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The North Caucasus: Russia’s Soft Underbelly

Oct. 26, 2017 The region is a key buffer zone for Moscow.

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  • Last updated: October 26
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Summary

In last week’s Deep Dive on the South Caucasus, we explained how the region’s unforgiving, mountainous terrain has served as both borderland and battleground for empires. This Deep Dive will focus on the North Caucasus, the relatively flat region above the Greater Caucasus mountain range whose terrain has made it vulnerable to Russian domination. Moving forward, however, the weakening of Russia and the re-emergence of political Islam means the region will likely pose a security threat to the Kremlin.

The Region

In sharp contrast with the South Caucasus, the North Caucasus is not composed of separate sovereign states. Instead the North Caucasus is an integral part of Russia, divided between two of the Russian Federation’s eight districts – the North Caucasian Federal District and the Southern Federal District. Most of the region belongs to the North Caucasian district, which split from the Southern district in 2010, a year after the end of the Second Chechen War. With the Southern district lying largely to the north, the North Caucasian district is the only Muslim-majority district in the federation.


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The North Caucasus stretches from the Caspian Sea in the southeast to the Sea of Azov in the northwest. The westernmost part of the area, composed of Krasnodar region and the enclave of Adygea, lies within the Southern district. Krasnodar consists mainly of flat lands, which allowed Russia to more easily slavicize the territory after the forced exodus of its Circassian inhabitants in the late 19th century. The rest of the North Caucasus region – the North Caucasian district – has maintained its distinct Muslim identity and hence was configured into a single federal district. This district runs from Krasnodar to the Caspian Sea and consists of the republics of Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. The region of Stavropol – sandwiched between Krasnodar in the west and Dagestan in the east, and sharing borders with each of the other republics in the south – and North Ossetia are the only majority ethnic Russian and Orthodox Christian units within the North Caucasian district.


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This current administrative arrangement of the North Caucasus is the outcome of the Russians’ centuries-long struggle to subdue this region. Until the North Caucasus was brought to heel during the time of the czarist regime in the late 19th century, the region was what noted Caucasus and Central Asia scholar Marie Bennigsen Broxup referred to as a “barrier” that separated Russia from the heart of the Muslim world. At the same time, the mountainous terrain kept major Muslim powers to the south, such as the Ottoman Turks and the Safavid (and later Qajar) Persians, from truly accessing this region. Though both the Turks and the Persians had sought to expand into the Caucasus region, neither side was able to move past the South Caucasus.

By the 18th century, both the Ottomans and the Persians lacked the modern political, economic and military capabilities Russia and the other Europeans had acquired. Furthermore, they were embroiled in a bitter rivalry in the Middle East, and the Turks were heavily committed in Europe where they were starting to lose territory. Ultimately, the Ottomans and Persians were unable to seize the massive Greater Caucasus mountain range. The Russians, however, had no such trouble. Though a lengthy undertaking, Orthodox Christian Russia was much better positioned to eventually occupy the North Caucasus.

Russian Conquest

From a strategic point of view, Russia must control at least the North Caucasus, and ideally the South Caucasus, because these areas are buffer regions; should they fall into hostile hands, the entire Russian core would become vulnerable. These areas, however, have historically proven difficult to control because of both the terrain and the locals. 


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Ivan the Terrible’s 1556 conquest of Astrakhan (an area of the North Caucasus that lies along the northwestern tip of the Caspian Sea) sparked Russian interest in the region. During this initial thrust into the North Caucasus, which lasted until 1604, the Russians reached as far as Dagestan, thanks to the flat terrain in the region’s northern half. This invasion did not last, however. The Ottomans, who were still a powerful force at the time,  supported the Dagestanis against the Russian incursion. The Russians were forced to pull back to Astrakhan.

From 1604 to 1783, the region was more or less left to its own devices. Russia had turned its focus to Europe, and the Turks were tied down in their wars with the Persians. This relative isolation allowed Islam, which had been present in the area since the 8th century, to spread rapidly through the central and western parts of the North Caucasus – in large part because of the halt of the Russian efforts to penetrate the area and the support of the Ottoman Turks and the Crimean Tatars.

