While everyone in the States was busy thinking about/ignoring the debates, a Russian Anti-Terrorism force launched an operation that resulted in 49 militants killed and 219 people taken into custody.
As CES has previously reported, the Northern Caucasus are seething. Militants have attacked police stations, checkpoints, hospitals, and energy infrastructure. Suicide bombs are frequently detonated, and the conflict is spilling over into previously stable regions. A prominent Sunni scholar recently declared that due to Russian involvement in Syria, notably the shipment of arms to the Syrian government, Russia has become the number one enemy to Islam.
However, to reduce the conflict in the Caucasus to militant Islamism and religiously inspired terrorism is very reductionist – in addition to Islamist militancy, there are separatists groups present in the Northern Caucasus as well, conflicts between Christian and Muslim populations. Many of these conflicts intersect and overlap.
So why did the Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee carry out this operation now, as violence is a daily occurrence in the region, and what exactly is the Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee?
This looks like it was a huge operation, with RFE/RL quoting the Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee as picking up 30 IEDs, over 100 weapons and 530 mines, rockets and grenades. The operation took place in at least three locations, two in Dagestan and one in Kabardino-Balkaria.
The second question might be easier to answer than the first. The Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee is the name given in the RFE/RL article, and states it is made up of “forces from the Federal Security Service and Interior Ministry.” The Kremlin website states the National Anti-Terror Committee “develops measures to counter terrorism and eliminate its underlying causes,” and that there are regional committees to manage counter-terror operations. No surprises there – this operation could be seen simply as a state security apparatus addressing, though through means that many Western countries would find abhorrent, a violent, protracted insurgency within its borders.
So why was now considered the optimal time to attack, when sadly there is daily violence in the region? Putin has publicly urged Anti-Terrorism forces to use more ‘daring’ measures when dealing with insurgencies, and operations in the Northern Caucasus are increasingly aggressive. As to why there is increasing aggression, it would be easy to point to the near-daily violence in the region as rationale enough to warrant a large-scale operation, but with such a long history of violence, what more reason is there? Perhaps it’s the international questioning of Putin’s crackdown on internal Russian dissent making Russian leadership jumpy, or perhaps there’s more going on in the Northern Caucasus (a region not accessed easily right now, especially by Western news outlets) than we are aware of – likely a combination of both.
It would be a huge blow to Putin’s ego if the international community began to question his ability to ‘manage’ his ‘managed democracy’ – and a spiraling, increasingly visible insurgency is likely to cast a pall over Putin’s leadership both at home and abroad. After all, Putin is the President who directs birds home and has a pet tiger – much of his leadership strategy is tied up in very visible projections of strength. His recent statements about the need to be daring took place in the context of assuaging concern that Russia will be an unsafe location for the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup. He has even stated that it is a matter of honor to ensure that nothing goes wrong during these massive international events. However, as we’ve been made very, very aware of thanks to Pussy Riot, this security seems to be coming at an increasingly greater cost to human rights for Russian citizens, a particularly bloody cost for the citizens of the autonomous enclaves of the Northern Caucasus.
The US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute also published a report, Russia’s Homegrown Insurgency: Jihad in the North Caucasus, that is some heavy, but worthwhile background reading on the issue. The SSI report is actually three papers that look at insurgency and resulting counterinsurgency campaigns in the Northern Caucasus. It deals with three main issues: the Islamist nature of the conflict, the Russian response, and the implications of the conflict, which is rarely reported on in the West (which the report and Foreign Policy have pointed out).
This operation was not the first and will not the last we will hear of large, violent operations by Russian forces in the Northern Caucasus. Efforts to control the insurgency in this restive region have failed for over 20 years.