Russian troops in action during the Second Chechen War. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Bear subjugating the Wolves
Before the Russian people became a nation, Russia was an empire. This has severe implications for the Kremlin’s counterinsurgency doctrine, as Russia can best be described as a state-nation rather than a nation-state. Given Russia’s unique identity, the very legitimacy of the Kremlin’s actions can be put into question, fueling Russian insecurity, which in turn caters to an inherently offensive mindset. This tendency for aggressive action quite clearly emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union, as the fear of disintegration became a reality. This offensive mindset had perverse effects, however, as Russia progressively destroying the Republic of Ichkeria as “an autonomous political community,”[i] feeding corruption and criminality rather than extinguishing it, and catering to economic uncertainty and insecurity. The result was the growth of increasingly potent anti-Russian sentiments. This left Chechens with nothing, leading many to support the oppositional identity provided by the insurgents in Ichkeria. Russia’s short-sighted historic approach means that the Chechen insurgency is never fully extinguished in the region. Conflict recurs because of the repressive and coercive measures outweighing any real move toward winning the “hearts and minds” of the locals. Because the use of repression is so entrenched, it is unlikely that Russia will ever be able to fully vanquish insurgent elements in the North Caucasus.
Unlike the typical Western approach, Moscow focused on the “hearts and minds” of the Russian people rather than the Chechen population and took a hard-core, enemy-centric approach to eliminating the perceived threat emanating from outside its borders, emphasizing the foreign elements instigating the insurgency. In May 2008, for example, Vladimir Putin declared that the Chechen insurgency had never been an attempt to achieve independence in the mid-1990s, stating that the conflict was instead instigated by foreigners designed to “loosen Russia’s place in the world stage.”[ii] Moscow sought complete control over information flows, targeting and manipulating the Russian population and the international community more broadly by highlighting the infiltration of foreign terrorists infiltration into Russian territory.
The volatile neighborhood’s insurgency against Russian imperialism plays out like a broken record. Even the guerrillas, usually adept at avoiding past mistakes, mirror their ancestors’ failures, always underestimating Russia’s willpower to suppress independent sentiment expressed by the North Caucasus people. Simultaneously, Russia’s historic experience with the Chechens taught them that any weakness espoused would directly result in an uprising, which meant that the Bear had to always appear stronger and unequivocally ready to savagely quell the pack of wolves.
Russia’s counterproductive ‘divide and rule’ policies meant that Chechnya viewed Russian imperialist aggression in the context of a 300 year-old genocide, making any “hearts and minds” approach impossible to conceptualize within a limited time-frame. The Russians historically view any Chechen leadership unappointed by Russian headquarters as illegitimate, but Chechnya too saw the Russian government as illegitimate given that it has proved itself to be untrustworthy time and time again. During the early days of the Soviet Union, for example, the most influential Sheik was invited to visit Lenin in Moscow. But instead of enjoying a grand reception, he was strangled to death at Rostov-on-Don, his final stop.[iii] The Soviets then promised to grant Chechnya autonomy, but in 1922 Moscow again reneged on its word by severing Chechnya from the rest of the mountain republics. This shattered trust, which contributed to the violence of the Second Chechen War.
Additionally, to understand the conflict’s ideological component one must go back to Catherine the Great’s 1780 campaign of subjugation in the Caucasus region, which firmly established Islam as an oppositional identity in the North Caucasus. The first significant rebellion occurred in 1784 and was led by Sheikh Mansur who called for a ‘gazavat’ against the Russian occupiers; his role was greatly mythologized during the Second Chechen War and was propagated as a symbol of the insurgency. From 1834 to 1859, Imam Shamil, aimed to establish an Islamic State, which was again mythologized in Chechen folk tradition and filtered into the narrative of the insurgents.[iv]
In response, Russia introduced a counter-ideology to Chechnya in the mid-19th century to weaken Imam Shamil’s insurgency. Kunta-haji, a Muslim preacher, was planted by the Russians in Chechnya to extinguish the fighting by converting the populace to Zikrism, a non-violent Sufi branch of Islam. His teachings of nonviolence and passive resistance became popular among a population exhausted by the almost fifty years of the Caucasian war. The Qadiriyya Sufi movement pacifists grew, eventually comprising around 70% of the population,[v] highlighting the success of winning over the locals’ “hearts and minds.” However, Kunta-haji was taken into custody in 1863, as his success was considered a threat to Russia. This led to the Battle of the Daggers, which involved 3,000 of Kunta-haji’s murids, armed only with ceremonial daggers, launching an attack in an attempt to free their teacher in Shali. The rebels were dispersed by the regular troops of General Tumanov. Though unsuccessful, this attack rekindled the ideological battle against Russia. This event thus contains important parallels to the Second Chechen War, as the introduction of a counter-ideology was implemented in the early 2000s as well. Kunta Haji’s modern-day successor is embodied in Akhmed Kadyrov, whose Sufi beliefs align with a pro-Putin mindset, appealing to a people who have lost interest in fighting the war because of the terrible loss of life and great deal of suffering.
