North-Caucasus as Russia’s Springboard Toward the Muslim World
North-Caucasus always takes special meaning in Russian history due to his multi-ethnic and multi-religious factor. It was Caucasian-War 1816-1864, the longest war in Russian history, in which the Russian empire has spent the most financial and human resources for subduing Muslim highlanders in Dagestan, Chechnya, and Circassia in North Caucasus.
Russian historians stressed out that the Caucasian war was the bitter and expansive lesson for Russia to acquire the mastering of how to harmony with the exotic nation’s modes and cultures. (e.g Bliyev &Degoyev 1994) When Russia expanded toward Central-Asian regions after Caucasian War, the Russian agents, rooted from North-Caucasus, dedicated themselves to conciliate the emirs and sheik who shared the similar Muslim modes and cultures. Thanks to their services, Russia succeeded to fortify her geopolitical hegemony in Central-Asia.
(Imam Shamil submitted to Russian General Variatinski in Gunive in 1859)
However, it was the Cold War period when almost the whole Muslim world proclaimed their “Jihad” against the Soviet Union as the champion of Communism. The peaking time was the Soviet-Afghan War 1979-1989 when almost all Jihadist groups from North-Africa to Central-Asia arouse against Moscow. In March 1979, a month after the Iranian revolution, the Persian-speaking city of Herat arouse up against the communist regime in Kabul. Under this context, Salafist networks activated in Central Asia and became destabilize southern borders in the Soviet Union. Moscow saw Tehran’s hand in the uprising and, fearing a spreading religious challenge in central Asia, it decided to intervene in Afghanistan. The USSR continued to confront Mujahideen forces (supported and funded, notably, by the CIA) up until 1989. (Le Torrivellec 2017; 93)
Along with Teheran’s intervention, the Saudi regime also pursued the hegemony of the Islamic world. Under the slogan of fighting against Communism, Riyadh mobilized Muslims in the Arab world and beyond to participate in a jihad, and to further propagate Wahhabi Islam, particularly in poor but populous countries such as Pakistan and Egypt. It did so by funding the building of Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and establishing madrassas, religious schools. With the inflow of Saudi funds into these institutions in the 1980s, the curriculum began to combine the local Sunni ideology with moderated Wahhabism as a result of its cross-pollination with the Salafi doctrine. (Hiro 2020) This Saudi-funded radical Muslim network played as the supplier of manpower in the future conflict such as their involvement of the Bosnian War in Balkan and separatist-movement in North-Caucasus.
As it seems, Russia historically has been struggling with Islamist radicalism for centuries. Even though Russia is no longer the champion of communism in the world after the collapse of Soviet Union, Russia still has suffered her historical burden as the successor of the formal communist empire, which has been treated as the main enemy of the fundamental Islamic religion as long as the communism doesn’t permit the religious belief from the ideological point of view. In the 1990s, radical movements became established and forged links, taking advantage of the weakness of the central government. In 1994, Russia that had emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union responded with military force to the secession of the Chechen Republic in North-Caucasus. Russia has been a target of Islamist terrorism since the second Chechen war in which the former Mujahidin fighters in Afghanistan also participated. (Le Torrivellec 2017; 85-86)
Especially, North-Caucasus has a special relation with Putin’s presidency. By repelling the Islamic terrorists in North-Caucasus, it was where he eventually proved himself as the strong leader who could place the stableness, order, and discipline in the Russian Federation after the chaos caused by the collapse of USSR. Putin through his career witnessed and understood seriously the problem that radical Islamic movement, called Jihadizaion, could damage the integrity of Russian internal society. Considering ethno-national proportion in present Russian Federation, the multi-religious faith cohabitation is a social reality and Islam is the second-biggest religion, populating almost twenty millions in Russia. As it seems, the stabilization, concerning the harmony with Muslim groups in Russia has been one of the main tasks since the presidency under Putin.
