Since Imperial Russia first arrived in the North Caucasus in the 18th century, it faced resistance from the peoples who inhabit the mountainous republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan in particular. From Sheikh Shamil, to the Gazavats, up until the mid-2000’s, it has been a persistent headache for the Russian state.
When the Kremlin ordered the razing of Grozny in 1999, it marked what appeared to be a comprehensive and decisive victory over extremism on Russia’s southern border. This second attempt at containing radical nationalism within the autonomous republics of the North Caucasus showed Russia’s perceived valuation on internal security as much higher than their concern for ethno-national interests, and the rise of Putin associate Ramzan Kadyrov as another cog in the same machination of pro-Kremlin structure being formed.
Kadyrov’s father, the previous President of the Chechen Republic, was assassinated in 2004 by Islamic militants, and he was replaced by Alu Alkhanov, a former Russian soldier who fought in the First Chechen War. This pro-Moscow agenda would continue, as Kadyrov was sworn into office in 2007, as he has proven to be a useful agent for maintaining integrity in the region as it undergoes social and political reconstruction.
In a modern context, though struggling with issues of journalistic freedoms and occasional threats of terror, Chechnya has risen to a position in the North Caucasus of lesser security risk, while its neighbor Dagestan has seen a rise in domestic violence and extremism. In September, a Dagestani police officer was executed on film, making it the third such case carried out by the same group, led by the now deceased Magomed Khalimbekov.
Coupled with a directive intended to increase access to the internet universally in the republic, the expansive Caucasus Mountain range provides guerrilla access from both Georgia and Azerbaijan, which could become a route of entry for fighters leaving ISIS, given the assumption that the conflict in Syria and Iraq will soon conclude. Its main source of recruitment, ISIS has been effectively utilizing social media to attract potential militants from around the world, and in an already turbulent area, such as Dagestan, increased access will inevitably encourage further propaganda from extremists.
As of the 7th of November, the assaults on Raqqa and Mosul were being successfully executed, and it is likely, given the entrenchment of ISIS soldiers at the current juncture, that the reclamation of the two cities will be the beginning of the end for the organization in the region. Though they still maintain a foothold in Libya, they will be forced to move elsewhere if structure is to be conserved. Provided they make their way north into Turkey, or east into Iran, a calculated decision would show the North Caucasus as the only sympathetic space for a regrouping and reestablishment of their ranks.
Of course, fluid movement in a region that is heavily secured will prove difficult, but if their physical presence cannot be transferred to places like Makhachkala or Nazran, their ideology can be spread in populations who have been disenchanted with the Kremlin since the Stalinist deportations of the 1940s.
As a republic, Chechnya appears to have moved beyond a purely nationalistic agenda, and fallen back into a Russian-supported de-escalation of radicalism, but Dagestan has yet to have witnessed such reform. Stoked nationalism in a republic, which has nearly three times the population and more than three times the land of Chechnya, could prove dangerous, especially given the increased frequency of open conflict between police, Special Forces, and militants.
When the dust settles in the Middle East, the minority, radical, ideologue populations will be forced to establish a base elsewhere, and given the history of rebellion and the rise of Salafism in Dagestan, the North Caucasus could fill the void.
Image: A Chechen fighter during the battle for Grozny, January 1995 (Wikipedia commons)
Kyle Walter is a Master’s student in Russian and eastern European studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. He is a graduate of George Mason University, where he studied global affairs and Russian language, and was editor-in-chief of the Unitatem blog. He is the author of the forthcoming novel, “The Luminary.” Follow him on Twitter.