In mid-March, a massive redeployment of military personnel from Chechnya to Dagestan took place. According to unofficial sources from Dagestan, up to 20,000-25,000 troops were moved to the neighboring republic. A military column including large amounts of armored fighting vehicles set out from Khankala, a military base to the east of Grozny, to the Karabudakhkent district of Dagestan on the outskirts of the capital city of Makhachkala. Rationalized by the authorities as another move to improve the deteriorating situation in the Caspian republic, the move has caused serious concern both within and outside Dagestan.
BACKGROUND: Apart from the traditional sense of rivalry and competitiveness among the peoples of the Caucasus, Chechens and Dagestanis share a history of fierce anti-colonial resistance dating back to the end of the 18th century and have faced conflicts in the near past. The story began in 1944 when Chechens, accused by the NKVD of collaboration with Nazi Germany, were deported en masse to Central Asia and the political-administrative map of the autonomous republic of Checheno-Ingushetia was redrawn with some of its eastern territories conceded to Dagestan. In the second half of the following decade, Chechens were allowed to move back to their native lands and homes and found them inhabited by Dagestanis, particularly Laks and Avars. This laid the ground for future tensions as the issue of rehabilitation of deportees – including their property rights and administrative control over disputed areas – has never been resolved.
Accordingly, both Laks and Akkiy Chechens, the latter members of one of nine Chechen tukhums native to the area, have both claimed the Novolakskiy (until 1944 Aukhovskiy) district. Chechen nationalists have from time to time voiced territorial claims on some neighboring border areas, even though the Chechens’ preoccupation with Moscow-related issues in the post-Soviet period has diverted their attention from Dagestan. Most notably, the then chairman of the pro-Kremlin National Assembly of the Chechen Republic, Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov, made an infamous statement in 2006, indirectly claiming not only the Novolakskiy district but also Kizlyar and Khasavyurt, the largest cities of East-Central Dagestan, along with access to the Caspian Sea. This outraged many Dagestanis causing serious friction between the two Caucasian peoples.
In the mid-2000s, Kadyrovtsy units undertook a series of incursions into Dagestani territory coinciding with Chechen-claimed territory, to carry out "anti-terrorist operations” without consulting Dagestani authorities. This caused tensions between Grozny and Makhachkala, driving a wedge between Chechen and Dagestani law enforcement agencies and reinforcing existing Dagestani mistrust toward the Chechens’ real objectives. The failure of the joint Chechen-Dagestani Salafi army in August 1999, which invaded Western Dagestan from Chechnya under Chechen commanders, is often explained by the popular defiance of Dagestanis to what they regarded as a masked effort by Chechens to realize their age-old territorial claims on Dagestani territory. In result, what was thought by Salafis to spark a massive anti-Russian rebellion in the neighboring country paving the ground for establishing a Muslim theocracy in the Caucasus, turned out to be the beginning of the end of the de facto independent Chechen state.
IMPLICATIONS: The share of ethnically Chechen troops in the redeployed units is unclear, even though it seems that Chechens constitute close to a majority. The redeployment of Chechnya-based troops to Dagestan has been carried out under the framework of the Temporary Operational Group of the Ministry of Interior that is under formation. No particular information has been made available by the authorities, but according to some sources the troops of the newly established unit will most likely be deployed in the critical districts of Sergokala, Kizlyar, and Izberbash, along with the Karabudakhkent district. The recent move to make use of Chechnya-based troops in fighting the Dagestani insurgency is part of the larger effort by Moscow to strengthen the Dagestan-based military dating back to the final years of the previous decade when the scope of insurgency in the republic was becoming alarming.
In fact, Moscow’s move may be explained by two main factors. First, the unprecedented intensification of diversionary activities carried out by Dagestani insurgents since 2010-2011 has made it the hotspot of the North Caucasus insurgency (see the 09/29/11 issue of the CACI Analyst); the parallel liquidation of insurgency leaders has proven ineffective in breaking the backbone of the Islamist resistance. In this regard, two violent incidents that took place in the republic in early March – both in the strategically located Karabudakhkent district with its forested mountains – seem to have triggered Moscow’s decision to redeploy troops to Dagestan. On March 6, a suicide attack carried out by a female at a police checkpoint claimed the lives of five officers injuring two others, while three days later Dagestani insurgents shot down a Russian military helicopter close to the village of Gubden that is considered one of the strongholds of the Dagestani insurgency.
Second, following more than a decade of a vicious counterinsurgency campaign led by Ramzan Kadyrov and his associates that has cost the lives of many hundreds of Chechens and terrified hundreds of thousands of others, the risk of joining the insurgency or providing support or even sympathy for it has become too high for many Chechens, which has reduced the material basis of the Chechnya-based Islamists. On the other hand, Kadyrov has often addressed Moscow and his Dagestani colleagues with the aim of sharing his experience in effective counterinsurgency campaigns. As early as in the mid-2000s, he often explicitly blamed the incompetent Dagestani siloviki for the unstable situation in Chechnya since Chechen Islamists were in his opinion de facto given a safe haven in Dagestan. Needless to say, Kadyrov’s participation in Dagestan-based operations may further increase his self-styled image as an effective counterinsurgency commander in the region. This would in turn strengthen Kadyrov’s standing vis-à-vis Moscow on North Caucasus-related economic and political issues from which he would be quick to capitalize.
CONCLUSIONS: The stationing of Chechen troops on Dagestani soil with their prospective deployment in combat operations potentially threatens the inter-ethnic balance in Dagestan, reinforcing already present but as yet low-intensity anti-Chechen sentiments among Dagestanis. Given the strong pattern of ethnic fractionalization in Dagestan, leading politico-administrative, economic and police positions in the republic’s respective districts are often dominated by the members of the same, usually the demographically strongest, ethnic group. This somehow reduces the scope of conflict since members of both law enforcement agencies and insurgents located in the same area often belong to the same ethnicity, clan, or family.
However, incidents of insurgency-related intra-ethnic violence have become more widespread following the Chechnya example and the Dagestani authorities have generally sought to deploy ethnically mixed police troops to make them more reliable and combat-ready. What made the counterinsurgency campaign of the Kadyrovtsy units relatively effective in comparison with the Russian army was their familiarity with the domestic social terrain as they were able to gather intelligence and use various coercion tactics toward persons (or their family members) engaged in the insurgency while usually leaving out people who had no (alleged) links to the Islamists. This gradually reduced the material support for insurgents.
This resource will, however, not be available while carrying out operations in Dagestan. Instead, their deployment in Dagestan might turn into a series of indiscriminate and ruthless punitive campaigns carried out on alien soil that would certainly outrage Dagestanis regardless of their ethnic loyalties and political preferences. Indeed, the Moscow-initiated redeployment of Chechen troops, to which Dagestani authorities have been opposed until the very last moment, might further exacerbate the delicate inter-ethnic balance in the republic prompting general resentment toward Chechens both within and outside the republic. Against this background, the established tensions between members of Dagestani and Chechen law-enforcement agencies will also play a role as the anxiety of Dagestani siloviki toward the activities of their Chechen colleagues is likely to rise significantly, which could have peculiar ramifications for the nature of the counterinsurgency. Accordingly, it is not clear whether Kadyrov will seek to play a more significant role in the political life of the multiethnic republic on the shores of the Caspian Sea, turning it to a Chechnya-like sultanistic regime.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is assistant professor at the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University, Prague. He is the author of "An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective” (Peter Lang, 2007).