Chechnya: Monster in the Mountains – I

Chechnya has returned to haunt Russia. Forty deaths by suicide bombs on the Moscow subway confirm that outsourcing rule in the restive republic is a failed policy. But no other plan is in sight; these are not likely to be the last innocent lives lost.

by John Russell


The ease with which terrorists detonated their bombs in the heart of the Russian capital – under the very headquarters of the Federal Security Service at the Lubyanka station and near the world famous Gorky Park – raised serious questions, not just about the ability of Russian security forces to defend citizens, but more fundamentally over the entire Russian policy towards the North Caucasus, begun under Vladimir Putin and carried on by his successor as Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev.

Insofar as Putin’s reputation and popularity were built on his aggressive Chechen policy, the latest spike in attacks from the North Caucasus calls into question his frequent assertions that the ‘war’ against terror in Russia’s southern republics has been won.

For Medvedev, who has been much more proactive in addressing the root problems of the region: corruption, unemployment, low levels of development, a question mark hangs over the future of his hand-picked plenipotentiary to the North Caucasus – Aleksandr Khloponin – who was appointed, one assumes, to tackle these issues.

[Right: The hand-picked plenipotentiary to the North Caucasus by Russian president Medvedev – Aleksandr Khloponin has no doubt the financial skills and business acumen, but the fresh-faced newcomer from Krasnoyarsk appears as vulnerable as a sacrificial lamb in the tricky political landscape he has been assigned to handle].

For all his undoubted financial skills and business acumen, the fresh-faced newcomer from Krasnoyarsk appears as vulnerable as a sacrificial lamb in a political landscape increasingly dominated by factions that have a tendency to behave more like wolves than sheep.


In attempting to crush separatism and extremism, the Kremlin twice tried and failed to implement the strategy employed by the Sri Lankan government against the Tamils: to impose a military solution by force, ignoring international condemnation of disproportionate civilian suffering.

By 2000, then President, now Prime Minister, Putin turned to Chechenisation, in effect delegating responsibility for countering the insurgency in Chechnya to pro-Moscow Chechens, led by the Kadyrovs: first the father Akhmad until his assassination in 2004, and then his son Ramzan, now the young and controversial Chechen president. Never popular with some of Putin’s presidential advisers, let alone Russian military leaders, the policy appeared to have paid dividends by 2007 when fighting in Chechnya largely subsided.

The Faustian pact between Putin and the Kadyrovs promised, in return for offering the latter virtually a free hand in running their fiefdom, not only Russian territorial integrity, but also a guarantee that ordinary Russians would no longer be subject to such bloody terrorist spectaculars as the 2002 Dubrovka theatre siege and the Beslan hostage-taking two years later. The Moscow subway bombings effectively demonstrate that the deal now appears incapable of fulfilling this important last condition and that Russians must brace themselves for further assaults.


Although surprise is necessary for any successful terror operation, the warning signs have been there for some time. Despite the success of Kadyrov in suppressing armed opposition in Chechnya, much of the violence had merely shifted to the neighbouring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan. Last year there was a significant increase in the number of insurgent attacks in the three republics as a whole.

As pressure on the resistance increased, the tactic of suicide bombings reappeared after a considerable lull. In November the fight was once again taken to Russia, with the bombing of the Nevsky Express train between Moscow and St Petersburg.

In February, Doku Umarov, leader of the self-proclaimed Emirate of the North Caucasus, warned after the loss of several key rebel commanders – including the alleged perpetrator of the train bombing, Said Buryatsky – that attacks deep in Russia were being planned. Umarov took responsibility for the Moscow bombings in a video posted on YouTube two days later – subsequently withdrawn – claiming they were in response to the February killing and mutilation by Russian forces of four local civilians.

Umarov, the only field commander who has been fighting federal forces since the outbreak of the first Chechen war in 1994, has gradually evolved from a relatively moderate, nationalist and secular fighter into a radical Islamist pledged to spread the writ of Shari’a law beyond even the North Caucasus to the Muslim republics of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan on the Volga.

Chechen leader Docu Umarov : It is rumoured that Umarov’s septuagenarian father had his eyes plucked out by one of Kadyrov’s henchmen – after which he appears to have altered his tactics – from a negotiated settlement to an armed struggle against the Russians.

The evolution of this Moscow-based graduate engineer to Russia’s ‘terrorist number one’ appears to have imitated that of his former comrade-in-arms, Shamil Basayev, who went from defending the capital’s White House during the communist putsch of August 1991, to masterminding a string of ‘terrorist spectaculars’, culminating in the Beslan school siege. In fact, Umarov roundly criticised the tactics employed by Basayev at Beslan, vowing henceforth to target government and security personnel rather than civilians.

However, just as Basayev’s demeanour changed radically after Russian forces killed eleven of his relatives in 1995, the savage treatment of Umarov’s family by pro-Russian Chechen forces – it is rumoured that his septuagenarian father had his eyes plucked out by one of Kadyrov’s henchmen – appears to have similarly altered the tactics of the current insurgent leader.

Like Basayev before him, Umarov gave up on any prospect of peace talks with the Russians, especially after the assassination in March 2005 of Aslan Maskhadov – the one Chechen resistance leader who had held out to the last the prospect of negotiations with Putin.

In his frequent webcasts, Umarov has complained repeatedly of both the hypocrisy of the west and the indifference of the Russian public in effectively ignoring what he termed the ‘Chechen genocide’ and has followed Basayev’s trajectory towards a more fundamentalist brand of Islam than the Sufism traditionally followed by Chechens and energetically promoted since Ramzan Kadyrov came to power.

Thus, a man who admitted that, at the start of the conflict with Russia, he barely knew how to pray, has become leader of one of the most active and dangerous Islamic armed groups in the world. Clearly, this conversion has been opportunistic, albeit in part, not least because the bulk of funding for his forces comes from Salafist factions in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and the considerable north Caucasian diaspora in the Middle East and Europe.

Western and Russian diplomats tend to agree that there is presently no alternative to Kadyrov’s one-man rule, so there appears to be no place for opposition of any hue, let alone Umarov’s militants. Indeed, the bitter reality of the situation appeared to reach even the remnants of the Chechen independence movement, led from exile in London by Akhmed Zakayev. He broke with Umarov after the latter established the Emirate in 2007 and at times seemed to be on the brink of an historic reconciliation with Kadyrov.

Next: Who is to blame? Who is to gain?

Related Post:Time to Set the Chechen Free
Source: World Today Title Image: Culture of Life Energy News Image in the middle: Getty Images Image at bottom:
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