Displaced Conflict: Russia’s Qualified Success in Combatting Insurgency
In both Syria and the North Caucasus, Russia claims success in fighting insurgency and terrorism, offering itself as a model of best practice. Closer examination, however, shows that this “success” carries major caveats and is more illusory than it first appears. This article considers the link between Russian-speaking foreign fighters in Syria and domestic jihadism, the lessons of Russia’s counterinsurgency approach and the potential for further conflict in the North Caucasus. It argues that Russia has successfully defeated the domestic insurgency, in part by displacing the conflict to Syria, but has remained in the crosshairs of Russian nationals recruited to fight abroad. Furthermore, Russia’s failure to address underlying problems makes it likely the North Caucasus will continue to experience low levels of violence and instability, even if the re-emergence of organized insurgency is unlikely in the short term.
Victory at Home and Abroad?
Russian officials portray their counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies in Syria and the North Caucasus as a success. In March 2016, President Vladimir Putin announced the beginning of the withdrawal of military forces from Syria, claiming they had “generally” achieved their goals (even though some of these forces stayed on and continue to participate in combat operations and patrolling as of April 2021). Russia helped ensure the survival of the Assad regime and the recapture of key territory. In the North Caucasus, Russian National Antiterrorism Committee head Alexander Bortnikov has declared in a 2021 interview that “the primary hotbeds of terrorist activity, and all the heads of armed gangs, have been eliminated.” He claimed that, around the world, countries are looking to Russia’s “unique” experience for lessons on how to successfully combat terrorism.
On the surface, Russia’s claims to success appear justified. In Syria, Thomas Schaffner has detailed how Russia has succeeded in protecting or advancing its national interests through intervention in multiple ways. In the North Caucasus, year-on-year insurgent violence has declined and organized insurgency has been eliminated. Although occasional violent clashes still occur, there is little evidence of any capacity for sustained resistance. The Islamic State has, it is true, claimed numerous attacks on Russian soil. Still, these do not demonstrate high levels of sophistication, often involving rudimentary weapons and online encouragement but little by way of substantive operational support.
Dig a little deeper, however, and the picture is more complicated. Russia’s approach to counterinsurgency raises serious ethical and legal concerns, relying on a definition of success based around the number of body bags, not the peaceful resolution of social and political conflict. In Syria—replicating a strategy deployed earlier in Chechnya—Russian military operations are notable for their use of indiscriminate bombing, the targeting of medical infrastructure in rebel-held areas, the targeting of moderate rebels and the involvement of private military contractors with limited accountability. As will be detailed below, success at home has been delivered in no small part through displacing the North Caucasus conflict to Syria. Even taking into account Russia’s military achievements in this domain, it has certainly not eliminated all the actors who are hostile to Russia. Indeed, despite Moscow’s claim of victory against the Islamic State, the group continues to operate and has established what the Institute for the Study of War calls “a stable territorial base.”
In the North Caucasus, many of the same facts that Russia trumpets as successes belie continued threats of violence, while the underlying problems that fed support for the insurgency over the years continue to fester. As much as IS-claimed attacks demonstrate limited operational capacity, they also illustrate its ongoing ability to mobilize people to action. Even in the absence of an organized infrastructure, attacks by self-starter groups remain a regular occurrence and often involve juveniles who continue to find the ideas of jihadism attractive. Those ideas continue to circulate online, not only among North Caucasians but also among Central Asian migrant and other Muslim communities in Russia; they are not limited to the Islamic State but instead form part of a broader jihadist milieu.
Nor has anything been done to address the underlying issues that fed support for the insurgency over the years. Human rights violations, limited accountability and the harassment of supposedly suspect communities like local Salafis remain widespread. Corruption, a lack of opportunities and a failure to fully reintegrate the region into the Russian political and legal space continue to be significant issues. Even official figures, which should always be accompanied by an appropriate serving of salt, place unemployment at 11 percent in Kabardino-Balkaria, 13 percent in Dagestan, 13.6 percent in Chechnya and 26.3 percent in Ingushetia—all of which are toward the bottom end of national charts and well above the national average of 5.7 percent. As North Caucasus expert Irina Starodubrovskaya observes, the pandemic and inadequate economic policies are only likely to make the situation worse. Nowhere are these issues more apparent than in Chechnya, where Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime maintains control through brutal repression and frequent human rights abuses. As Ekaterina Sokirianskaia notes about the region as a whole, “the main factors that fed the insurgency for many years haven’t gone anywhere” and “the threat of re-escalation is real.” What is more, as both Sokirianskaia and another regional expert, Ruslan Kurbanov, observe, the security services have distinct individual and organizational financial incentives to incite and maintain low levels of violence in the region.
