draw closer to Russia, Karasin recommended the formation from above of a civil society, international and inter-religious peace, responsibility of leaders for the standard of living of the population, the development of education, and work with youth. (9)   In other words, Karasin called on Central Asian leaders to emulate Moscow’s own efforts to build a “Potemkin democracy.”  No mention is made of economic development or freedom or genuine political reform.  Evidently, Russia is only willing to tolerate cosmetic reforms, and it is rather doubtful that Central Asian leaders would exceed those limits if they would even consider implementing any such “reforms.”

It is noteworthy that Central Asian leaders believe in this scenario of state failure and act upon it.   In particular, Moscow and Tashkent are alert to this possibility in Uzbekistan.  Thus on April 14, 2011 when President Medvedev visited Tashkent Karimov told him,

Nevertheless, I am convinced that everything happening in Uzbekistan in terms of ensuring the region’s security and stability, the current events in North Africa and the Middle East and the emerging situation in Afghanistan are all issues that Russia and Uzbekistan cannot disregard, primarily from the perspective of synchronizing our positions and conducting an open exchange of views on the situation and the issues to be addressed in the nearest future.  (10)

Medvedev tellingly replied:

With regard to current international issues, you are absolutely right: the world is facing very serious challenges. This year began with the so-called Arab Spring, which has created a completely new situation in the Middle East and North Africa. In all likelihood, the international consequences of what has happened there will persist over a considerable period of time. We are certainly interested in ensuring that these events follow a clear and predictable scenario, because we are bound by numerous invisible threads with these countries, not only economic relations and trade, but also extensive humanitarian and cultural ties. They can be very positive or they can become quite complicated, and sometimes even destructive. Therefore, it is essential for us to discuss everything that relates to our closest neighbors, to ensure that we protect the national interests of our states and our nations. Russia has always held an open position in this area, we have discussed in detail nearly all key issues over the telephone, decided on the steps we will take and coordinated our foreign policy in many respects. I think this is extremely valuable, and it is a reflection of trust we have developed between our states. We intend to continue in this vein in the future, and I am very pleased that we are going to hold such consultations once again now…. (11)

But the issues involved in terrorism and revolution also rebound back upon Russia in the North Caucasus.  In mid-2012, Jihadi terrorists killed the Mufti and Deputy Mufti of Kazan, demonstrating the spread of the insurgency into the Russian heartland.  Therefore, there is good reason to expect that we may see further outbreaks of terrorist inspired violence not only in the North Caucasus but in key cities like Kazan, Ufa, and even in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which both have rapidly growing Muslim populations. (12)  It is overwhelmingly clear that Russia’s security forces still have no effective strategy for  prevailing in this conflict, let alone terminating it, and in fact, they are even retreating from previously offered  solutions.  This inability to effectuate a proper response suggests that the struggle not only will spread inside Russia, but that its ramifications will be felt internationally for the foreseeable future. (13)  Our past complacency and neglect, if not  willful ignorance, has now become an unaffordable and even dangerous luxury.


Professor Stephen Blank

Strategic Studies Institute

US Army War College

Not for citation or quotation without consent of the author

The views expressed here do not represent those of the US Army, Defense Department, or the US Government.

Source Notes

[1]) Al Goodman and Peter Cruikshank, “3 Suspected Islamist Terrorists Arrested in France,” www.cnn.com, March 1, 2013.

2) Donna Winslow, Rene Moelker, and Francoise Companjen, “Glocal Chechnya From Russian Sovereignty to Pan-Islamic Autonomy,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, XXIV, No. 1, 2013, pp. 129-151.

3) Ibid.

4) Ibid, p. 137.

5) Moscow,  Interfax, in English, February 12, 2013, Open Source Center, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Central Eurasia, (Henceforth,  FBIS SOV), February 12, 2013.

6) Ibid.

7) “Dmitry Medvedev Held a Meeting of the National Anti-Terrorism Committee in Vladikavkaz,” http://eng.kremlin.ru/transcripts/1804, February 22, 2011.

8) S. Nikolaev, “Central Asia in Geopolitics: the American Vector,” International Affairs (Moscow), no. 2, 2011, pp. 57-62.

9) “Sokhranit’ Stabilnost’ v Tsentral’noi Azii- Uchastniki Parlametnariskikh Situatsii v Gosdume,” www.duma.gov.ru/news/273/71937/print=yes, April 13, 2011.

10) “Visit to Uzbekistan,” http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/2380, June 14, 2011.

11) Ibid.

12) Ilan Berman, “The Caliphate Comes Home,”  Journal  of International Security Affairs, Spring/Summer, 2011, no. 20, http://www.securityaffairs.org/issues/2011/20/berman.php.

13) Valery Dzutsev, “Kremlin Moves Closer to Abandoning North Caucasus Tourism Development Project,”  North Caucasus Weekly, XIV, No. 4, March 1, 2013.


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