On February 3, Doku Umarov, leader of the Chechnya-based Islamist separatist movement known as the Caucasus Emirate, ordered Islamist fighters active in the region and elsewhere in Russia to cease attacks on civilians, a significant departure in policy for a movement that has always used terrorism as a core tactic.
Unfortunately for the Kremlin, Umarov’s statement, along with a series of intense anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya and Dagestan in mid-February, signals that the deeply-entrenched Islamist extremist movement in the North Caucasus may be growing more dynamic. Additionally, the Emirate’s policy shift does not extend to pro-Moscow security forces (aka siloviki).
Umarov’s eschewing of civilian attacks potentially precludes the Kremlin from playing the terrorist card as a means of political consolidation ahead of the March 4 presidential elections. The prominent apartment bombings in Ryazan in 1999 and the 2004 Beslan school siege in North Ossetia–both carried out by Chechen Islamist separatists–endowed the then-president Vladimir Putin with enough popular support to embark on the intense political centralization which characterized his eight-year tenure as president. With the Kremlin, and Putin, in its current state of vulnerability, Umarov will be unlikely to make the same miscalculations as his predecessors.
How long the Emirate will stick to its new policy remains unclear. And though the ban on civilian attacks is unlikely to afford Islamist separatists any moral high ground among most Russians, the announced policy shift demonstrates that separatist leaders are shrewd enough to play external political conditions to their advantage.
Meanwhile, Moscow has been reticent to offer a clear response. Nor has the government’s strategy of dealing with the North Caucasus terrorist threat – with its characteristic heavy-handedness and lack of realistic socioeconomic solutions – shown much innovation.
The prolongation of Moscow’s siloviki-centric North Caucasus policy was clear at a February 2 meeting headed by Republic of Dagestan President Magomedsalam Magomedov, who announced the formation of five special operations units to target the districts in Dagestan with the highest reported levels of separatist activity. Five days later, Dagestan Security Council Secretary Magomed Baachilov announced the creation of two additional groups with the aim of bolstering local law enforcement.
Days after Magomedov’s announcement, regional security forces in Dagestan went on the offensive. In a February 11 raid in Gurbuki, MVD operatives killed four insurgents along with the head of the Caucasus Emirate’s Dagestan branch Ibragimkhalil Daudov (aka emir “Salekh”). Likewise, a February 16 special operation in Mutsalaul resulted in the death of local insurgent leader Magomed Kasumov (aka “Mukhammad”).
The most consequential offensive occurred between February 13 and 17, when Chechen and Dagestani forces executed a joint operation on the Chechnya-Dagestan border following a separatist ambush on Chechen MVD forces in that republic’s Vedeno district. The operation, in which Chechnya’s pro-Putin leader Ramzan Kadyrov reportedly participated, resulted in the destruction of a seven-member insurgent group led by Chechen separatist field commander Magarbi Timiraliev and the blockade of two similar groups. Yet, Chechen security forces suffered exceedingly high casualties – officially seventeen dead and twenty-four wounded. Life News, which put the figure at 21 dead and 36 wounded, noted that Chechnya’s security forces had not witnessed such high casualties in several years.
No doubt, the Kremlin and its allies in the North Caucasus made significant gains with the elimination of several prominent separatist leaders. Yet, the disproportionately high casualty rate among security forces in the latest operation demonstrates the Russian government’s lingering inability to quash the insurgent threat in a militarily cost-effective manner.
Nor has the Kremlin’s forward approach engendered much goodwill among non-insurgent North Caucasus residents. Distrust of pro-Moscow security forces, though nothing new in the region, has been especially strong in the Dagestani village Gimry where, as Regnum reported, village residents threatened to block the main highway on February 21 following the detainment of a local resident by security forces.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of Moscow’s policy is its failure to address the socioeconomic problems which drive many people to join the insurgency in the North Caucasus, a region with some of the highest rates of unemployment and corruption in Russia. The most prominent state-supported socioeconomic development project – a planned series of tourist resorts – has gained little traction; and despite the whirlwind mid-February visit to the North Caucasus by Russian Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko, who extolled the region’s investment potential and criticized the “horror stories” about Dagestan, the situation on the ground – poor socioeconomic conditions and bad governance – remains unchanged.
Even in light of a seemingly more dynamic Caucasus Emirate, it appears for now that Moscow is unlikely to deviate from its traditional strategy of brute force and socioeconomic half solutions. Certainly, the Kremlin must maintain a strong – though positive – security presence. Yet, without a realistic development strategy that provides citizens with tangible alternatives to supporting the Caucasus Emirate, Russian leaders are unlikely to see much progress in the region’s security or development.
Tom Liles is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.