For stabilizing the internal order from the threat of Islamic terrorism, Russia in 2015 undertook a military operation in Syria to protect its interests as a Muslim country and a multi-faith state. This was a historic moment, as Russia had not launched an intervention beyond the countries of its “near abroad” since 1979. Putin justified his decision by highlighting the need “to beat the terrorists by hitting them on the territories under their control before they come to us.” His goals were to eradicate IS. (Le Torrivellec 2017)
Since the appearance of the Islamic State, the radical terrorist groups in the world became to mobilize under the slogan of Jihad. The problem was that almost the whole Jihadist group was located near Russian southern borders. Along with reaching toward Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria, a group of Afghan and Pakistani jihadist groups joined ISIS under the banner of Wilayat Khorasan while in June 2015, various insurgent groups of the North Caucasus, who mostly has participated in the Caucasus Emirate group, affiliated to Al-Qaeda, under the slogan of Salafist ideology, pledged their allegiance to ISIS due to the de-escalation of Jihadist movement after the counter-terrorist operation in Russia. (Laruelle 2017.;18) The number of jihadist group from Russia estimate 4,000 -5,000 fighters who fought in Iraq and Syria since the beginning of Syrian Civil war. It may be judged to be high, at any rate, given the significant number of people leaving for Syria Russia, especially from North-Caucasus regions is its third-biggest source of manpower.(Armed Conflict Survey 2020 ;24)
Xavier le Torrivellec interestingly argues about the geopolitical factor, concerning Eurasian security in the context of Russian foreign policy. Mosul is a mere 1,400 km away from Grozny. What the Kremlin fears above all is widespread destabilization in its Muslim areas. The domino effect would be considerable. If it was to keep its promise of “liberating” the Caucasus, the caliphate could rapidly extend into the Volga-Ural region via Islamist networks in Astrakhan oblast. In July 2015, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (a clandestine military organization set up in 1998) pledged allegiance to IS. Any destabilization in the central Asian countries would have major consequences for Russia, given the demographic weight of migrants from the area and the continuity of the Eurasian geographical space—with only 30 kilometers separating Kazakhstan from the Turkic Muslim Republic of Bashkortostan. (Le Torrivellec X 2017)
The priority of Moscow’s strategy has focused on turning a blind eye to foreign fighters’ departures while targeting them in Syria and preventing their return to Russia. Russian security services might have proactively facilitated the outflow of North Caucasian jihadists away from Russia into Turkey (en route to Syria) to reduce the risk of a violent escalation within its borders, and then applied even stricter border controls to prevent their return.(Armed Conflict Survey 2020 ; 27)
On this context, North-Caucasus region has been the very front line for counter-terrorism operation in Russia. When Islamic State arouses and destabilized in Near East after the escalation of civil war in Syria, North-Caucasus was the main outpost of Russia for fighting Jihadist groups.
When it comes to Putin’s approach, North-Caucasus, especially the Chechen republic, is used as the instrument of Russian informal diplomacy toward the Muslim World in Near-East. After the normalization of the situation in Chechen, the first pro-Russian Chechen government, led by Akhmat-Haji Kadyrov, started reaching out to Middle Eastern countries under Moscow’s tacit support. It seems that Akhmat Kadyrov was treated as a pawn in a broader political game. The approach of Russia toward the Muslim World became activated in earnest when Ramzan Kadyrov, son of Akhmat Kadyrov, was inherited as the head of Republic.
It was Ramzan Kadyrov who strongly advocated and supported Putin’s Syrian policy for not only supporting the Assad regime but also tranquilizing the Jihadization in the Near-East region. He even asked Putin to send Chechen Spetsnaz brigade for participating in the counter-terrorist operation in Syria. Since the official ending of counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya in 2009, Ramzan Kadyrov has increasingly been involved in what Suchkov calls a “silent diplomacy in the Middle East.”
The matter is that Russia has accumulated her military experiences since the beginning of the Chechen War after the 1990s, fighting with Separatist and radical terrorist groups there. Especially, Chechen has been the main battle-field where the Russian central government passionately activated counter-terrorist operations and Russian Special Forces acquired the experiences and the methods on how to deal with Jihadization. It proved that the Syrian government, supported by Russia, started to effectively reacquire the occupied territories by repelling the IS and insurgent groups, affiliated with Al-Nusra group since Moscow’s involvement. Russia in exchange for this fortified her strategical outposts such as naval base in Tartus and air-force base in Khmeimim. (Paglia 2020)
Along with the military tactics, the employing Chechen brigade offers Moscow a major advantage for stabilizing Syria. The natives of the North Caucasus are almost entirely Sunni Muslims, a faith they share with the majority of the Syrian population, approximately making up between 69–74% of Syria’s population. Since the first units arrived in December 2016, Moscow has sought to use their shared religion and appearance to its advantage. North Caucasian units have been documented using handbooks that include helpful suggestions for dealing with locals, such as the liberal use of the word “mukhabarat” (Syrian secret police) implying detention and other nasty repercussions should a request be met with resistance. On a more cordial level, Chechen military police have been told to use shared Islamic words to build friendlier relations with the public, relying on various religious epithets to greet locals when on a patrol.
(Chechen officials and Mufti in Syria.)
Syrian officials themselves have begun to engage closely with North Caucasian authorities. A delegation from Damascus including Syria’s minister of religious affairs visited the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala in March, discussing counter-radicalization with Dagestani authorities and students.
Recognizing the successor of Russia in Syria, almost whole Muslim countries in Near-East such as North Africa region and Gulf-states paid attention to Moscow. The leaders of the Muslim World understood that cooperation with Russia plays as an effective guarantee for stabilizing their regime. After the Russian intervention in Syria, Russia practically becomes the new gendarme in this region and the leaders in Near-East frequently met Vladimir Putin for cooperation in the various field.
Along with the military maneuver, Chechnya also played as the soft power from the religious-cultural point of view. Since the end of the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya in 2009, Grozny airport has transformed into a hub of international flights to the Middle East in a bid to expand direct economic ties with Arabic monarchies. Arab regimes might not have a favorable view of Kadyrov and his regime—particularly as the latter are followers of Sufism—but they understand very well how Kadyrov has created a way for them to provide friendly funding to support Islamic activities in Russia without creating political tensions with Moscow.