Under Catherine II, Russia was able to project power into the North Caucasus. From 1783 to 1824, Russia engaged in a systematic campaign to conquer the region. Between 1785 and 1791, the Russians faced massive resistance from the forces of the Ottoman-backed Chechen Sufi leader Sheikh Mansour, who managed to unite much of the North Caucasus. After a major defeat at the hands of these Muslim warriors, on the banks of the Sunzha River in 1785, the Russian army, buoyed by its victory in the Napoleonic Wars, was able to come back and subdue the resistance. Though ultimately defeated, the uprising established among the locals that Islam could serve as both a unifying force and the basis of armed resistance.

This experience led to a series of jihad-inspired campaigns that continued until the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922. During this time, the North Caucasus saw the decline of the traditional feudal elite and the rise of Sufi orders, further entrenching Islam within the political fabric of the North Caucasus. The U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College scholar Robert F. Baumann explains how Russian efforts to complete their conquest of the region were complicated, as religious fervor proved to be an effective mobilizer of anti-Russian resistance. But though Islamic resistance made the conquest of the region more costly to the Russians, it failed to block the conquest completely.

The ramifications of the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus is not dissimilar to that of British and French colonialism in India and Africa, respectively. As former CIA and national security official Paul Henze notes in a 1996 article, Russian colonialism brought order and development to the North Caucasus – an otherwise chaotic region of tribal highlanders cut off from the rest of the world. Indeed, Moscow provided the region with modern infrastructure in the form of roads, railroads, ports and urban centers, but only after a long campaign to suppress local dissent.

Unlike most other European powers that sought colonies in distant lands, the Russians sought to control a land much closer to home. Indeed, the Caucasus was on Russia’s doorstep, and thus, it was imperative that the Russians fully assimilate the area. They spent a great deal of time trying to convert the people of the region to Orthodox Christianity, operating on the assumption that conversion would aid in assimilation. Ultimately, that policy backfired. Despite the fact that there were many ethno-linguistic groups that inhabited this region, a majority of them had been Muslim for centuries.


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Affinity to religion varies considerably across the region. Islam plays an important role in the identity and ideology of the Chechens and the Dagestanis in the east. Yet, as one moves west, religious fervor tends to taper off. Beyond Islam, there is little commonality among the various peoples of the North Caucasus. They are divided along clan, ethnic, linguistic and territorial lines, and the Russians sought to exploit these differences.

At the social level, traditional feudal Muslim elites and religious scholars sought to preserve their power through two sets of laws. The former emphasized customary laws, while the religious leaders sought to increase their influence by promoting Shariah, or Islamic law. Until the arrival of the Russians, these two competing forces were largely able to coexist.

According to Loyola University historian Michael Khodarkovsky, Russia pursued a complex strategy in its effort to take over the North Caucasus region. In some instances, the Russians found allies. But in others, they resorted to force, especially in terms of the takeover of lands and expulsion of the locals. In need of local partners, Russia would often co-opt the feudal Muslim elite, transforming them into loyalists of Moscow through assimilation. Elites from the North Caucasus were sent to study in Moscow, where many embraced Orthodox Christianity and Russian culture. Yet these individuals did not help promote assimilation in the North Caucasus, as few returned home. By the latter half of the 19th century, the Russians realized they needed people to represent Russian interests in the North Caucasus, and Moscow began to support locals who held grievances toward the landed gentry.

The attempts to convert people of the region to Orthodox Christianity undercut the more crucial interests of securing loyalty to the empire. Attempts at conversion were obviously anathema to the Muslim clergy, but they also triggered opposition from within the traditional elite quarters. For the Russians, who saw conversion as part and parcel of their efforts to advance their imperial interests within the region, it was difficult to alter course. In addition to the need to secularize the process of assimilation, there was ambiguity on how the North Caucasus would be controlled by Moscow. Should it be fully absorbed into the empire as a full-fledged province or should it be treated as a colony?

