The Long War

31 October 2012

When an explosion tore through Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in 2011, headlines went up around the world: “Terrorist Bombing Leaves 35 Dead”, “Carnage At Key Russian Airport”, “Security Lapse Blamed For Deadly Attack”. The articles that followed these headlines offered little context: readers learnt the ‘what, where, and when’. Yet, as is all too common with Western reports on Russia, the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ were left to the reader’s imagination. Communists Al-Qaeda? Pussy Riot?

The ‘who’ is relatively simple: Chechen separatists. The ‘why’, however, requires a trip back to 1817, and the beginning of the Caucasian War.

Exit Napoleon; Eter Yermolov

Five years after Russia stood up to Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino, Tsar Alexander I sent General Aleksey Yermolov to fortify Russia’s southern frontier–the North Caucasus. Yermolov proceeded to establish the Krepost’ Groznaya, literally ‘Threatening Fortress’, in what is now Chechnya. From this outpost Yermolov brutally conquered the indigenous Muslim tribes inhabiting the region.

The Tsar was mildly disturbed by Yermolov’s tactics at the front, which included the slaughter of women and children, mass starvation, and a scorched earth policy. The General’s reply pulled no punches: “I desire that the terror of my name should guard our frontiers more potently than chains or fortresses, that my word should be for the natives a law more inevitable than death…”

The Calm Before the Storm

Russia emerged victorious from the Russo-Circassion War in 1864, annexing the North Caucasus into its growing Empire. Excluding brief conflicts in 1877 and 1905, the region enjoyed a rare glimpse of relative stability–until the October Revolution of 1917.

The Revolution split opinion in the North Caucasus. Some welcomed the Bolsheviks as liberating them from Tsarist oppression; others saw an opportunity for full independence. Some were loyal to the deposed Emperor, Nicholas II. Historians divide on which group constituted the majority. Regardless, the Bolsheviks wooed many influential sheiks with promises of full autonomy for the North Caucasus. This was a fatal blow for the anti-revolutionary General Denikin and his Volunteer Army, denying them security for their rear flank as they marched to Moscow in 1919.

Upon winning the Civil War, the Bolsheviks quickly reneged on their promises of autonomy, and launched a severe crackdown on Islam. A policy of ‘Russification’ was instituted, culminating in Joseph Stalin’s mass deportation of Muslim Chechens and Ingush to Siberia in 1944. Between a third and one half of the North Caucasian population is estimated to have perished during this time.

Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, allowed the deported Chechens and Ingush to return in 1957, but Islamic practices remained heavily suppressed. While Islamic identity was not eradicated during this period, general knowledge and familiarity with the basic tenants of the religion declined dramatically during the Soviet years.

The Sovereign Movement

With the fall of the Soviet Union, President Boris Yeltsin promised the various minority groups within the emerging Russian Federation “all the sovereignty they could swallow”. After years of struggle against Moscow’s tyranny, the North Caucasus hungered for freedom.

However, Yeltsin’s own appetite for sovereignty didn’t match his rhetoric. Chechnya has exercised de facto sovereignty since the Soviet collapse. In 1994, Russian troops were sent in to re-assert Moscow’s authority. the troops were hardly the professional force that Yeltsin needed: morale was perilously low, many troops refused to fight, and some resorted to sabotaging their own equipment.

Faced with losing a civil conflict during an election year, Yeltsin grew desperate. He delved into Yermolov’s book of North Caucasus strategy and began carpet-bombing entire cities and villages. In 1999, the Russians razed Grozny, the Chechen capital and former ‘Threatening Fortress’, by launching five ballistic missiles into the city. Four hit their mark, the central bazaar, crowded with civilians. One missile allegedly went off course, hitting a maternity ward.

During this decade of chaos and war, a new force emerged in the region: Salafi Islam. The previously dominant Sufi Islam tradition had largely accommodated the differences between the various Muslim tribes of the North Caucasus. This prevented them from unifying against Russian rule. Conversely, Salafi Islam recognises just one distinction: true Muslims, and infidels. As Salafi Islam spread, it bound the peoples of the North Caucasus together, creating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality; the struggle against Russian rule thus turned from isolated rebellion to region-wide jihad.

Bringing the Conflict Home

Islamic terrorists have been incredibly successful in exporting the violence of the North Caucasus to the rest of the Russian Federation. They have proved, time and time again, that the Kremlin cannot isolate the region: violence there triggers violence elsewhere.

The preferred modus operandi of the terrorists is hostage taking. Often the resulting civilian casualties are not inflicted by the terrorists, but rather by Russian special forces in bungled rescue attempts. For example, during the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis, troops flooded the theatre with a toxic gas prior to storming the building. this gas caused the majority of the 129 hostage fatalities.The security services refused to tell doctors attending the scene the nature of the gas used, claiming it was a military secret.

The 2004 Beslan school siege ended with over 300 hostage fatalities, the majority of which were children. In contrast to the botched rescue attempt, the Kremlin’s post-Beslan public relations operation was an astounding success. The outrage of the Russian public was directed squarely at the terrorists by state-controlled media, providing President Vladimir Putin (who succeeded Yeltsin in late 1999) with the popular support he needed to further centralise power in the office of the president. This consolidation marked the definitive end of Russia’s flirtation with democracy: since 2004 Freedom House has labelled Russia as “Not Free”.

Despite increased presidential power and control, neither Putin nor his constitutional carbon copy, Dimitri Medvedev, have managed to stem the low of violence from the North Caucasus. The aforementioned Domodedovo airport bombing is just the latest incident in this long war.

What Is To Be Done?

Multi-ethnic states tend to embrace one of three major strategies for managing their diversity: accommodation, assimilation, or domination. The Kremlin has tried the latter two in the North Caucasus over the last two centuries. Both strategies have been found lacking.

Presumably, an accommodationist policy has not been pursued due to Russia’s territorial interests. Introducing any kind of real democracy into the North Caucasus is not an option for the Kremlin, as popularly elected governments are likely to favour full independence for the region’s republics. yet the current situation proves that domination isn’t working; the violence of the region reaches all the way to Moscow.

What does accommodation look like? Singapore, a fellow authoritarian democracy with a substantial Muslim minority, is pertinent here. The Singaporean government’s accommodation policy grants Muslims particular rights, such as access to Muslim courts administering state-sanctioned sharia law. A similar policy in Russia could lessen the appeal of jihadis in the North Caucasus, and reduce tensions between Muslim and Russian identities.

What is clear is that Russia cannot win now, as it won the Caucasian War, through pure domination. Further, the region’s high birthrates make assimilation problematic, given some analysts predict a Muslim-majority Russia by 2050. Accommodation remains the only viable option, yet Putin is hardly known for his accommodating nature. The long war gets longer.

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