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Decreasing violence in the North Caucasus: Is an end to the regional conflict in sight?

Image by Sergey Norin

Over the last five years, the level of violence in the North Caucasus has significantly decreased. The number of casualties of armed incidents across the North Caucasian Federal District in 2012 was 700, while in 2015 it sank to 206. A significant factor in this decrease is related to the growing number of fighters leaving the North Caucasus for Syria, and to a lesser degree to the success of Russian security forces in disrupting insurgent networks and killing leading figures in the Caucasian Emirate.


North Caucasus
Casualties of armed conflict in the North Caucasus 2010-2015. Graphic: Кавказский Узел

Despite the pacification of Chechnya following two wars, and further normalization of the relationship between Moscow and Grozny, the violence in the North Caucasus continues. The nature of the conflicts, however, is evolving. For example, in Chechnya a conflict originally driven by ethno-nationalist separatism has become characterized by Islamic extremism, which is spreading into the neighbouring republics.


Carrots and sticks: Russia’s attempts to manage the conflict

Since the onset of the Chechen War in 1999, use of force has been Russia’s main tool in the North Caucasus region. Although Russian military stabilization approaches in the region were declared complete in the mid-2000s, the region remains heavily militarized and Russia’s policy retains a strong security focus. During the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin undertook a softer approach to the North Caucasus and introduced large-scale development programmes, appointing Alexander Khloponin, an economic technocrat from the modernization team, as Moscow’s plenipotentiary. By investing in the economic development and the modernization of the Northern Caucasus, Moscow hoped to eliminate insurgency in the region.

Partially due to ongoing violence in the region, Russia returned to a ‘hard security’ approach during Vladimir Putin’s third presidency as the country was preparing for the Sochi Olympics. In 2013, President Putin replaced Khloponin with Sergey Melikov, a Russian general, as Russia’s representative in the North Caucasus. Moscow’s strategy in the region increasingly focused on counter-terrorism and employed targeted killings to end the insurgency.


The consequences of ignoring root causes

Despite a reduction in casualties over the last two years, neither Russia’s development agenda nor its hard security approach have proved effective in stemming the violence or overcoming insurgency because, individually, neither comprehensively addressed the root causes of the conflict and sources of grievance. In fact, the level of corruption, underdevelopment and unemployment in the North Caucasus remain the highest of any region in Russia. 

First, by allowing corruption to persist, Moscow has ensured that the benefits of federal programs in the the North Caucasus republics cannot achieve the desired outcomes. Federal funds allocated for regional programs remain a major source of corruption and are used to co-opt regional elites. Because the local population does not see ‘their share’ of central revenues (while the elites line their pockets) alternative governance around social justice structures have emerged, such as private Islamic schools, medical centers and Sharia law courts. The local population perceives services provided by Islamist groups in particular as better meeting their needs.

Second, the people of the North Caucasus are excluded from the national political system.  Although Melikov is from the North Caucasus, he is seen as representing the Russian military rather than local interests. In 2004, Moscow abolished elections for the heads of the Russian Republics of the North Caucasus, choosing instead to appoint them in order to ensure their loyalty. This decision still breeds resentment among the local population.

Third, although Russian security forces have successfully eliminated many leaders of the insurgency, Moscow’s heavy-handed approach has not prevented young people from becoming insurgents. On the contrary, it has motivated many young Muslims in the region to join the armed resistance. Similarly, incendiary policies that fail to distinguish radical Muslims from more moderate Salafists, such as labelling all Chechens terrorists and hunting for extremists in neighbouring republics, have marginalized the young Muslim population. As long as Islam and Islamic traditions are discredited by the government, radical Islam will remain a powerful mobilizing agent employed to express discontent.


‘Exporting’ the North Caucasus conflict

The decrease in violence in the North Caucasus from 2014 to 2015 is linked to a significant outflow of fighters from the region to Syria. Indeed, according to different statistics there are up to 5,000 individuals from Russia fighting in Syria.

The presence of these foreign fighters and the consequences of their involvement in the Syrian conflict on security in the North Caucasus are distinct. There have been two waves of fighters who have moved from the Caucasus to Syria and Iraq. The first occurred between 2011 and 2013 and comprised relatively few fighters from Russia itself. Most of the fighters in this first wave were North Caucasian emigrants living in Turkey who were unable to return to join the fighting in the North Caucasus. These individuals were largely sympathizers and insurgents who sought to return to Russia and join the Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz) after fighting in Syria. The second wave, which took place between 2013 and 2015, was mostly made up of young Salafist idealists from Dagestan and Chechnya who wanted to live under Sharia law in the Islamic State. The motivation of this later group of fighters explains why a significant number of the people moving to Syria during this period were women and children, who accompanied the male fighters.

As of 2013, it was relatively easy for young people to leave the North Caucasus in order to fight in Syria because the Russian authorities did not impose any travel restrictions or other impediments. Rather, in many cases the Russian special security services facilitated the outflow of fighters to Syria by arranging the necessary documentation in the hopes of exporting their internal insurgency problem. 


Returned foreign fighters and regional security

Russia’s intervention in Syria is largely motivated by its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, indirectly it also functions as a means of attacking militants from the North Caucasus without drawing international attention. The majority of these militants are based in the Latakia, Idlib and Aleppo regions, three areas which have been particularly targeted by Russian bombing. As a result, the JamaatsIslamist fighting units from the Caucasusin Syria are being depleted in some cases and are under significant pressure in others, and the recruitment of foreign fighters from the North Caucasus has significantly decreased.

Because the foreign fighters from this second wave of migration have no clear intention of returning to Russia, Moscow does not see them as a threat to Russian security and, thus, has not been specifically targeting them in its Syrian campaign. However, Russia continues to target Islamist militants from the first wavethose who are closely associated with Caucasus Emirateas they intend to return to Russia to resume fighting against Moscow. The most likely route that the latter will pursue on their trip back to Russia is via Turkey and Georgia. However, having previously facilitated the militants’ departure from Russia, Moscow has now sealed off the border to prevent the re-entry of returnees. As a result, returning foreign fighters are likely to become stuck in areas like the Pankisi Valley in Georgia. In this regard, the return of these foreign fighters stands to pose a greater regional security challenge than an internal problem for Russia.


An uncertain future in the North Caucasus

While Russia has significantly undermined Syrian foreign fighters originating from the North Caucasus and has certainly succeeded in reducing the number of returnees, some militants have managed to re-enter Russian territory and are likely to join the armed North Caucasus insurgency.

At the moment, the number, experience and financing of insurgents in the North Caucasus is unclear. The outflow of fighters to Syria and actions by Russian security forces to break up the Caucasian Emirate in the North Caucasus mean, however, that large scale organized militant armed actions have largely ceased in the region. Despite this development, a low level of insurgent activity remains as a result of local grievances and is likely to continue until they are addressed either by the local governments or by Moscow. While the extent of future violence is less certain, underdevelopment, political exclusion, corruption and human rights abuses in the region will undoubtedly contribute to ongoing Islamist recruitment efforts and to perpetuate the insurgency.

The blog is a summary of the discussion on the security in the Caucasus during the workshop ‘Shifting Conflict and Security Dynamics in the Caucasus: the Role of Regional Powers’ that was organized by SIPRI and the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS) in Tbilisi on 29 April 2016.


Ekaterina Klimenko was a Researcher in and the Coordinator for Conflict, Peace and Security
Dr Neil John Melvin was a Senior Researcher working on the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean Security.