North Caucasus: Militant Underground Becoming More Active – Analysis

Since the start of Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, underground militants, both ethnic and Islamist, in the North Caucasus have been relatively quiet. This lull is the result of Russia’s security services and, perhaps more importantly, the product of the militants’ decision not to take action lest they benefit one of the countries involved in the war against Ukraine. (On that pattern, see Kavkaz Uzel, March 31.)

Now, Akhmed Yarlykapov, a specialist on the North Caucasus at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, argues that the situation appears to have changed (Kavkaz Uzel, April 1). The Russian government blames outsiders like the Ukrainians for the shift. It is far more likely, however, that the revival of militancy has its roots in the deteriorating situation in the North Caucasus, where poverty and unemployment remain high and combat deaths in Ukraine are mounting. The militants presumably sense that the time to take action has come as Moscow is distracted with the fighting in Ukraine (Kavkaz Uzel, March 29).

The unrest in the North Caucasus is not a copycat crime in the wake of the March 22 attack on Crocus City Hall. (For more on the attack, see EDM, March 25, 26, 28, April 1 [1], [2].) On the one hand, the upsurge in violence in the region began weeks before the terrorist attack and appears to be growing. On the other hand, those who carried out the Moscow attack were not from the North Caucasus but Central Asia. Besides the possible calculation Yalykapov points to, however, there is one way in which the current developments in the North Caucasus are very much connected to the Moscow attack.

After the Russian security services failed to prevent the Crocus City attack, they are keen to show both Russian President Vladimir Putin, who rose to power by suggesting that he alone was able to suppress terrorism and militancy in the North Caucasus, and the Russian people, who view the North Caucasus as a much more immediate threat than Central Asia, that they are actively fighting terrorism and having success. Much of what is known about the shadowy world of underground militancy in the region comes from Russian counterterrorist actions there.

In the past month alone, after a period of relative quiet, three major clashes have taken place in the North Caucasus between local militants and Russian siloviki. These actions have called attention to the continuing and growing strength of militants, Islamist, and otherwise in the region. The first, on March 2 and 3, involved a violent clash between the Russian siloviki and members of the Ingush Liberation Army. This moderate Islamist group seeks the independence of Ingushetia from the Russian Federation. (For background on the Ingush Independence Movement and its militant arm, see Window on Eurasia, February 2; for the goals of those behind this action and the reasons Moscow declared counterterrorist actions there, see Fortanga.org, March 7; and for the scope of these clashes, seeEDM, March 7). Moscow quickly ended this unrest, but ensuing court cases against the militants and those accused of cooperating with them continue, highlighting the existence of a well-armed and ideologically committed movement (Fortanga.org, March 29).

The second clash occurred in Stavropol Krai, a predominantly ethnic Russian region adjoining the North Caucasus with an increasing number of migrants from that region and Central Asia. On March 29, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) announced that its officers had “put an end to the terrorist activities of three nationals from a Central Asian country who were planning to commit a terrorist act by blowing up a device in a public place in the Stavropol region.” This represented a transparent attempt to link developments there to the Crocus City Hall attack (The Moscow Times, March 29). It is far from certain, however, that the militants in Stavropol Krai include only people from Central Asia. The FSB itself says that it has blocked 12 terrorist actions there over the past year—actions that appear to be the work of North Caucasians, not Central Asians (Kavkaz Uzel, March 29).

The third of these clashes, and the one that attracted the most attention, occurred over the past weekend in Dagestan. In the first counterterrorist operation in the Dagestani capital since early 2022, Russian siloviki blocked off districts in Makhachkala and adjoining Kaspiysk, evacuated many residents, and engaged in a gunfight with militants. The operation ended less than 24 hours after it began, with the siloviki seizing three militants who were armed with automatic weapons, improvised-explosive devices (IED), and explosives (Kavkaz Uzel; Govorit NeMoskva; Chernovnik;Kavkaz.Realii, March 31).

Three aspects of these cases are noteworthy. First, the number of militants in each case was small, allowing Russian authorities easy victories. Still, a variety of concerns motivated the militants, not just Islamist militancy. Those who lump all these events together as being about Islamist terrorism centered around the Islamic State and Afghanistan are almost certainly deceiving themselves. Second, Russian counterterrorist operatives, in an apparent change from the past, sought to arrest those involved rather than simply kill them. This change could mean, as some Russian experts suggest, that the new militants are less committed to fighting to the death than their predecessors (Kavkaz Uzel, April 1). It could also indicate that Russian force structures have finally recognized that they have been sacrificing high-value sources of intelligence about the underground militant groups by killing rather than capturing them.

The third aspect of these clashes is likely to be the most important. Putin rose to power by launching the second post-Soviet Chechen war and presenting himself to Russians as the man who pacified the region. Clashes between militants and his siloviki over the last month, at the very least, call the Kremlin leader’s reputation into question. Together with the activism of other groups in the North Caucasus, including most prominently the Chechens and the Circassians, these events may contribute to destroying his reputation of invincibility, at least among Russians. If that proves to be the case, it will almost certainly represent a greater defeat than any he and his invaders have yet suffered in Ukraine.

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