The Dormant Stage of the Chechen Insurgency and The Challenges It Poses to the Pro-Russian Chechen Regime

The Dormant Stage of the Chechen Insurgency and The Challenges It Poses to the Pro-Russian Chechen Regime

“Following the end of the Russian military operations in 2008, Chechnya has experienced a period of economic recession and consistent low-level political violence perpetrated by Jihadist and separatist insurgent movements. The brutal Counterinsurgency operations carried out by the Chechen security forces inflicted severe casualties on the rebels but antagonised large segments of the local population. A sudden decline in the regime’s capacity to enforce law and order could arouse the dormant Chechen insurgency and drive the little republic towards a new, bloody civil war.

by Roberto Colombo

In February 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the end of the Russian military operations in the Republic of Chechnya. Promising the return of peace and stability in the troubled region, Putin asserted in front of the Russian State Council that, starting from early 2004, the Russian armed forces operating in conjunction with the Chechen government’s paramilitary units successfully inflicted a ‘decisive and crushing blow’ to the Chechen rebels [1]. Welcomed with enthusiasm by the Russian population, the end of the Russian Counterinsurgency (COIN) operations and the institution of a competent pro-Russian indigenous COIN force were supposed to mark the conclusion of a military engagement that, since August 1999, claimed the lives of more than 10,000 Russian soldiers and 30,000 Chechen civilians (according to Russian official estimates) [2] [3]. Despite Putin’s speech describing the Chechen conflict as resolved, scholars and journalists challenged the Kremlin’s optimistic viewpoint. ‘It is a fairy tale that Chechnya has become a stable region,’ stated the editor of the Caucasian Knot website, Grigory Shvedov, a few days after the declaration, noting that clashes between insurgents and security forces continued to occur on a daily-basis in spite of the Chechen regime’s heightened COIN capabilities [4]. Although the pro-Russian government headed by Ramzan Kadyrov since May 2004 forced the insurgency to assume a ‘dormant’ configuration characterised by a low-level frequency of violent attacks, it only did so by implementing brutal COIN measures that alienated the civilian population and exacerbated the local communities’ hostility towards the official authorities [5]. Notwithstanding the decrease in their operational efficacy, the insurgents have not been dissuaded from attempting to unsettle the status quo through the use of terrorism, political assassinations, and low-level guerrilla warfare [6]. Should the regime’s capability of enforcing law and order be weakened or challenged, the dormant Chechen insurgency could swiftly gain momentum by mobilising the populace against the pro-Russian government and triggering an escalatory cycle of retaliatory violence between civilian population and security forces [7].

Ironically, the paramilitary forces that allowed the pro-Russian regime to quell the insurgency might also be the catalyst for a new wave of violence throughout the region. Realising that the deployment of Chechen natives would have significantly assisted the Russian military forces in isolating and neutralising the insurgents, Moscow in 2000 supported the establishment of the kadyrovtsy, a pro-Russian indigenous paramilitary group named after Chechnya’s ruling family – the Kadyrov clan [8]. Against a backdrop of judicial impunity, the kadyrovtsy resorted to collective punishments against the insurgents’ relatives, including threats, beatings, rapes, torture, and executions, to force the insurgents to lay down their weapons and deter the population from providing assistance to the rebels [9]. Because of their experience as former insurgents, their loyalty to the incumbents, their access to high-quality information, and their inclination to target innocent civilians, the kadyrovtsy proficiently contained the insurgency and effectively coerced the civilian population into submission [10]. Nevertheless, the kadyrovtsy’s draconian techniques exacerbated the society’s polarisation and deeply antagonised the civilian population. Many Chechens are ‘in a state of postponed blood feud toward Kadyrov, his clan, and the kadyrovtsy and are waiting for ‘a propitious time to commence violence’ [11]. As long as Kadyrov is able to control and direct his paramilitary units against the insurgents and their supporters, the kadyrovtsy will continue to constitute a formidable COIN force. But because the Kremlin retains the authority to appoint and dismiss the leaders of any autonomous republic of the North Caucasus Federal District (NCFD), Kadyrov’s supremacy is dependent on Moscow’s volition. If deprived of their leader’s guidance and the government’s patronage, the kadyrovtsy would lose their organizational and operational efficacy, exposing themselves to the populations’ retaliatory strikes [12]. Such a tense and unpredictable socio-political landscape is particularly suited to trigger large-scale collective violent outbreaks. Consequently, the Chechen insurgency could easily capitalise on the population’s grievances and swiftly turn from dormant to rampant. In other words, the repressed Chechen population is likely to retaliate against the security forces and join the insurgency in large numbers as soon as the regime’s capability to subdue the local communities and suppress the insurgents wanes [13].
As mentioned, the dormant Chechen insurgency might also reawaken if the relationship between Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, and Moscow deteriorates to the point of endangering the Chechen political establishment’s survival. Since 2004, Chechnya has been ruled by a leader fully loyal to Putin and anxious to demonstrate his allegiance to the Russian Federation. As a reward for his ability to quell the insurgency, Kadyrov enjoys Putin’s personal support and is afforded the freedom to ‘treat Chechnya as his personal fiefdom’ [14]. However, the Chechen leader’s political hegemony is subject to significant restrictions. Despite Kadyrov behaving like a monarch and his political power steadily growing, his dominion over Chechnya cannot be secured without Moscow’s direct approval. Therefore, Kadyrov’s position might drastically change overnight if Moscow decides to dispossess the Chechen leadership of its official federal endorsement [15]. Currently, the strongest opposition to Kadyrov’s rule is represented by the Russian siloviki – politicians that previously served within Russian military, security, and law enforcement agencies [16]. Many among the siloviki consider the presence of an ambitious warlord dominating a small Russian region and disposing of a large personal elite force as a serious threat to the federal government’s authority [17]. At the moment, Putin’s patronage prevents the siloviki from taking actions against Kadyrov and undermining the Chechen leadership’s legitimacy. Nevertheless, a significant weakening of the Chechen regime’s political power cannot be ruled out from the possible outcomes of an increasingly tense relationship between Grozny and Moscow. Although Chechnya exhibits lower levels of political violence in comparison to other areas of the NCFD, the situation on the ground remains highly volatile [18]. If the regime is deprived of Moscow’s endorsement or loses its ability to confront the insurgents, the Chechen population would be able to massively engage in politically-motivated violence and revitalise an insurgency that, until now, seemed to have been patiently waiting for favourable conditions to arise once again.

