The North Caucasus has long been a difficult region for Russia to control. Pockets of resistance have sprouted in the mountainous area between the Black and Caspian seas for centuries. That opposition runs from the Russian Empire's initial expansion into the North Caucasus in the early 18th century to the separatist conflicts in Chechnya at the end of the 20th century. After coming to power in 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin helped restore relative calm to the region by granting greater autonomy to Chechnya, the home of two separatist wars. However, the actions of the Chechen president are now stirring up tensions with neighboring republics and threatening the stability that is crucial to Moscow.
The militancy, violence and separatism of the North Caucasus have long posed problems for Russia. While the region has been dormant in recent years, signs indicate that it could become more active and problematic for Moscow in the year to come.
The Land Between the Seas
The rocky terrain and complex ethnic diversity of the North Caucasus have long made it difficult for Moscow to effectively incorporate the region into the Russian state. But the strategic location of the region — consisting of the republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygea — made its control imperative for Russia.
The area borders the South Caucasus states of Georgia and Azerbaijan, and it is close to regional powers Turkey and Iran. Significant deposits of oil have been found and exploited in Chechnya and Dagestan, which are also home to important energy transportation infrastructure. In addition, Islamist militants have contributed to a volatile security environment there. Groups such as the Caucasus Emirate have even periodically carried out attacks in the heart of Russia, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The Chechen Wars
The strategic value of the North Caucasus re-emerged in the early post-Soviet period, when Chechnya sought to secede from the newly formed Russian Federation. Chechnya was a region of Russia proper and not a newly independent republic such as Ukraine or Azerbaijan, so its independence would have set an enormously dangerous precedent for Russia and could have splintered the federation. Thus, Russia fought two protracted and bloody wars there in the 1990s, as the very survival of the country was at stake.
These conflicts turned into stalemates and led to numerous terrorist attacks by Chechen and North Caucasus militants into the heart of Russia. However, Moscow was eventually able to mitigate the security threat after Putin came to power. He made ending the Chechen conflict one of his top priorities and chose to co-opt and support the nationalist forces of Akhmad Kadyrov against the jihadist-backed forces of Dzhokhar Dudayev.
Putin had learned from the first Chechen war that sheer military force wouldn't subdue the Chechens and that Moscow needed support from local factions to end the chaos and power vacuum exploited by militants and terrorists. Putin gave substantial autonomy to Kadyrov, including a lot of control over the region's oil revenues and, more importantly, over the local security forces. This let the Kremlin significantly reduce violence in Chechnya and facilitate a crackdown on terrorist groups in the region, leaving the Caucasus Emirate now largely defunct.
While Putin's strategy has led to relative stability in the North Caucasus when compared to the 1990s and early 2000s, it has not eliminated security problems there. Indeed, militant attacks occasionally happen. On Aug. 20, the capital of the Chechen Republic, Grozny, and nearby areas were hit by several coordinated attacks, which were claimed by the Islamic State.
However, greater autonomy for Chechnya has bred new problems, including disputes over land and territorial boundaries. The subject has been a sensitive issue in the region since the ethnic minorities of the North Caucasus were relocated en masse during World War II. Soviet leader Josef Stalin accused hundreds of thousands of people of being Nazi sympathizers during Germany's invasion and had them forcibly moved to faraway Central Asia and Siberia. Their eventual return created serious problems when it came to land and border demarcations. This point was moot during the Soviet era (because all land and political power were controlled and administered by Moscow), but it became an enduring problem after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
That dissolution led to the eruption of serious ethnic tensions in the North Caucasus as Moscow's authority broke down. In addition to the Chechen separatist conflicts, ethnic clashes broke out between the Ossetians and Ingush, as did border disputes between Chechnya and Ingushetia. (The latter seceded from the Chechen-Ingush republic after Chechnya tried to leave Russia in the early 1990s.) These ethnic tensions and border quarrels eventually eased after the early post-Soviet conflicts, but they did not go away and retain the potential to flare up anytime.
One example of these disputes is the controversial land swap struck by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov (who succeeded his father, Akhmat, after he was assassinated in 2003) and Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov in late September. The deal — which included the exchange of uninhabited forest territory in Ingushetia for a small slice of land in Chechnya — shows the region's continued sensitivity on land claims. While the amount of territory was small and of limited economic or strategic value, the move prompted unprecedented protests within Ingushetia, where thousands of people rallied against the deal in the capital of Magas over several weeks. On Oct. 30, Ingushetia's Constitutional Court ruled that the land swap was illegal, but Russia's highest court upheld the legality of the deal on Dec. 6.
While protests in Ingushetia have died down, tension over the land swap lingers. Kadyrov said that the agreement's legality has been settled, but Yevkurov has come under fire and has heard calls for his resignation. Anecdotal reports about security concerns and a rise in religiosity in the region followed the controversy. Indeed, a shootout took place in the Ingush city of Nazran on Dec. 12, when two men were killed by national guard officers searching a shopping mall for "terrorist suspects." One of the dead men turned out to be an activist who helped organize and took part in the land swap protests. The incident illustrates the potential for additional protests and security problems in Ingushetia.
Moreover, the deal with Ingushetia isn't the only transfer of land that Kadyrov is supporting. On Dec. 6, Dagestani leader Vladimir Vasiliev announced plans to discuss his region's borders with the Chechen president. This came after reports that a Chechen commission is considering adding Lake Kezenoyam, on the Chechen-Dagestani border, as well as territory near the Dagestani village of Ansalt, to Chechen territory. While no action has been taken, some residents of Dagestan have already indicated their intention to protest any land deal. Such demonstrations would be noteworthy, given that Dagestan is much larger in territory and population than Ingushetia and has traditionally posed greater security problems for Moscow.
A Free Hand, for Now
Kadyrov's ambitions to redraw Chechnya's borders reflect a deeper problem for the Kremlin. He has used the autonomy given to him by Moscow to pursue harsh crackdowns against homosexuals and opposition elements within and outside of Chechnya (including reported involvement in the controversial killing of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in 2015). In an uncommon move for a Russian regional leader, Kadyrov has also sought a prominent role on the international stage, making diplomatic forays to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. Moscow has so far given Kadyrov a relatively free hand, knowing that maintaining his loyalty is important to keeping Chechnya calm and the rest of the North Caucasus in check.
However, as the protests and security incidents in Ingushetia and rumblings of demonstrations in Dagestan show, Kadyrov's actions could unsettle the North Caucasus. Given the history of separatism and major violence in the region, as well as the possible spillover of militancy into the heart of Russia, the return of any such instability is of substantial concern to Moscow. For these reasons, the Kremlin must consider the region's stability as it tries to maintain the loyalty of regional leaders. And that balance could prove more difficult to hold on to down the line.