Editor's Note: This is the first installment in a three-part series on the origin and future of the Caucasus Emirate, a consolidation of anti-Russian rebels into a single, Pan-Muslim resistance in the region.
The continued success of Russian operations against the so-called Caucasus Emirate (CE) demonstrates that the Russians, for whom control of the Caucasus is a strategic imperative, have no intention of scaling back their counterinsurgency in an area that has long been a problem for the Kremlin. Even after suffering sustained leadership losses, however, the CE still is able to recruit men and women to carry out terrorist operations inside and outside of the region.
The CE was created and is led by Doku Umarov, a seasoned veteran of both the first and second Chechen wars in which he was in charge of his own Chechen battalion. By 2006, Umarov had become the self-proclaimed president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, an unrecognized secessionist government of Chechnya, and in October 2007 he announced the founding of the Caucasus Emirate, an Islamist movement of which he was emir. In the years since, Umarov has been declared dead numerous times by fellow militants as well as Chechen and Russian authorities, most recently in March 2011. Yet he continues to appear in videos claiming attacks against Russian targets, including videos in which he claimed responsibility for the Moscow metro attacks in March 2010 and the Domodedovo airport bombing in January 2011.
Umarov addressed the recent losses in an interview with the pro-CE Kavkaz Center website May 17, stating that losses sustained by the Caucasus Emirate would not weaken the group. "Since 1999, we have lost many of our emirs and leaders, but jihad has not stopped," he said. "On the contrary, it expanded and intensified." CE militants remain a tactical threat to Russian security, carrying out low-level attacks inside the Caucasus and in the Russian heartland. The question is: With an ever-vigilant Russia planning and acting against it, will the CE be able to continue pulling off small but effective attacks or consolidate into a more powerful threat to Moscow?
The Caucasus Region
The root of today's struggle in the North Caucasus is the geography of the region, a natural borderland that separates the European steppe from Asia Minor with the high mountains of the Greater Caucasus range running from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. The North Caucasus historically has been a mountainous borderland and front line of empires, surrounded or occupied by three major ones — Ottoman (Turkey), Persian (Iran) and Russian. The Russian Empire expanded south into the North Caucasus over the centuries, beginning in 1556, and achieved primacy in the region in the mid-1800s. It took Russia decades after defeating the Ottoman Turks and the Persians to militarily subjugate many of the region's inhabitants.
Indeed, the Caucasus is home to many small and fiercely proud ethno-national groups scattered across the strategic terrain, including the Chechens, Ossetians, Adyghe, Cherkess, Kabardin, Avars and Ingush, as well as a substantial number of Russians. The region is Russia's southern defensive buffer and has been since 1864, when Russia took full control of it, finally crushing local resistance in what Russians call the Caucasian War. For Russia, control of the Caucasus, and especially the Greater Caucasus range, means control of a better part of the Black and Caspian sea coastlines, which is vital for both trade and security.
The territory between the Caucasus and the Russian city of Volgograd to the north has no natural defensive barrier and its population is sparse. Thus, the loss of the Caucasus would leave Volgograd exposed, the loss of Volgograd would leave the Volga exposed, and the loss of the Volga would essentially cut Moscow off from Siberia. As the Chechens and Ingush learned in World War II, when Stalin and the Communists suspected them of "collaborating" with the Nazis and eventually deported them en masse to Siberia, Russia has not allowed, nor will it ever allow, any attempt to divide or push back its southern frontier.
By the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was crumbling from within due to a floundering economy and a collapsing political system. This led to a weakening of the security apparatus — a major problem for Russia, since one of its geopolitical imperatives is to maintain a strong, centralized state through a robust military and intelligence apparatus, especially on its borders and in areas with non-Russian populations. The North Caucasus is one of these border areas.
The First Chechen War
By 1991, with the Soviet Union disintegrating, many Chechen nationalists saw their opportunity to finally achieve independence. At the time, Chechnya was part of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, which was part of the larger Socialist Soviet Republic of Russia, one of the 15 states that constituted the Soviet Union. The first Chechen war was the inevitable consequence of the Chechen nationalist goal, which was to establish an independent Chechen nation-state. After Chechnya declared independence in 1991, Moscow's fear was that other ethnic minorities, autonomous republics or regions within the Russian Federation would attempt to secede as well, though it would not try to teach the Chechens a lesson until 1994.
