BACKGROUND: The attack on the Boston Marathon was the deadliest terrorist bombing in the U.S. since 9/11. The primary suspect of the attack in Boston, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent over 6 months in Russia in 2012 and allegedly carried out the Boston attack less than a year after his return to the U.S., raising several questions about the role of his visit to Russia’s in the attack. Even though the strength of the link between the attack and the North Caucasus remains unclear at this point, it still suffices to raise the question of whether the North Caucasus has become a security problem of international dimensions. If Russia’s North Caucasus has become a potential source of terrorism in the western world, then the simmering conflict in the region has practically ceased to be an exclusively internal Russian affair.
Russian officials initially denied any connection between Tsarnaev and the North Caucasian insurgency. Dagestan’s Interior Minister Abdurashid Magomedov was quoted by Interfax news agency on April 24 as saying that Tsarnaev had no contacts whatsoever with the underground movement during his stay in the republic. It later transpired that Russian security services tracked Tsarnaev’s activities and detected his meeting with a known militant. The details of Tsarnaev’s contacts in Dagestan have remained unclear. President Putin nearly hailed the attack on Boston as a proof of his long-held views. Having rebuked the U.S. for supporting the North Caucasus insurgency at his annual phone-in TV conference on April 25, Putin continued on a more conciliatory note: “I am saying all this not to put the blame, but to call on bringing ourselves closer together in resisting our common threats, of which terrorism is one and increasingly dangerous. If we truly join our efforts, we will not allow these strikes and suffer such losses.”
The Russian government has so far communicated two contradictory messages. If there was a link between the Boston attack and the North Caucasus, that would indicate that Russia’s control over the situation in the region has waned to such a low level that the region has started to pose a security threat far beyond Russian boundaries. Needless to say, in such a case Putin’s mentoring tone is out of place as his policies in this Russian region are in part responsible for what happened in Boston. At the same time, if the Boston attackers did not have any connection to the North Caucasus, then the U.S. can scarcely benefit from cooperating with Russia on the terrorism threat and Putin’s call is again untimely.
IMPLICATIONS: The Kremlin’s strenuous efforts to suppress the rebellion in Chechnya over the past 20 years appear to have led to an entirely new situation, where the North Caucasus has gradually become an international security threat. Clearly, Russia’s policies in the North Caucasus have produced unsatisfactory results. The conflict was initially confined to Chechnya’s borders but has gradually spread to neighboring Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria with some spillover also to other parts of Russia. On average about 700 people are killed in the North Caucasus every year in the ongoing conflict between government forces and the insurgency movement. Numerous human rights violations by the government forces, such as extralegal killings, torture and kidnappings have been documented by human rights organizations in the region. Since the start of the second Russian-Chechen war in 1999, the Russian government has pushed international NGOs and other organizations out of the North Caucasus, claiming that they undermined Russia’s territorial integrity and helped the insurgents. Ironically, while Moscow has been successful in expelling foreign organizations deemed hostile to the government, the North Caucasus has seen increasing levels of instability. The Boston attack suggests that time is right for reversing the trend and allowing international developmental organizations access to the North Caucasus in order to prevent a further slide into violence and oppression.
The timing of the Boston attack further heightens the relevance of considering civil violence in the North Caucasus as an international security issue. In 2014, Russia will host the Winter Olympics in the resort town of Sochi that is situated in the western part of the North Caucasus. Even though Russian security services have established what could be called a cordon sanitaire around the town, practically barring North Caucasians from taking construction jobs or resettling in the area, chances are high that the insurgents will be incentivized to draw attention to their cause through an act of terror during the Olympics. International involvement in drawing a road map for conflict resolution in the North Caucasus could greatly improve the climate in this conflict-ridden region.
Apart from the danger that the North Caucasus insurgency poses to a one-time international event like the Olympics, it also constitutes a continuous regional threat of spillover into the neighboring states of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Indeed, if the Boston attack was indeed an instance of spillover from the North Caucasus, these nearby countries are immeasurably more vulnerable to such attacks and subsequent instability. Hence, apart from its general international dimension, the North Caucasus insurgency also has a far more profound regional impact.
Domestically in Russia, the conflict in the North Caucasus used to play the role of a rallying around the flag artifact for ethnic Russians. Putin’s ascent to power as Russia’s strongman was intrinsically connected with his harsh suppression of de-facto independent Chechnya in 1999-2001. Therefore the means chosen for addressing the conflict in the North Caucasus have a broad impact not only on international and regional security, but also on domestic politics in Russia and Russia’s political evolution.
CONCLUSIONS: Thomas de Waal noted in a recent Financial Times article that following the Boston bombing even the Russian patriots most suspicious of the West should now recognize that “opening up the north Caucasus is a better option than leaving it as a dark forgotten corner of Europe incubating violence.” However, President Putin is likely to oppose this idea, because international recognition of the North Caucasus as a place of origin for religious extremists is not necessarily negative news for Moscow. Russia would likely be quite satisfied with the region being viewed as the Islamist fringe of European Russia that should be suppressed with crude force. The outside world, however, should certainly be concerned with the situation in the North Caucasus and Russian policies in this region, because Moscow is part of the problem of protracted violence in this region. Hence, joining forces with Moscow to legitimize even more egregious human rights violations may help the Russian leadership to shield itself from international criticism, but will hardly make the world safer. If President Putin so ardently seeks an alliance with the West against terrorism, surely he should support Western organizations in the North Caucasus that could promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and a Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.