Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Must Prepare for Syria-Type War in the North Caucasus, Former MVD Officer Says

 Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 3 – Moscow has finally recognized that “the seizure of power in Syria by radical Islamic groups inevitably will lead to the growth of tensions in the North Caucasus” and the exacerbation of conflicts there because of the number of North Caucasians who are fighting with the Syrian opposition, according to a former Russian interior ministry officer.

            Evidence gathered by the Izborsky Club during its visit to Damascus last month shows, Oleg Ivannikov, now a leader of the Russian Public Foundation for the Support of Law and Order, that North Caucasians now in Syria, in the event of victory there, will make their homeland their next “target” (

            Indeed, the former MVD official says, the graffiti these fighters have written on the walls of Syrian buildings leaves no doubt that their “main motivation for participating in the Syrian events” is to gain experience and support for launching attacks on Russian positions in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in the Russian Federation.

            Even the most superficial consideration of the case shows, Ivannikov continues, that “the main threat to the integrity of Russia comes from the North Caucasus.” That is something “our enemies understand perfectly well,” and they are quite prepared to make use of that understanding to pressure Moscow.

            “Unfortunately,” he says, “the general social, economic and inter-ethnic situation” in the North Caucasus “leaves a lot to be desired.” Special operations against the militants continue in Daghestan, the situation in Kabardino-Balkaria is unstable,” and conflicts between Chechnya and Ingushetia are intensifying.

            “Behind all these processes always stand serious financial structures or oligarchic circles,” Ivannikov says, noting that it is sufficient to recall the involvement of the late Boris Berezovsky in helping Chechen militants at the end of the 1990s when Shamil Basayev escalated the conflict there.

            Russia has sufficient military force to cope with external threats to the country, “but internal threats for contemporary Russia appear much more dangerous and real” and there are some questions as to whether the Russian armed services are focusing on them to a sufficient degree.

            Events in Syria show just how necessary such a refocusing of attention is. On the one hand, Damascus long prepared for a war with Israel rather than for the one with its own population. And on the other, Ivannikov says, there is growing evidence about “the preparation of our new ‘friends’ from the EU and from across the ocean” to exploit any Russian weakness.

            They have already launched a number of trial balloons, he says, including the “’partisans’ of the Far East” and much talk about the utility of “the exit from the Russian Federation of certain of its subjects who feel themselves too independent and self-sufficient.”

            “The logical continuation of these reflections,” Ivannikov argues, “could be information about the beginning of centralized training by ‘our friends’ of militants for the conduct of military actions already on the territory of Russia,” especially given the possibilities and cover for such things that the Syrian conflict offers.

            Consequently, the security expert says, “judging by everything,” they will “try to overload Russia with internal problems and possibly send militants who are now fighting in Syria to the Caucasus region.” 

            No one knows precisely how many North Caucasians are currently fighting for the Syria opposition, he says, “but there are more than a few.”  Moreover, the numbers are of less import than the likelihood that they would be able to invite their “’former comrades in arms’” from Syria “to take part in the liberation of their brothers in the faith from ‘Russian oppression.’”

            Moscow’s recent moves in response to the Syrian crisis, Ivannikov says, “cannot fail to please” those who understand what the risks are. Opposing Western efforts to overthrow Asad, rebuilding Russia’s Mediterranean fleet, and assisting the Syrian government are all valuable steps to promote Russian interests.

            “But the development of events may take place as often happens in Russia, more quickly than we are counting on.”  And that should lead Moscow to ask “whether the Russian army is prepared for the Syrian variant in the Caucasus.”  Having asked that question, the Russian government needs to respond by rapidly expanding and improving its internal troops.

            Syria did not have such units, he writes, and it is now paying the price for that.  But as Moscow’s earlier combat in the North Caucasus shows, Russia needs to improve these units and increase their level of coordination with the regular Russian army if they are to be in a position to counter efforts to destabilize the country.

            There is a need for speed, Ivannikov concludes, because “the weak are always beaten, and the more prepared the Russian military is for such scenarios, the less likely anyone will make attempts to carry them out.”

            Ivannikov’s argument is likely overblown and reflects his own experience with the MVD.  But it is certain to be one that is circulating among the Russian elite and suggests that those who argue that Vladimir Putin is currently supporting Asad because the Russian president has won in the North Caucasus may have gotten the situation exactly backward.

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