Russia's first military intervention in Chechnya was in December 1994, and it failed for a variety of reasons. First, the Russians were not politically united on the logic behind the invasion; no face-to-face discussions between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chechen President Dzokhar Dudayev ever took place, leading many Russians to resent their government for not holding serious negotiations before the intervention. Second, the Yeltsin administration ensured that officials who doubted the logic of the invasion were either ignored or removed from the government and the military's general staff.
And the invasion could not have been launched at a worse time of the year — December, when Chechnya's forests, mountains and undeveloped roads were covered in snow, making it difficult for the Russians to maneuver their ground forces, and the season's omnipresent fog made air support impossible. Russian forces at the onset of the war were plagued by other problems as well. Some units were deployed in the initial invasion without maps of the cities and areas in which they were going to fight, while armored vehicles and columns were left exposed on streets and in alleyways. Also, many of the attacking Russian forces were created from units that had not trained together, which made unit cohesion difficult to establish. Command and control was substandard and combined arms operations were often poorly planned and executed.
Russian forces did not adapt well to the operational requirements of urban terrain, where small-unit leadership is critical to success and which the Chechens were masters of defending. The mountains and forests were also a terrible environment for Russia's armor-centric military, which had been shaped by Cold War strategy and designed to fight over wide-open spaces on the North European Plain.
The Chechen weakness was numbers — they simply could not replenish losses the way the Russians could. However, the Chechen insurgency was relatively fluid and could effectively exploit Russian weaknesses. The Russians were fighting the war as a traditional military conflict, whereas the Chechens were not a traditional military force. They may have been led by a military commander — President Dudayev was a former Soviet air force general — but the Chechens were guerrilla fighters with little formal training and only a brute understanding of how to fight an asymmetrical war on their own turf. The Chechens harassed Russia's long lines of communication, staged hit-and-run attacks and waged pitched battles on their own terms after they took to the mountains and forests in the face of overwhelming Russian strength.
Ends Justifying Means
Instead of trying to woo the population with economic incentives or amnesty while they cracked down on the insurgents, Russians viewed the whole of the Chechen population as suspect. They built internment camps all over Chechnya, and the perceived mistreatment of civilians by Russian forces served as a rallying cry for the Chechens. Indeed, rather than dividing the populace from the insurgents, Russian counterinsurgency tactics, including the large-scale bombardment of villages, towns and cities thought to host Chechen fighters, only united them.
The turning point of the war came in April 1995, when Russian forces killed more than 250 civilians in Samashki. On the verge of collapse in the face of overwhelming Russian numbers, Chechen militants were innervated by the Samashki massacre and determined to seek vengeance. Two months after the massacre, Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev and a group of Chechen fighters raided the Russian town of Budennovsk and seized a hospital, taking more than a thousand civilians hostage. More than a hundred civilians were killed during an attempt by Russian forces to raid the hospital and liberate the hostages. The experience showed the Chechens that terror attacks against the Russian heartland could be a very effective tactic.
In January 1996, after a failed raid against a Russian helicopter installation in the Dagestani town of Kizlyar, Chechen fighters under radical rebel leader Salman Raduyev took the town's hospital, along with more than 2,000 hostages. A failed rescue attempt resulted in numerous executions while the hostage-takers escaped to Chechnya. In June 1996, a Moscow subway station bombing killed four people and injured 12 and a bus bombing in Nalchik killed six and injured 40. On July 11, 1996, a blast on a Moscow bus injured six people, and the next day a bomb on a Moscow trolleybus wounded 28. Among Russians, the new Chechen tactics sowed more fear than rage over the already unpopular war.
Then on Aug. 6, 1996, an estimated 1,500 Chechen fighters under Dzokhar Maskhadov attacked Grozny and laid siege to some 12,000 Russian troops occupying the city. The siege finally prompted a tired Russia to negotiate a cease-fire. On Aug. 30, Russian Lt. Gen. Alexander Lebed and then-Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov signed the Khasavyurt accords, ending the hostilities. The Chechens had fought Russia to a standstill, though the end of the fighting did not stop the terror attacks against Russia. On Nov. 10, 1996, an explosion in a Moscow cemetery killed 13 people and injured 70.
The Khasavyurt accords tabled a final decision on Chechnya's status within the Russian Federation until Dec. 31, 2001, leaving Chechnya with de facto independence but completely isolated in the region. The accords stipulated a humiliating Russian pullout but also gave Russia years to determine what went wrong with the invasion and to come up with a new plan while leaving the Chechens to their own devices. Chechnya found itself spurned by its neighbors on all sides (with the exception of the impoverished country of Georgia), with no sustainable economy or foreign patron to assist it. The isolation and destitution led to further destabilization, crime and other social maladies for the war-ravaged republic.