Displaced Conflict from the North Caucasus to Syria
On March 15, 2021, the Syrian conflict passed what the U.N. special envoy described as a “grim anniversary” of a decade of fighting and “unimaginable violence.” What started as a popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime gradually transformed into a jihadist insurgency crossing the border with Iraq and spawning the state-building project known as the Islamic State (Daesh). Alongside the Syrian authorities’ policies and its allies, the thousands of foreign fighters who migrated to the conflict from around the world played a crucial role in this transformation. Russian-speaking insurgents, in turn, comprised a significant portion of this transnational contingent.
North Caucasians were among the first foreign volunteers to support the Syrian uprising. The first arrived in late 2011; the existence of an organized group led by Chechens was confirmed by September 2012, and a steady trickle of volunteers made the journey in 2012 and 2013. Many of these early participants had previous links to the insurgency in the North Caucasus and utilized pre-existing support networks and infrastructure, particularly in Turkey. Yet most had long since left that conflict and came not from Russia but the diaspora and refugee communities in Georgia, Turkey, the Middle East and Europe. Initially, they coalesced mainly around a group that came to be known as Jaysh al Muhajirin wal-Ansar (JMA). From late 2013, however, JMA started to fracture. First, a small splinter group broke away, ultimately joining up with al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah. Then JMA’s leader, Tarkhan Batirashvili (a.k.a. Umar al-Shishani), led a much larger group into the Islamic State. Those that remained renamed and reformed multiple times, with one cluster ultimately taking the name of the Caucasus Emirate in Syria—aligning itself with its namesake in the North Caucasus. North Caucasians were also present in several independent groups, often taking leadership roles; key among these was Jund al-Sham and Ajnad al-Kavkaz, both small groups built around personal networks.
The Islamic State’s decision to proclaim a caliphate in June 2014 had a galvanizing effect on transnational mobilization and stimulated a much larger wave of volunteers in 2014-2015. By February 2017, Putin estimated that 4,000 people had travelled from Russia, with an additional 5,000 coming from other former Soviet republics. The profile of this second wave differed significantly from the first. People travelled directly from across Russia, and even many of those who came from the North Caucasus had no prior involvement with the domestic insurgency. As occurred elsewhere in Europe, the promise and apparent success of the caliphate’s state-building project appealed to new groups of people. The Islamic State targeted different groups through its Russian-language materials, while individuals such as Akhmad Chatayev played a crucial role in recruiting individuals in Georgia, Russia, Turkey and Europe.
The various groups with which Russian-speaking fighters were involved pursued different priorities and agendas, but they typically had one thing in common: animosity toward Russia. Several of the experienced leaders who travelled to Syria in the first years of conflict did so because they could not find a way back to the North Caucasus. Russia’s support for the Syrian regime and its increasing military presence on the ground presented new opportunities to fight Russia in more favorable circumstances. Across groups, rebel leadership statements identified Russia as a threat and an enemy. Where these groups differed was in their understanding of what constituted legitimate targets and tactics. The Islamic State, for example, claimed multiple terrorist attacks in Russia, targeted Russian interests abroad—most notably, downing a Russian passenger jet over Egypt in October 2015—and carried out a string of suicide attacks in Turkey. The leaders of Ajnad al-Kavkaz and Jund al-Sham, by contrast, cast attacks on civilians as illegitimate, rejected attacks in the North Caucasus for being ineffective and wasting lives and opposed operations in Turkey for endangering important support communities. Although both cooperated with al-Qaeda on the ground, they employed a different conception of jihadism, and their operational focus was on fighting Russia and the Syrian regime.
The anti-Russian orientation of some of these actors is further illustrated by the occasional migration of fighters from Syria to Ukraine—a conflict with a distinctly different ideological character, but one that also affords opportunities to take the fight to Russia. Russia, too, appeared to prefer fighting these actors abroad. The security services apparently turned a blind eye to those looking to travel to Syria; indeed, individuals deemed to pose a security threat found it easier to travel outward than those trying to come the other way. Russia repeatedly justified its military intervention in Syria because of the terrorist threat posed by potential returning fighters. As recently as April 2021, Viktor Zolotov, head of Russia’s National Guard, declared that his organization helped combat terrorism at home and abroad, including through operations in Syria.
