U.S., Saudi Arabia: Holding the Chechen Card

7 MINS READAug 14, 2008 | 19:38 GMT
The United States is stretched too thin to get involved in conflicts in Russia's periphery at the moment. However, in the covert world, the United States could cooperate with Saudi Arabia to stir up separatist sentiments in Russia's Muslim regions — including Chechnya — to keep Moscow occupied.
Though Washington has issued a lot of tough talk calling on Russia to halt its military aggression against Georgia, there is little hiding the fact that the United States currently lacks the capability to intervene in conflicts that break out in the Russian periphery while U.S. forces are absorbed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will take some time before the United States frees itself up from the Middle East to effectively confront the Russians in Eurasia, but there are other options in the covert world that U.S. intelligence can employ to keep the Russians occupied. Such a strategy would likely involve three key ingredients: Chechens, Tatars and Saudis. Russia's internal security largely depends on its ability to contain Muslim separatist aspirations in its two main belts of Muslim populations: one in the mountainous northern Caucasus (which includes Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan) and the other along the western side of the Ural Mountains (which includes Tatarstan and Bashkortostan). Chechnya borders the former Soviet state of Georgia, which is always ready and willing to support (as it has in the past) a Chechen insurrection against Moscow to weaken the Kremlin's grip in the Caucasus. Tatarstan, in the Volga-Ural region, controls all of the Siberian oil, gas, road, rail and transport routes. Chechnya posed its biggest threat to Russia's internal security during the Chechen wars of 1994-1996 and 1999-2004. Saudi Arabia, the United States and Turkey — all of whom had a vested interest in keeping Russia heavily preoccupied after the fall of the Soviet Union — helped fuel these wars by providing support to the Chechen rebels. Saudi Arabia in particular led this effort by implanting the Wahhabist doctrine and providing financing, arms, supplies, guerrilla training and moral support to Chechen militants. The bulk of Saudi support to the Chechens was funneled in through charities and humanitarian aid in the region. Sept. 11, 2001, however, changed all that. Once confronted by the al Qaeda menace, Washington — and later Riyadh and Ankara — started regarding the Chechen rebels (or at least those who had a favorable view of religious — as opposed to nationalist — militancy) as terrorists. They reduced their support for the Chechen militancy and lent verbal support to Moscow in battling the insurgency, all in the hopes of weakening the jihadist movement and gaining Russia's support in the global battle against terrorism. By 2007, Moscow declared the Chechen war officially over after bribing, training and co-opting a large number of former Chechen rebels into Russian regular forces to combat the insurgency. Though Russia has derived a great deal of satisfaction from crushing the Chechen rebellion, there is a good probability that its recent actions in Georgia will spawn another Chechen headache. The United States likely will look to Riyadh in its search for tools and allies to thwart Russia's resurgence in Eurasia. Saudi Arabia and Russia are natural geopolitical rivals; both are major competing energy powers who have resisted each other in Cold War proxy battles in the Muslim world. Indeed, a legion of well-trained Arabs, mostly Saudis, who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan ended up fighting alongside Chechens in Russia in the 1990s. With the objective of further undercutting Saudi support for Chechens and delegitimizing the Chechen rebels that resisted coming under Moscow's control, Russia has spent the past few years reaching out to Saudi Arabia politically and economically. This includes sending pro-Moscow Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov on highly publicized state visits to Riyadh to underscore the loss of Saudi support for the Chechen militancy. But after watching Russia's recent power surge in Georgia, the Saudis now share a common interest with Washington in keeping the Russians at bay. And with the Saudis now making roughly $1 billion a day on oil revenues, Riyadh has ample cash to spare to revive its links with Islamist militants in the Russian Federation. Saudi support is not only limited to Chechnya, however. The republic of Tatarstan also is a prime candidate for a covert strategy that aims to inflame Russia's Muslim minorities. This Muslim belt is key because it separates the ethnically Russian portions of Russia from sparsely populated Siberia and runs through all of Russia's transport networks (road, rail and pipeline). If Tatarstan, which has become more independent in developing its vast oil wealth, revved up a resistance movement against Moscow, Russia would have no choice but to focus its efforts on quashing the rebellion at home rather than spreading its influence abroad. The Islamist militant card is a tempting option for Washington and Riyadh, but Russia is better equipped this time around to contain any such threat coming its way. In Chechnya, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has Kadyrov to keep a handle on the situation. Kadyrov currently has firm control of the highly trained special forces battalions inside Chechnya — the Vostok ("east") and Zapad ("west") battalions. The young Chechen president is immensely popular in the region — even if that reputation was earned through brute force and fear — and knows his life depends on him not betraying his commitment to Putin to keep Chechnya under control. In fact, Kadyrov announced Aug. 8 that his Chechen forces were ready to "volunteer" to aid Russia in fighting Georgian troops. That said, money talks in this region, and there are a fair number of dissenters in Chechnya who would turn against Kadyrov for the right price. Even Kadyrov himself has proven he can be bought. With Kadyrov as the keystone of the current Chechen power structure, his removal (and he has had a fair share of death threats) could very quickly cause the region to go up in flames. In Tatarstan, the Russians already have a plan in store if or when the Tatar government attempts to stage a rebellion against Moscow. The Kremlin's plan involves overthrowing the current Tatar government and installing Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev as head of the Tatar Republic. Nurgaliyev is ethnic Tatar, but he is also former KGB and (we are told) personally committed to Putin. The Kremlin believes that, given Nurgaliyev's Tatar ethnicity, the political fallout from installing him as leader would be manageable. STRATFOR sources claim Nurgaliyev has already been working with Russian Interior Forces to prepare for a crackdown inside the republic in preparation for this plan, should it be necessary. Disciplining Tatarstan and/or Chechnya will be a bloody affair, but the Kremlin believes it can clamp down on these republics nonetheless should the situation warrant. The main concern in Moscow's eyes is preventing any rebellion in Tatarstan from spilling over into fellow Muslim republic Bashkortostan and giving other Muslim rebels in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan reason to come to the aid of their brothers. Cooperation among Russia's Muslim republics is not unprecedented. In fact, during the Chechen wars in the 1990s, a large number of Tatars fought alongside Chechen rebels against Russian forces. Ramping up Muslim fighters in Chechnya and Tatarstan is a logical step for the United States to take in coordination with its Saudi allies. If Washington and Riyadh do decide to play the Islamist militancy card, however, Moscow will be ready for it.

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