Furthermore, Russian invasions in the 18th and 19th centuries against the Naqshbandi tariqa provided a mobilization framework for future resistance movements. Specifically, the 19th century General Aleksey Yermolov ignited the anger of the insurgent force with his brutal tactics. Known as “the butcher,” his ruthless campaigns “established in the Chechens collective minds that the Russian imperial government could not be trusted” and was therefore branded illegitimate.[vi]
Even when not rebelling physically, the concept of “passive resistance” in the Muslim faith means that the “war of thought” remains, which in turn results in Russia’s coercive campaigns only ever achieving short-term success.[vii] Desperate to find an alternate identity to the Russian imperialists, Islamic fundamentalism provided Chechnya with the path toward establishing its own government and a set moral and legal codes, making Russian governance superfluous. The oppositional identity in the Second Chechen War, namely Wahhabism, was introduced in 1986 and spilled over from Dagestan to Chechnya, highlighting the nature of the porous borders within the region.
Appointing a Lord of the Fleas
Akhmed-haji Kadyrov chose to side with the Russians at the very beginning of the 1999 war, which gave the Kremlin a critical lever that they were missing in the past: a respected leader with an ideology. Although Kadyrov openly opposed Russia, he shared a special relationship with Putin. This couplet was to transform the conflict into an internal political struggle for power, further dividing the insurgency and dismantling rebellious elements from within. Chechnya’s internal fight for power came to resemble a civil war. Both the federalists and the pro-independence forces were increasingly fragmented, and this chaos on the ground meant that the insurgency could be side-tracked by Russia. Akhmad Kadyrov was fervently against Wahhabism, which he considered an alien ideological component that had started the war. But at the same time, he had numerous personal contacts with leading warlords, which would prove useful. Moreover, Putin felt that he could control Kadyrov, as he could not easily reverse his loyalty to the Kremlin due to a blood feud with jihadist leaders that Kadyrov had made during the first war.
Cultivating the “human terrain” was specifically pertinent within this insurgency.[viii] Focusing on “culture-centric warfare,” the Russian authorities began to look at Kunta Haji’s teachings as a branch of Islam that could be used to nullify the anti-Russian forces in the region. [ix] Kunta Haji, the founder of Zikrism had propagated “non-resistance to evil,” which had worked in the mid-19th century, to convert an exhausted Chechen population near the end of their War. [x] Kishiev, as he was also known, advocated for non-violent resistance to the Russian infidels, thereby granting the Chechens the ability to resist. But rather than acting through violence, they continued to resist in thought.