As the Russians searched for the best way to administer the North Caucasus, the region experienced another outbreak of major resistance. The leader of this campaign was Imam Shamil, who in the mid-19th century established the Caucasian Imamate, an Islamic polity that sought to liberate the area from the Russians. The Russians were forced to recognize that the region’s legal traditions had to be incorporated into their new system of governance. But here the Russians found themselves caught in the existing duality between customary and Islamic laws. Siding with the clergy would have helped undermine the tendency toward armed religious resistance, but the Russians needed local interlocutors who would be willing to adopt Russian customs and thus preferred the local economic and political elites.

As a result, throughout the czarist era, Russia struggled with how best to manage the North Caucasus. The empire eventually succeeded in creating a pro-Russian elite class in the region because, for many local elites, the only path toward European modernization was through Russification. Yet the masses remained loyal to Islamic teachings, and the gulf between the elites and the masses widened. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, the elites and the masses would find common cause through the fusion of religious identity with ethnic nationalism.

The Soviet and Post-Soviet Eras

Already isolated from the rest of the world by geography and Russian subjugation, the North Caucasus became more or less completely cloaked behind the iron curtain of communism and the Soviet Union. Well aware of the struggles their czarist predecessors had to face in the North Caucasus, the Soviets divided the region, lumping its various pieces into different Soviet Socialist Republics. The main Soviet Socialist Republic in the North Caucasus combined Chechnya and Ingushetia to form the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Furthermore, the Soviets maintained a sophisticated and efficient coercive security establishment led by the KGB, allowing them to subdue this historically restive region.

Yet the Chechens openly expressed their discontent and, under the leadership of the nationalist guerilla leader Hasan Israilov, mounted an insurgency against the Soviet regime between 1940 and 1944. To suppress opposition, Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered the mass displacement of people from the region after accusing the Chechens of having collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. In 1944, some 650,000 people from the region – most of whom were ethnic Chechens – were forced to relocate to Central Asia. The Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was dissolved and its areas gerrymandered. It was not until the era of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that efforts to make amends with the Chechens began. In 1956,  the Chechens were returned to their homes. Two years later, the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was restored.  

The region generally remained calm for the next three decades, only to erupt yet again in the early 1990s when 15 republics declared independence and the Soviet Union dissolved. The South Caucasus divided into three independent republics — Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia — along with a few disputed territories. But the Russians were not willing to allow the North Caucasus, especially Chechnya, which declared independence in 1991, to become sovereign entities. Two back-to-back wars ensued, the first lasting from 1993 to 1996 and the second from 1999 to 2009.

Initially, the Chechen wars were dominated by nationalists, who subscribed to the Sufi religious creed, seeking an independent Chechnya. Gradually, however, Salafists assumed greater control of the fighting against Russian forces. These jihadists eventually moved beyond the goal of establishing an independent Islamic Chechnya to pursue broader, transnational agendas including creating a regional Islamic state that would encompass the broader North Caucasus region. Inspired by al-Qaida and aided by the influx of many Arab foreign fighters, Chechen jihadists modeled themselves after the historic religious warriors who resisted Russians in the North Caucasus since the Russian incursions began in the 16th century. In 2007,  a regional movement called the Caucasus Emirate was founded.

With the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the Caucasus Emirate group has essentially become irrelevant. Many Chechen militants and those from other parts of the North Caucasus moved to Syria and Iraq to join the jihadist regime. This weakening of the Chechen insurgency in the late 2000s allowed the republic to establish a stable regime led by the Kadyrov clan, which has kept peace for at least a decade. The key to this stability is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dedicated support of the Kadyrov regime.

If history is any guide, the peace in Chechnya and the wider North Caucasus right now is likely the calm before the next storm. The Islamic religion and the Islamist ideology remain social and political drivers and have forced Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to increase the role of religion in public life in the republic. This trend, coupled with the declining Russian political economy, suggests that the region will likely see the revival of a Muslim insurgency seeking to exploit Russia’s weakening. If Russia can’t control this area then the other historic players — Turkey and Iran — are in even less of a position to do so.