The Collapse of Organized Insurgency in the North Caucasus
The Islamic State’s projected image of success stood in stark contrast to that of the Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz, or IK), the umbrella movement that united insurgents in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria from October 2007 onward. For many years, the IK had been waging a war of attrition against Russian and local authorities; however, while armed struggle undoubtedly blighted the lives of people living in the North Caucasus, it did little to loosen Russia’s control over the region. Although the proclamation of the IK rescued the insurgency from its nadir in 2005-2006, the group had been in steady decline for many years. It was never able to contest territorial control or organize large raids in the manner of the earlier Chechen separatist movement. Suicide attacks and regular clashes with security services masked the loss of senior rebel leaders, the increasingly reactive nature of insurgent operations and the failure to transform its virtual state-building project into a reality.
In many ways, however, it was the repercussions of the Syrian conflict that proved fatal for Russia’s domestic insurgency. At home, the IK found itself under increasing pressure, particularly through 2013 and 2014, as the Russian security services clamped down in an effort to secure the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Despite suicide attacks in Volgograd in late 2013, the security services were largely successful in this endeavor and the games themselves passed without incident; indeed, the security services secured a major victory in September 2013 when they killed the IK’s long-standing leader, Dokka Umarov. The more difficult the North Caucasus became to operate in and the more setbacks the IK suffered, the more attractive the conflict in Syria appeared—creating a spiral from which the insurgency’s leadership never escaped. The IK tried to ride this wave, dispatching some fighters to Syria to gain experience and offering verbal support for jihadists there while encouraging people to remain at home. Yet those few who returned were killed by the security services in relatively short order, and the IK’s leaders were unable to stem the outward flow of people. Although many of those who travelled directly from the North Caucasus had no prior connections with the IK, their departures nevertheless drained the pool of potential recruits that the IK could draw from to replenish its ranks.
The ideological fractures in the global jihadist movement also had severe consequences for the IK. In December 2014, Rustam Asilderov, the leader of the IK’s Dagestani branch—by far its most active—declared his allegiance to IS. Over the next six months, numerous leaders and rank-and-file members followed suit. The IK was left significantly weakened in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, and without prominent representation in Chechnya and Ingushetia. IS formalized its advance into the region by declaring the North Caucasus part of its caliphate in July 2015, appointing Asilderov as its leader. The few remaining IK loyalists aligned themselves more closely with al-Qaeda. Yet, defecting leaders’ efforts to redirect the IK’s appeal back into the domestic insurgency produced few tangible results and did nothing to improve the challenging operating environment. Security service operations continued to diminish insurgent ranks. By August 2015, the IK had all but ceased to exist; its last known, recognizable figure was killed in St. Petersburg in August the following year. The defectors fared little better, and Asilderov and numerous lower-level operatives were dead by December 2016. The last recognized leader on the ground, Chechnya’s Aslan Byutukayev, was killed in January 2021. By this point organized insurgency in the North Caucasus had long since ceased to exist in any meaningful way.
The collapse of organized insurgency notwithstanding, concerns about radicalization and low-level but ongoing support for some form of political violence among North Caucasian youth nevertheless remain widespread. The operational difficulties facing efforts to convert this into more organized resistance remain and, in the immediate future, a new, structured insurgency looks unlikely. Yet, given the caveats accompanying Russia’s claims to success in the region, it is a mistake to regard the North Caucasus as a post-conflict society and portray Russia as having resolved its problems with terrorism and insurgency. Should that environment change and the security services’ grip on the region loosen—for example, as a result of the collapse of the Kadyrov regime in Chechnya—structured insurgency is likely to re-emerge. In the meantime, the North Caucasus will likely continue to experience sporadic violence and provide recruits for conflicts in other areas.
Dr. Mark Youngman is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Portsmouth. His research examines social movements, insurgency and ideology, with a particular focus on Russia’s North Caucasus. He has published in “Terrorism and Political Violence,” “Perspectives on Terrorism” and “Caucasus Survey.”
Dr. Cerwyn Moore is a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on violent social movements, foreign fighters and insurgency. He has published widely on these issues in “Europe-Asia Studies,” “Terrorism and Political Violence” and “Studies in Conflict and Terrorism.”
Photo by the Russian Defense Ministry shared under a Creative Commons license. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors.