Tallinn, March 31 –Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s statement that Moscow will soon end the counter-terrorist operation in his republic and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s directive to the National Anti-Terrorist Committee to make plans to do so have sparked a new discussion on the nature of the conflict there and whether it is really over.
One of the most thoughtful of these has been provided by Andrey Soldatov, the editor of the Agentura.ru portal, in an article in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal” in which he suggests that to understand “just what in the opinion of the Kremlin and Kadyrov is now ending,” it is useful to recall what Russian forces were dealing at the start (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=8931).
Despite Vladimir Putin’s claims to the contrary and the willingness of many in the West to accept them, Chechnya in 1999 was not “a common front” against Al-Qaeda. While there were a few foreign mercenaries there and some international money, Soldatov argues, “Chechnya did not become a base for international terrorism.”
The reasons for that are to be found not only in the ethno-national nature of the Chechen cause at that time but in the history of the jihadist movement in the 1990s. Instead of coming to Chechnya after the fall of Kabul in 1992, as some expected, most of the Arabs who formed the core of Al-Qaeda went to Bosnia.
In Chechnya, on the other hand, Soldatov writes, “there were almost no arrivals from North Africa. Those who came from abroad the North Caucasus came from Saudi Arabia and Jordan, but most of them went not to Chechnya but to Ingushetia or other republics there and “after the start of the war in Iraq, what Arabs there were in Chechnya almost completely left.”
Yet another indication of the way in which the Arabs who did come to the North Caucasus did not go to Chechnya was that the Muslim group Moscow publicly blamed for the explosion of the apartment buildings in Moscow and other terrorist acts was not Chechen at all but rather the Karachay-Circassian jamaat.
“Not being a place des armes of international terrorism,” Soldatov continues, “Chechnya at least from 2006 after the reforms of Basayev and Sadulayev [which involved changing the militant band formations from a quasi-army style to small special operations groups] has not been a zone for the carrying out of terrorist acts, that is, for attacks on the civilian population.”
These new special operation groups, the Moscow expert points out, resemble the IRA units of the 1970s. Most were very small, organized like cells, and structured so as to be in a position to fight a long war of attrition rather than to seek any immediate victories. And like the IRA, these groups have targeted Russian militia and military rather than civilians.
But this shift in Chechen tactics to a version of the IRA’s “long war” occurred simultaneously with something else: After 2005, “after the creation of the so-called ‘Caucasus Front of the Armed Forces of the Chechen Republic-Ichkeria,’ there has not been a separate and distinct Chechen separatist movement.”
And that submersion of the Chechen cause under the broader regional Islamist challenge was confirmed by the declaration in October 2007 of the creation of the Caucasus Emirate, an event that was accompanied by terrorist actions in a number of places outside Chechnya but not in that republic itself.
That development poses a question for which there is as yet no answer at least in Grozny and in Moscow: what role does Chechnya play for the jihadists “who are prepared for ‘a long war’” and who appear to have little interest in nationalism of the kind the Chechens had supported earlier.
According to some North Caucasus militants, “the mountainous regions of [Chechnya] have been converted into zones beyond the control of Kadyrov where the militants can live not just in the forests but even in the villages,” a claim that if true not only means that the conflict is far from over but also lays the ground for a new explosion in the future.
As many who follow Chechnya do not know, the control of such a territory by the militants is critical to the Islamist campaign. That is because, Soldatov writes, “according to the laws of Islam, a jihad can be declared only from the territory of the ‘dar ul-Islam,’ that is from lands which live according to shariat law and are free from the power of the other faiths.”
If Russian forces withdraw as Kadyrov wants and Medvedev apparently hopes, there is at least a risk that the mountainous portions of Chechnya could be “transformed into a Russian analogue of the Pakistani Federally Administered Tribal Areas,” which have remained beyond the control of Islamabad and its American allies.
That is not a danger that any in the Russian capital appear to be seeking, Soldatov points out, noting that “even before the decision about the ending of the counter-terrorist operation, operational subdivisions of the FSB and MVD which were supposed to obtain that kind of information were pulled out of Chechnya.”
Consequently, the declarations of Kadyrov and Medvedev appear to reflect their hopes rather than a careful assessment of what is taking place in that republic, and they are thus likely to represent not the end of the conflict in Chechnya and the North Caucasus more generally but only the evolution of that fight into a new and even more explosively dangerous direction.