By Robert Schaefer, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Robert Schaefer is a Special Forces (Green Beret) and Eurasian Foreign Area Officer and author of The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, From Gazavat to Jihad. The views expressed are his own.
As we all struggle to make sense of the Boston bombings, and the revelation that the two suspects are ethnic Chechens, there has been a rush to reacquaint ourselves with the troubled North Caucasus region in the hope that we might be able to answer questions like “why did this happen,” or “are we under attack again?” And as the airwaves and the blogospheres are swarmed with facts and opinions, it’s worth taking a step back to put this deluge of information in some context.
It’s not as though we haven’t heard of Chechnya before, it’s just that it’s one of those places that is only occasionally in the news before fading again as our attention is pulled elsewhere. Yet it isn’t actually all that long ago that we were hearing about the two wars of independence that Chechnya fought against Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. And although we may remember President Bill Clinton drawing comparisons between Boris Yeltsin’s efforts to quell the Chechen independence movement with the U.S. Civil War, many may not be aware that the same law that Yeltsin used to declare Russia’s independence from the Soviet Union gave Chechnya (and many other Russian regions) the legal basis to do the same. It was this that created a constitutional crisis that almost destroyed Russia in the mid-1990’s, and created the conditions that resulted in a de-facto independent Chechen republic from 1996-1999.
But while everyone is now familiar with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it might surprise many to learn that Putin was virtually unknown before the Chechen War of 1999, when he was handpicked to be Yeltsin’s successor and subsequently conducted a brilliant, yet brutal campaign to take Chechnya back. Most significantly, he changed the very nature of the conflict: before Putin, the Russians referred to the Chechen separatists as criminals, brigands and bandits; after Putin, the conflict was rebranded as an existential battle against international terrorists – a theme that was solidified after the attacks of 9/11.
That rebranding was not without merit. After all, the world’s attention was gripped by the Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004 that left almost 400 dead (mostly children), or the rash of terrorist incidents in Moscow in 2002, culminating in the Moscow theater attack (which left 170 dead), or the Moscow apartment bombings in 1999 (293 dead and almost 700 wounded).
Yet despite these headline grabbing incidents, Chechnya has largely faded from view. This is in part because we have been focused on our own conflicts, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and partly because the Kremlin has successfully limited information coming out of the region. So what has happened since the international community’s eyes were focused on the region?
The once secular, democratic Chechen independence movement is all but gone, replaced by the Caucasus Emirate (CE), which has adopted many of the goals, ideology, and rhetoric of similar Muslim reactionary-traditionalist insurgency movements – and been designated a terrorist organization by the United States. Meanwhile, the insurgency movement and its terrorist cells have spread to neighboring Russian republics, with the epicenter of the conflict now in Dagestan, where the Boston suspects both lived for a short time before emigrating to the U.S.
These recent developments aside, it is important to remember that Chechens, Dagestanis, Ingush and other North Caucasus peoples were fighting the Russians long before the fall of the Soviet Union – indeed they have been embroiled in conflict ever since the first Russian patrols moved through their homelands in 1722. Stalin, for his part, so hated the Chechens and the Ingush that when he deported them, he had Chechnya erased from the map as if it had never existed.
This historical struggle is relevant today. The peoples of the North Caucasus have long memories, and the Russians have no doubt been the beneficiary of the distraction of the U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. That will end soon as U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan and legions of well-trained, combat-hardened jihadi paladins will look for the next battleground – and Russia is considered to be just as much a “Great Satan” as the U.S.
Chechnya is bound to loom larger in the international consciousness moving forward. And of real concern now is what the Boston marathon bombing means for future sporting events – and especially for the Winter Olympics taking place in Russia next year.
As you read this, try opening a new tab in your browser and do a map search for Chechnya. Pan out a few times until you can see the whole area. That large area between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea? That’s Dagestan. The area to the east of Chechnya is Ingushetia. That entire area has a thriving insurgency with attacks every day. Now look to the west, and on the shore of the Black Sea you’ll see Sochi – the site of the next Winter Olympics and a little more than 200 miles away from an active insurgency.
But Sochi is more than just the site of the Winter Olympics – it also happens to be the site where, 150 years ago, the Russians dispossessed the Circassians, another North Caucasus Muslim nation that fought against the Russians for just as long as the Chechens and Dagestanis. The Circassians’ struggle was a cause célèbre in the West during the mid-1800s, but their deportation decimated and scattered them, virtually erasing them from memory. Fast forward to today and the survivors’ descendents have begun organizing themselves and now publicly call for their suffering to be recognized as genocide – a call the Georgian parliament voted unanimously to support. The Caucasus Emirate is fighting to reclaim all the former Muslim lands of the North Caucasus – almost the entire region between the Caspian and Black Seas.
Last February, the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Dokku Umarov, ordered attacks on civilians to stop – an edict that has largely been adhered to. This is one of the reasons that most long-time analysts of the region feel it highly unlikely that he would order an attack on the United States – it is not in his best interests to wage war on America when the U.S. State Department is one of the few organizations that routinely documents Russian human rights abuses in the region.
We can only hope that he does not rescind his decision before the Sochi Olympics. But even if he doesn't, expect to see growing numbers of Russian security services moving into the area and, if the recent past is any indication of the future, "disappearances" and other approaches aimed at rooting out any possible terrorist activity.
What happens next in the region may be uncertain, but one thing is clear – we can expect Chechnya and the North Caucasus to be a regular part of the news cycle for the foreseeable future.