Beyond Ukraine, Russia Is Already At War

WASHINGTON, DC -- The West may have been focused over recent months on eastern Ukraine amid Russian threats to invade, but inside Russia the Kremlin is already fighting a war.

Russian soldiers in Chechnya's Second Chechen War.

It is a war that has led to more deaths and had far greater impact on Russian society and domestic politics than the conflict in Ukraine is likely to have.

If Russia’s annexation of Crimea served to shore up President Vladimir Putin’s falling approval ratings, it was his launching of the Second Chechen War that brought him to power in the first place.

Fifteen years after it began, that war shows no sign of ending.

Russia’s North Caucasus — the region where Chechnya is located — has been rocked by violence since 1991.

In the first four months of 2014 alone, over 110 people have been killed there in terrorist-related attacks.

It is a region in which poverty and unemployment are widespread and where the Kremlin sustains a series of criminal and deviant activities — including corruption, clan hegemony, lawlessness, and state-backed brutality — in an effort to overcome an Islamist insurgency.

These efforts have failed, and the Kremlin’s control over the North Caucasus is severely limited beyond the region’s main towns.

Putin’s recent shake-up of his political elite (with the appointment of a new Presidential Envoy for the North Caucasus Federal District) is an attempt to address the situation once and for all, but like his earlier ones it is destined to fail.

Putin made his name — and reputation — from his response to the September 1999 apartment bombings in three Russian cities that killed almost 300 people.

Speculation surrounds the bombings — the Kremlin blamed Chechens, but when an unexploded bomb was found in a fourth city, the perpetrators turned out to be Russian agents.

Although Putin had launched the Second Chechen War a month earlier, it was the bombings that created a wave of patriotic fervor and swept Putin to the presidency.

He was, and continues to be, a wartime leader.

Putin used instability in the North Caucasus to construct his authoritarian vertikal of power in Russia: following his election as President in 2000, he promptly centralized economic and political power.

Emboldened by this success, Putin officially declared the end of the Second Chechen War in April 2002.

The announcement was fatally premature: less than a month later, North Caucasus militants launched a two-year campaign of terrorism in Russia, including the 2004 Beslan school hostage siege in which almost 200 children were killed.

Following that atrocity, Putin announced the centralized appointment of Russia’s regional governors and overhaul of the country’s electoral system.

Despite the death (in murky circumstances) of the Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev in 2006, the insurgency continued.

In 2007, it was re-born as the ‘Caucasus Emirate’, led by Chechen terrorist Doku Umarov and with the goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in southern Russia.

The Kremlin did not initially take the new entity seriously, and wound down its decade-long counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya in April 2009.

That all changed following the terrorist attacks on Moscow’s metro in March 2010 and Domodedovo International Airport in January 2011, which together killed 75 people.

In the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the North Caucasus insurgency claimed responsibility for three deadly bomb blasts in the southern city of Volgograd.

In 2013, over 500 people were killed in the North Caucasus.

And, despite Umarov’s death earlier this year (like his predecessor Basaev, in shady circumstances), the insurgency remains active under the new leadership of the Dagestani Ali Abu-Mukhammad.

Abu-Mukhammad has promised to deliver “crushing blows” to Russia.

The continuing instability in the North Caucasus speaks volumes about the way power in Putin’s Russia is projected.

Putin’s posturing over Ukraine may give the impression of an all-powerful strongman, but the reality is that Putin does not control, and nor has he ever controlled, all of Russia – and one need only look at the North Caucasus to see this.

The rest is little more than smoke and mirrors, as impossibly high levels of support for Putin in the 2012 presidential election attest.

Unlike the current crisis in Ukraine, there has never been any sustained international attention on Russia’s war in the North Caucasus.

That may be because Putin has refused to internationalize the situation, having long argued that Russia’s Islamist insurgency was a domestic and not a regional or global problem.

But it also reflects the international community’s more general indifference to the region.

The West has no practical solutions to the wars in Russia and its backyard and, until recently, no will to stand up to Putin.

Just as World War Two began not over Hitler’s persecution of German Jews but his invasion of Poland, so too has Putin’s international folly finally sparked Western opprobrium.

That Putin’s tactics to quell Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus have included extra-juridical murder in Europe and may have led to the radicalization of Europe’s Chechen diaspora has garnered only passing Western interest.

Similarly, the European Court of Human Rights’ decision this year that Russia had “violated the right to life” of 14 civilian men during the Second Chechen War elicited nary a response.

In the eyes of Western leaders, Russia’s war in the North Caucasus sits apart from its wider attempts to destabilize global security.

The North Caucasus, however, is not an isolated case.

Putin came to power noting that “my mission, my historic mission – it sounds pompous, but it is true – is to resolve the situation in the North Caucasus”.

Given such ambitions, it is little surprise that he now positions himself as the protector of Russian-speakers throughout the former Soviet Union.

In addition, the North Caucasus republics fiercely supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea, while Chechnya’s Putinist puppet government has sent mercenaries to eastern Ukraine and Crimea to fight along side pro-Russian separatists.

Even more worryingly for Kiev, Putin appears to be rolling out his ‘Chechenization’ policy — the appointing of pro-Russia Kremlin-loyalists as regional leaders, who then wield supreme power — in Crimea.

Putin came to power on the back of a “small, victorious war” in Chechnya, and he has reasserted his domestic popularity by a similar endeavor in Ukraine.

But the lesson from the North Caucasus is clear: such wars are never small, and rarely end as its planners foresee.

Rather than demonstrating strength, they most often expose weakness.

Source: Forbes