Russia understood that COIN forces must adapt to the social terrain, so getting into the minds of the insurgents was key. This highlights the importance of recognizing an insurgency’s idiosyncrasies to understand its mindset. Indeed, 56% of Chechens believed that the fighting continued due to a desire for revenge, while only 24% thought that independence was the reason.[xi] The Chechen fighters who had made enemies during the interwar period of 1994–1996 joined the ranks of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration to settle-scores with their personal targets and enemies. Significantly, these animosities occurred beyond the scope of the separatist side of the conflict. Blending former rebels within COIN, with approximately two-thirds of the Kadyrovtsy units being led by them, internalized the struggle.[xii]
Kadyrov was appointed the Lord of the Fleas to counteract the rebels, but at the same time the Kremlin retained central control. This occurred in several ways, but the most obvious wash the construction of parallel power bases–such as the commander of the Chechen-manned OMON (special police force), Musa Gazimagomadov, in Shatoy district in the southern part–to counteract his influence.[xiii]These overlapping centers of power pivoted around the Kremlin, with most being highly suspicious of Kadyrov, their main opponent. These clever tactics gradually changed Russia’s image, transforming the war into an internal struggle for political power. Even after Kadyrov’s assassination in 2004, when Alu Alkhanov took-over as the President, the historical narrative yet again came to the fore: Alkhanov suggested that he was the true follower of Kunta Haji, given that he had always been loyal to Russia, while Ramzan, given his rebellious past, was more like Imam Shamil.[xiv] However, Ramzan Kadyrov was more adept at using culture and religion to form ideologies to counter the insurgents.[xv]
Russia has historically demonstrated a powerful ability to outmaneuver insurgents before they can gather sufficient momentum to exhaust Russian resources and resolve. Russian Colonel Sergey Kulikov, quoting Kennedy’s 1962 West Point address, stated that “war with insurgents…is a war where victory is achieved by taxing and exhausting the forces of the opponent rather than by destroying him.” [xvi] This has usually been the fleas’ goal: to exhaust the soldiers and the will of the people in order to force the enemy to give-up and leave. However, Russia has been able to subvert this dilemma by drafting and draining the rebels to force them to stay. By pragmatically force-feeding rebel leaders a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, Moscow crafted a historically congruent counter-ideology. Russia exhausted both the rebels and locals by using brutal coercive tactics and then, once their will to fight was almost extinguished, injecting a non-violent counter-ideology.
US Marine Thomas Hammes argues that “the fundamental weapon in counterinsurgency remains good governance,”[xvii] something that Moscow has failed to provide. Russia’s failure to link its political means and ends results in a marked inability to cope with the pressures of social and economic development in Chechnya. Thus, it is forced to adopt an atypical strategy of winning “hearts and minds” designed around a narrative of saving Chechens from their own illegitimate government. A traditional “hearts and minds” approach was simply never tried, even though it likely would have yielded greater success, because it was alien to Russia’s historical and cultural outlook, and the Kremlin did not have the tools or resources for such a campaign. The North Caucasus’s porous borders mean total victory is never possible. Ultimately the insurgent wins if he does not lose and the counterinsurgent loses if he does not win. The counterinsurgency story is a recurring nightmare for Russia that, like a matryoshka doll, can be decapitated one head at a time. But the illusory success is shattered by the fact that the doll can simply be reassembled time and time again.
[i] Stephen Blank, “Russia’s Ulster: The Chechen War and Its Consequences,” Demokratizatsiya, Vol.9, Iss.1, (Winter, 2001), 6.
[ii] Robert W. Schaefer, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad, (Santa Barbara, California; Praeger, 2011), 266.
[iii] Robert W. Schaefer, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad, (Santa Barbara, California; Praeger, 2011), 97.
[iv] Jacob W. Kipp, “Russia’ss Wars in Chechnya,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol.8, No.1, (Winter/Spring 2001), 50.
[v] Robert W. Schaefer, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad, (Santa Barbara, California; Praeger, 2011), 97.
[vi] Ibid, 61.
[viii] Emil Souleimanov, “An ethnography of counterinsurgency: kadyrovtsy and Russia’s policy of Chechenization,” Post-Soviet Affairs, 31:2, (2015), 91.
[x] Robert W. Schaefer, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad, (Santa Barbara, California; Praeger, 2011), 244.
[xi] Joss Meakins, “The Other Side of the COIN: The Russians in Chechnya,” Small Wars Journal,https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-other-side-of-the-coin-the-russians-in-chechnya.
[xiii] Robert W. Schaefer, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad, (Santa Barbara, California; Praeger, 2011), 284.
[xiv] Andrei Smirnov, “Kadyrov Turns to Zikrism to Legitimize His Rule,” North Caucasus Weekly Vol.8 Iss.11, The Jamestown Foundation, January 1 1970, https://jamestown.org/program/kadyrov-turns-to-zikrism-to-legitimize-his-rule-2/.
[xv] Robert W. Schaefer, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad, (Santa Barbara, California; Praeger, 2011), 235.
[xvi] Sergey Kulikov, Trans. Robert R. Love, “Insurgent Groups in Chechnya,” Military Review, Vol.83, Iss.6, (Nov/Dec, 2008), 24.
[xvii] Andrew Mumford, The Counter-Insurgency Myth: The British Experience of Irregular Warfare, (NY; Routledge, 2012), 10.