Chechnya - the impact of escalation


The 29 August presidential election in Chechnya was intended as a significant step on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s path of normalisation for the war-torn republic. The assassination in June of the former holder of the Chechen presidency, Akhmad Kadyrov, had been a severe blow to Moscow’s control over Chechnya and to its image in the North Caucasus.

Events surrounding the August election have made it clear that the war in Chechnya is far from over and that the situation in the North Caucasus is far from normalising, as the Russian government claims. When seen in conjunction with the killing of Kadyrov and the June 2004 rebel raid in Ingushetia, the tragic terrorism in Russia in late August and early September indicates an escalation of the Chechen conflict and reflects the failure of the Kremlin’s uncompromising policy in the conflict.

The background to Chechen terrorism

The past fortnight has witnessed an increased use of terrorist tactics, as shown by the twin aircraft explosions (24 August), the suicide bombing at a Moscow metro station (31 August) and the seizure of a school and hundreds of child hostages in Beslan, North Ossetia (1-3 September). Meanwhile, the rebels have also shown a greater military capability, most dramatically illustrated by their ability to raid deep into the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia.

The more frequent use of terrorist tactics is attributable first of all to the existence — and apparently strengthening — of a radical extremist Islamist leadership in Chechnya. The modus operandi of this leadership, which is recruiting and training suicide bombers and hostage takers, indicates links to terrorist organisations elsewhere in the world. At the very least, Palestinian and other terrorist groups have provided inspiration; available information on the presence of extremist Islamic movements tied to the global culture of Jihad in Chechnya suggests that this link could be more than merely moral and spiritual. Even so, an organic link to external groups, let alone Al-Qaeda, remains to be proven.

The frequency of terrorist acts also indicates that the Russian security services have either lost control of Chechen extremist groups or have allowed terrorist attacks to take place. The latter explanation is unlikely but must be factored into the analysis, given the strong allegations of Russian security services’ involvement in the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and indications that they had infiltrated the group that perpetrated the 2002 attack on a Moscow theatre yet failed to stop the resulting hostage taking.1 Whatever the reason, terrorist groups continue to operate on Russian soil.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the terrorist attacks that have taken place in Russia over recent weeks indicate the presence of a significant pool of recruits for terrorist groups. A large number of Chechens are evidently willing not only to risk their lives but also to die in order to kill a limited number of civilian Russians. A large proportion of these would-be suicide terrorists are young women. Nowhere else in the world, including in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, have so many women demonstrated a willingness to commit suicide attacks. This is indicative of the meltdown that Chechen society has experienced in the past decade as a result of the brutal and indiscriminate war. Human rights violations are well reported in a conflict that has resulted in the killing of at least 10% of the population of Chechnya and has forced around 50% to flee their homes at some point. The victims of rape, abuse, or pillage are unknown but numerous.

Most Chechens growing up since the mid-1990s, especially in rural areas, have lived in the absence of basic human security: if not suffering direct military attacks, they could at any time be subjected to physical harm (including murder), abuse, rape, pillage or imprisonment in a camp. To illustrate the effects on the population, a cursory World Health Organisation study estimates that 86% of Chechens surveyed suffered from some form of physical or emotional distress and 31% from post-traumatic stress syndrome. The situation is worst among refugee children, especially those who have fled after 1999.2

The spiral of violence in Chechnya has destroyed most of the pre-war norms and structure that kept Chechen society together. It is clearly making an increasing number of young Chechens ready to accept the radical ideology preached by Wahhabi clerics, and eventually to take the step toward becoming a suicide bomber.

A stance that has backfired

In this sense, the way in which Russia has waged and continues to wage the war in Chechnya is a leading reason why militant Wahhabism is gaining ground and why increasing numbers of suicide bombers can be found there.

In one sense, the form of terrorism taking place in Russia differs from the terrorism of Al-Qaeda. In Chechnya, it is not young men from predominantly middle-class or well-off backgrounds that are attracted to Wahhabism and become indoctrinated to commit terrorist acts. Rather, as Politkovskaya shows, it is individuals with deep personal scars from a brutal war with little to live for who are utilised by extremist forces in Chechnya. Indeed, many of known female suicide bombers (such as the Black Widows) have lost their entire families or family members in Russian attacks.3

In other words, Russia’s uncompromising, all-out war of annihilation against the civilian population of Chechnya has arguably created the conditions for the rapid growth of terrorism. This is partly because the brutality of the war created a recruitment pool of potential terrorists but also because Russia has not focused its military efforts against extremist Muslim terrorist groups in Chechnya, preferring to attack the comparatively secular and moderate Chechen resistance. The resulting marginalisation of the moderates, which in turn has fed the growth of the radicals, has been instrumental in redefining the Chechen war as a terrorist conflict. This has helped Russia gain a measure of international acceptance for its stance but has not brought a solution closer.

The recent spate of terrorist acts in Chechnya and Russia is in itself an indication that Putin’s policy of all-out war in Chechnya has failed to normalise the situation. More specifically, the Kremlin’s policy of ‘Chechenisation’ of the conflict has not worked. After concluding large-scale military operations in 2001, Putin turned to creating an ethnic Chechen leadership and militia that it could make responsible for basic policing of the republic. The idea was simple: the army would remain for necessary operations but the day-to-day running of Chechnya would be left to the Kadyrov administration. This would limit the costs of the war; reduce the unpopularity of the war by cutting the number of body bags returning to Russian families; and maybe even encourage Chechen civilians to accept a new reality. Most importantly, it would allow the Kremlin to portray Chechnya as undergoing a process of normalisation, legitimised by an elected government. It is now clear, however, that the policy has failed. Even leaving aside the terrorist acts, the rebel forces’ military capacity has recovered, as demonstrated by the raid into Ingushetia in June 2004 and an increase in the number of rebel attacks on Russian forces throughout the early part of the year.

Far from being normalised, Chechnya is sinking deeper into conflict. The large-scale involvement of ethnic Ingush in the June raid also shows that the conflict may be spreading to Ingushetia — the stuff of nightmares for the Russian government. The terrorism of late August and early September has also shown that, despite Putin’s promises on security before he became president, the Russian population is actually at greater risk. Even worse, the Kremlin’s policy has begun to backfire into Russia proper, while the war itself risks spreading from Chechnya to other areas of the North Caucasus.

For Chechnya this will probably result in even stronger Russian action, which is likely to make the situation there even worse. Much will depend on the reaction of ordinary Russians. Some are likely to give even stronger support to Putin’s policy of stamping out terrorists, particularly given the horrific events in Beslan. Others, however, are beginning to understand that the policy pursued by the Russian government is not working and is only making matters worse.

This realisation is a dangerous development for Putin. Having built his entire career on a hardline policy on Chechnya, he would find it difficult to follow a different course. Even if he could, he may find that his own policy has made the very prospect of negotiations increasingly difficult because it has reduced the authority of the very forces with which he would negotiate.

Svante E Cornell is Deputy Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University

1 John Dunlop, ‘The October 2002 Moscow Hostage-Taking Incident’, RFE/RL Organized Crime and Terrorism Watch (18 December 2003, 8 January 2004 and 15 January 2004).

2 Asiyat Vazaeyva, ‘The Mental Scars of Chechnya’s Children’, IWPR Caucasus Reporting Service, No165 (6 February 2003).

3 Anna Politkovskaya, ‘Chechnya: War Without End’; presentation at the Silk Road Studies Program, Uppsala University, 4 March 2004.




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