In 2014, Kadyrov hosted King Abdullah II of Jordan in Grozny, seeking to build extensive partnerships with the Kingdom. In 2016, Grozny co-organized, with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, a conference of religious scholars held in Chechnya. The conference’s main objective was to agree on an anti-extremism program that would establish a moderate approach to political Islamism, a program in which the Kadyrov regime would play a preponderant role. Starting in 2016, the Akhmat Kadyrov Foundation—a charitable organization managed by Ramzan Kadyrov’s inner circle and named after his father—has provided humanitarian aid to the Syrian people as well as funding the reconstruction of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo and other mosques around Syria. Jean-Francois (Ratelle. 2019) Russian expert Ivan Sidorov assures that emir Kuwait Abdullah Mattuk expressed his appreciation what the fond of Akhmad-Hadji Kadyrov in Chechnya provided the humanitarian aid and reconstructed the destroyed mosques in Syria after the civil war.
In November 2017, Kadyrov traveled to Bahrain to meet Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa and cultivate bilateral relationships. Furthermore, Kadyrov attended King Salman’s official visit to the Kremlin in 2017, once again underlining his importance to Russian foreign policy. Kadyrov has also been directly involved in the effort to free Russian sailors in Libya. When Saudi Arabia’s King Salman visited Moscow in 2017, the first-ever state visit by a reigning Saudi monarch and signed several agreements which included $2 billion purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system, the construction of a Russian nuclear power plant and a joint fund worth $2 billion to invest in the technology sector.
Behind this historical visit, Chechnya was the main bridge between Russia and Saudi-Arabia. In mid-summer 2019, a Special Forces training school was set to open in Chechnya in which Chechen instructors will train security personnel from Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. (Mark 2019) Chechnya’s new Spetsnaz university has attracted growing interest in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and even Libya. Based on those links with Arabic partners, Daniil Martynov, head trainer of the Chechen Spetsnaz, increasingly has involved in diplomatic activities in the Middle East.( Ratelle. 2019)
In August 2018, Ramzan Kadyrov was received in Saudi Arabia for Eid al-Adha with all the diplomatic honors accorded to the representative of a major international partner. Described as Russia’s “cultural ambassador to the Islamic world”.
(Putin and King Salman behind them Ramzan Kadyrov)
Strategically designed by Moscow, this approach aimed at advertising Russia in the Middle East as a pro-Muslim country; using the Chechen government and its political Islamist model as proof of Russia’s openness to Islam. Blending soft and hard power, Kadyrov has demonstrated how important a role he can play in the grand scheme of Russian foreign policy in Muslim-World. In recent years, Russian policy has extended to soft methods, including economic and religious partnerships as well as humanitarian assistance and military training. (Ratelle 2019)
Geopolitically, the North-Caucasus region has been the very Southern frontier surrounded by Black and the Caspian Sea. Russian military historian Rostislav Fadeev underlined that the Caucasus as the crossroad between Caspian and Black sea allowed consequently Russia to approach the strategic points such as Bosporus isthmus and the Persian Gulf in Muslim regions.(e.g. Fadeyev 2010) As the Russian Empire expanded out toward Oriental regions on the base of North-Caucasus outpost in the 19th century, present Russia starts to reinforce her geopolitical influence Oriental-Muslim world.
Since the collapse of the USSR Russia has suffered from extreme radical Islamic terrorists groups that receive the financial sponsor from Saudi-Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait. As the successor of the Soviet Union, Russia has no choice but to erase her demonized image in which the Muslim World has treated the communist empire as the main enemy of Islam at the period of the Soviet-Afghan War.
Dealing with a historical burden as the inheritance of Soviet Union, the foreign policy of Russia toward Muslim world in Near East is the continuation of domestic policy for Moscow, which concerns the question of harmony with Muslim societies in Russia and post-soviet area as long as the Jihadization is characteristically so flammable and explosive that it easily transfer toward the neighboring regions. Especially, the southern borders of Russia have been destabilized by jihadist groups in Chechnya and Dagestan which continue terrorist activities in Syria after the suppression by counter-terrorist operation in Russia.
What is more, Putin has long sought good relations with the Arab Gulf states— especially the three richest ones: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar for economic cooperation with them. Putin and the Russian enterprises closely linked with him have seen the Arab Gulf states as export markets and investment opportunities; sources of investment into Russia; and, more recently, partners in bolstering petroleum prices, on which both the Russian and Arab Gulf governments are dependent as their main source of revenue. The enhanced Russian relations with the Arab Gulf states not only foster Putin’s geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East but also encourage autonomous Muslim republics in Russian Federation to develop themselves with the investment from Muslim World.(Katz 2019)
As the Russian Empire expanded her geopolitical influence toward Muslim regions in Central-Asia in the 19th century, present Russia is expanding her diplomatic and strategical leverage with the North-Caucasus region, which propagandizes Russian soft power toward the Muslim world.
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