Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Attacks in Grozny Unlikely to Revive the Chechen Insurgency

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By Emil Souleimanov (12/10/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On December 4, a group of Chechen insurgents in three vehicles, despite being detected in the outskirts of Chechnya’s capital city, carried out an unprecedented attack on Grozny. After hours of fighting, insurgents, isolated in the republic’s Press House building and a nearby school, situated in the city center, killed 14 and wounded three dozen local policemen. In turn, 11 insurgents were killed. The December 4 attack raised questions about the strength of the Chechen insurgency and the capability of local authorities to stem it. With a three years’ break, the insurgency has been ongoing for two decades.

BACKGROUND: Chechnya has become one of the North Caucasian republics least affected by insurgent violence. Since the mid-2000s, and in contrast to the situation in neighboring Dagestan and elsewhere (see the 09/29/2010 and 03/02/2011 issues of the CACI Analyst), insurgent attacks have been on the decrease in Chechnya. With notable exceptions, instances of insurgent attacks have been largely confined to the borders of some of Chechnya’s mountainous and heavily wooded areas. Still, vociferous attacks carried out by insurgents have continued to recur in Chechnya periodically despite continuous reports by the republic’s pro-Moscow government on the close-to-complete eradication of the local insurgency.

For instance, following a split in the ranks of Chechen insurgency in late August of 2010 (see the 08/19/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst), insurgents leaning toward the idea of Chechen nationalism, loyal to Aslambek Vadalov, carried out a concentrated attack on the village of Tsentoroy, considered to be the stronghold and the family nest of the Kadyrov clan. Despite being significantly fortified and defended by kadyrovsty paramilitaries, three to four dozens of insurgents managed to capture the entire village for several hours, setting fire to the houses of key figures in the Kadyrov clan. It was only after the deployment of hundreds of kadyrovsty, aided by Russian artillery and helicopters, that the ambushers were expelled from the village. As a result of the surprise attack, ten to a dozen insurgents, and a similar number of kadyrovsty and local policemen, were killed.

In August 2012, two suicide bombers blew themselves in the vicinity of the notorious Russian Khankala military garrison, located in the eastern part of Grozny, which claimed the lives of four Russian policemen. Importantly, the attack was carried out on the anniversary of the storming of Grozny by Chechen insurgents in 1996, which then accelerated Russia’s withdrawal from the breakaway territory. Since then, attacks within Grozny have been considered largely unfeasible due to immense security precautions taken by pro-Moscow Chechen authorities. Grozny and its outskirts have been routinely monitored by thousands of policemen, familiar with the local terrain, with any suspicious activity being recorded and checked. Although some have admitted that suicide terrorism cannot be entirely ruled out, experts and locals have largely considered a large-scale attack on the capital city unlikely.

IMPLICATIONS: Despite the relative success of the December 4 attacks, no considerable intensification of insurgent activity should be expected in Chechnya. First and foremost, since the beginning of the 2000s, pro-Moscow Chechen authorities have dramatically raised the cost of violent mobilization and pro-insurgent support amid the local population. Chechens suspected of providing support to insurgents or of participating in insurgent units faces not only the threat of physical extermination; they also risk retaliation against family and relatives. Violence deployed against insurgents’ relatives has become less frequent. However, back in the early and mid-2000s, when many Chechens were still motivated to join or support insurgent groups, kadyrovsty carried out hundreds of “forced disappearances” or extrajudicial executions of alleged insurgents’ relatives. Rape was also common practice in the kadyrovtsy-led counterinsurgency campaigns. Importantly, since thousands of families with kadyrovsty members are now trapped in blood feuds with insurgents and their relatives, the former are inclined to provide counterinsurgency forces with intelligence on suspicious activities among their co-ethnics.

Pro-Moscow Chechen authorities also exercise effective control over the republic’s public space. Internet and mobile networks are monitored using the most sophisticated technologies. Every Friday, imams of local mosques are required by the authorities to provide the identities of missing males. Likewise, if a youngster is missing from his city neighborhood or village, his relatives must provide the authorities with solid evidence of him not being involved with insurgents or face the possibly of retaliation. As a result, many Chechens have sought to distance themselves from the insurgency in order to save not only their lives, but also the lives of their loved ones. After all, Chechnya is a society of a million and a half; its territory of around 17,000 square kilometers is only slightly larger than the U.S. State of Connecticut. In addition, insurgent activities are largely confined to one third of its territory, where wooded mountains provide shelter and hideouts.

Accordingly, many Chechens have either postponed the implementation of blood revenge for “better times” – or have renounced it completely. With the decreasing scope of pro-insurgent support and violent mobilization in recent years, the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities have used less violent practices of collective penalization, like burning the houses of alleged insurgents. Yet the practice of “forced disappearances” has not disappeared completely, even though draconian restrictions imposed on the work of human rights organizations and free media have made tracking and publicizing them more difficult. Similarly, notwithstanding enormous risks, pro-insurgent support or recruitment into insurgent groups has not terminated, though it has been considerably reduced over the last seven to ten years.

Consequently, due to the highly controversial, but largely effective counterinsurgency practices carried out by pro-Moscow Chechen authorities, the Chechen insurgency has become an affair involving several dozens of isolated individuals. While it is currently impossible to carry out representative empirical research in Chechnya, it appears that a significant share of Chechnya’s inhabitants, while skeptical towards the current pro-Moscow regime of Ramzan Kadyrov, is similarly skeptical towards the predominant ideology and the activities of the Chechen insurgents. It comes as no surprise then that in some instances, revenge-seeking Chechens have identified their foes among pro-Moscow Chechens on their own. They have done so without coordination with the insurgents, who have little control on the ground, and without ascribing any ideological overtone to their attacks.

CONCLUSIONS: Despite its periodically recurring and sometimes imprudent attacks, the Chechen insurgency has been considerably weakened. Its once massive social base, on which it had drawn in the First Chechnya War and to some extent also in the early years of the Second Chechnya War, appears to have been lost irretrievably. This can primarily be attributed to the immense penalization imposed by pro-Moscow Chechen authorities, as well as to the predominantly skeptical attitude amid many Chechen civilians towards the ideology of the local insurgency and its chances of prevailing in the uneven confrontation with Russia and pro-Russia indigenous forces.

Remarkably, most of the recently implemented insurgent attacks have been suicide attacks – and detrimental to the eroding numbers of Chechen insurgents. Their significance has been more symbolic than strategic as insurgents are not in a position to stem the tide of the local armed conflict. Against this background, Chechens not willing or able to come to terms with grievances inflicted upon them by pro-Moscow Chechen authorities or armed units are likely to become a new source of violence as they will carry out ad hoc attacks on their own. Alongside rather episodic attacks deployed by insurgent groups, these attacks are likely to ensure that the Chechnya-based insurgency, while reduced in scope, will remain active in the years to come. 

AUTHORS’ BIO: Emil Aslan Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists, co-authored with Huseyn Aliyev (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Peter Lang, 2007).

(Image Attribution: Christiaan Triebert via Flickr)

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