[1] Putin, V (2008) ‘Speech at Expanded Meeting of the State Council on Russia’s Development Strategy through to 2020.’ [online] available from: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/24825. Accessed on 12th May 2019. 
[2] ‘Chechen Official Puts Death Toll for 2 Wars at Up to 160,000,’ (2005) New York Time, 16th August [online] available from https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/16/world/europe/chechen-official-puts-death-toll-for-2-wars-at-up-to-160000.html. Accessed on 12th May 2019.  
[3] Department of Justice (Russia) ‘Armed Conflict Report: Russia (Chechnya) (1999-First Combat Deaths in Current Phase,’ January 2019 [online] available from: https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/eoir/legacy/2014/02/25/Russia.pdf.  Accessed on 12th May 2019.  
[4] Schwirtz, M (2009) ‘Russia Ends Operations in Chechnya,’ New York Times, 16th April [online] available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/world/europe/17chechnya.html. Accessed on 12th May 2019.  
[5] Halbach, U (2018) ‘Chechnya’s Status Within the Russian Federation,’ German Institute for International and Security Studies, SWP Research Paper, p. 5.
[6] Blank, S & Kim, Y (2016) ‘The North Caucasus: Russia’s Other War,’ The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2, p.187.
[7]Souleimanov, E; Abbasov, N; Siroky, D (2019) ‘Frankenstein in Grozny: Vertical and Horizontal Cracks in the Foundation of Kadyrov’s Rule,’ Asia Europe Journal, Vol. 17, p. 87.
[8] Souleimanov, E (2017) ‘A Failed Revolt? Assessing the Viability of the North Caucasus Insurgency,’ The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2, p. 219. & Souleimanov, E; Aliyev, H (2017) How Socio-Cultural Codes Shaped Violent Mobilisation, Palgrave, p. 39.
[9] Ratelle, J & Souleimanov, E (2016) ‘A Perfect Counterinsurgency? Making Sense of Moscow’s Policy of Chechenisation,’ Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 68, No. 8, p. 1298.
[10] Souleimanov, E & Aliyev, H (2016) ‘Evaluating the Efficacy of Indigenous Forces in Counterinsurgency: Lessons from Chechnya and Dagestan,’ Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol. 27, No. 3, p. 394.
[11] Souleimanov; Abbasov; Siroky, p. 95.
[12] Ratelle & Souleimanov, p. 1308.
[13] Souleimanov, p. 222.
[14] Halbach, p. 13. 
[15] Ratelle & Souleimanov, p. 1304.
[16] Taylor, B (2017) ‘The Russian Siloviki & Political Change,’ American Academy for Arts & Sciences, Vol. 146, No. 2, p.  53. 
[17] Souleimanov, E (2015) ‘An Ethnography of Counterinsurgency: Kadyrovtsy and Russia’s Policy of Chechenisation,’ Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 31, No. 2, p. 107. 
[18] Dannreuther, R (2014) ‘Shifting Dynamics of the Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in the North Caucasus,’ Ethnopolitics, Vol. 13, No. 4, p- 378. 

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