Staunton, August 4 – Moscow has played up the ways ISIS is a threat to the Russian Federation, but there is at least one way in which the Islamic State may be helping the Kremlin: The departure of militants from the North Caucasus to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq is giving Russian forces a chance to crack down hard on those remaining.
At the same time, however, this latest crackdown shows how much support the Islamist militants have within the elites in these republics and how few alternatives Moscow has to employing the stick now that the economic crisis has deprived it of the carrots that it had been distributing to local elites to keep them in line.
Consequently, the Russian government may gain some short term advantage in the North Caucasus, especially given that the departure of militants to fight for ISIS had already led to a decline in combat there. But this is unlikely to last given the anger of the population about Moscow’s use of force and the probable return of ISIS militants to the region in the future.
Akhmet Yarlykapov, a researcher at MGIMO’s Center for the Problems of the Caucasus and Regional Security, says that some two to three thousand militants from that region have gone abroad to fight for ISIS, weakening the underground in the North Caucasus (kavkazoved.info/news/2015/08/04/centr-menjaet-pravila-igry-na-severnom-kavkaze.html).
Their exit has allowed Moscow to “change ‘the rules of the game’ in the North Caucasus,” Ayk Khalatyan writes on the Kavkazoved.info portal, opening the way for a more widespread and intense crackdown on the militants and their allies in regional governments at a time when the economic crisis might have sparked a growth in their number and activity.
To the extent that this is so, his argument lends support to the conclusion of a recent journalistic investigation that Russia’s FSB has been assisting some of the militants to go abroad, not only so they can fight US-backed forces but so they won’t be in the field against Moscow. See windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/07/fsb-helps-islamists-go-to-syria-only.html).
Moscow’s first move in this latest wave of repression came on July 29 when FSB operatives used force to seize one Daghestani official and caused a second to flee and then took the first under arrest out of the republic and region. Khalatyan says they are likely to be changed with murder and support of illegal armed formations.
That action was followed by several other arrests and searches in Daghestan a few days later, the journalist says. As in the first case, these were conducted by the FSB without apparent reference to the republic authorities, a possible indication of distrust between the Moscow agency and the republic government.
And also as in the first case, those arrested put up a fight – they had large supplies of weapons and ammunition as well as armed friends and associates who immediately tried to come to their aid – and are expected to be charged with backing the underground against the Russian authorities.
Given these Daghestani events, relatively little attention has been given to Russian attacks on militants and officials supporting them on August 2 in Ingushetia near the Chechen border. “In general,” Khalatyan says, “such sudden and harsh actions of the federals toward local elites reflects the sharp decline in danger from the illegal armed formations.”
Some of that decline represents the departure of militants to fight in Syria and Iraq, but it also means that the Caucasus Emirate felt it had no choice but to swear allegiance to ISIS – and ISIS may have its own calculation about when it will be most opportune to launch attacks inside the borders of the Russian Federation.
Another driver of Moscow’s shift to the use of force against officials are the crisis-driven cutbacks in the money it can supply officials in that region. If the center no longer has the funds to buy their loyalty, it will have to use force in order to try to intimidate them, a policy Russia has employed many times before.
In some cases, the officials in the North Caucasus will be intimidated by such actions. But in others, they and their supporters in the population will simply be outraged – and even more willing to support the radicals. In that event, Moscow may gain a temporary advantage from its policies only to suffer a longer term loss.