Monday, November 11, 2013

Window on Eurasia: MVD Says Russian Forces have Killed 3500 Militants in North Caucasus over the Last Decade

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 11 – Sergey Chenchik, the MVD chief in the North Caucasus Federal District, says that since the beginning of 2003, Russian forces have killed “more than 3500” members of illegal band formations and detained “about 8000” others, statistics that underline just how serious conflicts across that region continue to be.

            When you hear such figures from Russian officials, Timur Izmailov, an independent analyst in the region says, you are forced to reflect upon what is “really” taking place in the North Caucasus regardless of whether you have full confidence in these numbers or others that have been offered (

            To put these numbers into some kind of perspective, Izmailov says, one needs to remember that Maskhadov’s Chechen army never numbered much more than 4,000 but that the new MVD figures are about the entire North Caucasus and not just Chechnya.  As such, he says, they seem “plausible.”

            But the question arises, he suggests, as to whether all of those killed or captured are “real participants of the Islamic armed underground in the North Caucasus.”  Islamist sites routinely publish the names and even pictures of those Russian forces have killed because those behind these sites believe those who have died in the fighting are heroes.

            That creates a problem, however.  The Islamist sites have an interest, Izmailov says, in exaggerating their numbers and their losses and frequently enlist to their cause “posthumously” people who while alive were not distinguished by particular commitment to Islam and may not even have known “the direction in which Mecca is located.”

            And that parallels what the MVD does: describing those it has killed or captured as Islamist militants or terrorists even if those involved were neither but instead residents of the region who had the misfortune to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Indeed, to defend its own actions, the MVD has no other choice.

            Izmailov thus implies but doesn’t say that both the MVD and the Islamist sites are each caught between two opposing pressures.  On the one hand, the MVD looks good if it reports high casualty figures, and the Islamists do if they do so and thus imply that the level of combat remains very high.

            But on the other hand, if the MVD continues to report high casualty figures, that calls into question Moscow’s claims of progress, and if the Islamists do, they may face problems with recruitment of new fighters, although that does not yet seem to a be a problem for them anywhere in the region.

                What is clear if one goes beyond these statistics, Izmailov says, is that the Russian special services are “carrying out a real and uncompromising war with a real terrorist underground” and that the militants are continuing their fight, recruiting new people to replace any of the losses they are suffering.

            In reporting his ministry’s statistics, which one may or may not accept, Izmailov says, Chenchik pointed to two other problems that Moscow thinks it now faces. First, he said, there is almost no ideological work being directed at the children of militants, a serious shortcoming given that many of these young people are now studying in medrassahs.

            And second, despite the Islamist slogans of the militants, few of them know much about Islam.  “The percent [of militants] with Islamic educations is extremely low,” Chenchik says, a pattern that makes the appearance of anyone with such training a victory that the militants view as important “as if they had received a truckload of Stinger missiles.”

            In summarizing Chenchik’s remarks, Izmailov suggests that Russian officials should be less concerned about statistics than about what stands behind them because many in the North Caucasus and beyond know that the Russian siloviki have killed many innocent people and then called them militants or terrorists.

            Changing that attitude is, the analyst says, absolutely “necessary not only for the children [of militants and Islamists] but for all of us. Otherwise, the war in the Caucasus will never end,” however many of those fighting the Russian government and its representatives there claim to have killed.

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