Over the past several days news has slowly begun to emerge from Chechnya of significant action between armed militants and the security forces in Grozny (the capital city of Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Chechnya). This news has unfortunately received noticeably little attention from mainstream outlets in the West.
An attack began early in the day on 4 December in Grozny with what was reported at the time to have been at least six militants and three police being killed in gun battles. It was further reported that a building had been stormed but details were naturally hazy. As details emerged throughout the day The National Anti-Terrorist Committee reported militants in three cars had entered Grozny at 1 a.m. and killed three traffic police at a security checkpoint. Life News, an outlet with suspected links to Russian security services, also reported about 15 armed individuals had seized three cars late Wednesday in Shalazhi some 50 kilometers from Grozny.
After the shootout at the checkpoint these individuals then occupied the 10-story Press House in Grozny’s center. During the ensuing confrontation six gunmen were reported killed and the Press House was gutted by a large fire that spread to a nearby market. However, little in the way of specific details had been confirmed. What was known was that an unspecified operation was still underway in Grozny.
It was determined that several gunmen remained holed up in a school in Grozny’s city center. Anyone familiar with events would understand the immediate reaction that would be induced by the taking of a school with memories of the Beslan school hostage crisis having had severe implications for regional security paradigms.
It was however later found out that when security forces were sent to “liquidate” the militants that no students or teachers had been in the school when it was seized . Information on these events has since been expanded upon and it is now being reported by the National Anti-Terrorist Committee and Russia’s National Anti-terrorism Committee (NAK) that casualties number 10 officers killed and 28 wounded. All 10 attackers are reported killed.
Bloodiest day in months
These events represent the bloodiest day Chechnya has seen since, it may be recalled, October. The event referred to is the suicide bombing outside of a Grozny concert hall. This event, significantly, occurred as thousands gathered in the city to celebrate a local holiday, Ramzan Kadyrov’s birthday, the current leader of the Chechen Republic. Kadyrov, it may be recalled, has been widely denounced for human rights abuses in his allegedly violent reprisals aimed at stemming the resistance to his Russian backed leadership. Ironically, in order to secure his leadership, Kadyrov has increasingly adopted more Islamic restrictions with the hope of placating elements of the resistance. The results have led many to question if the Islamic insurgents are not still winning on at least a social level as Kadyrov cracks down on armed militants.
The concert hall explosion left 5 policemen dead and a further 12 people injured. The damage could have been far greater were it not for the a suicide bomber being compelled to detonate his device early after officers approached the individual asking for identification papers. That blast shattered what has been a period of relative calm in the region and has been cause for growing concerns that the new stage of the Caucasus insurgency has emerged and the region may be facing a new cycle of violence.
Damage Control and Framing
Over the last few years Grozny has managed to adopt a relative measure of calm. This is in no small way related to the harsh security measures implemented by the authoritarian Kadyrov. This, however, has had little impact on the Caucasus insurgency and in fact in some ways has only encouraged it to grow into the surrounding regions such as Daghestan and Ingushetia where violence has been on the rise. Putin’s regional focus on Chechnya and Kadyrov may have very well backfired only serving to spread the problem instead of contain it, sacrificing the entire Caucasus in hopes of securing Chechnya. Most now agree that the heavy-handed tactics that have been employed have only served to fuel the North Caucasus insurgency.
In response to this attack both Kadyrov and Putin have been quick to put an international spin on events and deflect attention away from Chechen militants for fear of the past and deep-rooted nightmares about a resurgent Chechen nationalist movement with separatist ambitions. Putin has alleged that the attack was planned from abroad having been quoted: “We remember well who and how in the 1990s supported separatism, and even terror in our lands, by calling murderers with their hands soaked in blood simply rebels,” he said. “These decisions were made at the highest levels. Well, the same rebels have now showed up in Chechnya.”Putin’s speech makes frequent suggestions that the West has supported militants in the Caucasus with the aim of breaking up Russia. Putin does this while at the same time playing down events in Grozny as simply a “national problem” demonstrating a level of uncertainty on the part of Putin over how to frame these events. This suggests that Putin has reached an impasse and is no longer quite so sure of what course to proceed by. Putin finds himself pulled in multiple directions. He desires to down play the events for domestic audiences while if at all possible further demonizing the West. The result of this tact can be to leave oneself unprepared for the growing Islamic insurgency at their doorstep. And make no mistake, the Caucasus are currently facing a long term, growing, internationally supported Islamic insurgency.
It seems that Kadyrov may be closer to the mark in what is no doubt an inconvenient truth for Moscow. Kadyrov has said the militants in Thursdays’ attack were connected to Doku Umarov, a Chechen insurgent leader of Islamic jihadists. True or not, it underscores the fact that the insurgency in the North Caucasus is an Islamic one and does not begin nor end at regional or national borders.
Thursday’s attacks erupted just hours prior to President Vladimir Putin’s scheduled annual state of the union address in Moscow. Putin came to power in part through his iron-fisted leadership in a war to drive out a separatist government in Chechnya. Putin has, in no small way, staked his political career on a promise to end the bloody Caucasus insurgency. This is an insurgency that has been running hot and cold since the fall of the Soviet government and has no clear end in sight.
The activity in the Chechen capital over these last few months serves as a startling reminder of the fragile security situation which prevails along most of Russia’s Caucasus borders. A situation which many have described as an ongoing insurgency still prevails more than a decade after Putin himself ordered troops into the region to put down the separatists. Far from succeeding, international Islamic jihadists have taken up the cause of the local ethnic populations and turned a national uprising into an Islamic one. The results, despite Putin’s controversial tactics at clamping down the region, have been decidedly unfavourable for Russia. The most poignant example being the declaration of the Caucasus Emirate in October of 2007.
The significance of fact that this attack occurred just hours before Putin’s address can not be understated. Putin is already facing harsh and growing criticisms, not only abroad but at home as well, for policies in Ukraine that have led to harsh economic sanctions. Under pressure from increasing fears over growing inflation and the plummeting ruble Putin’s rock hard façade seems to be showing signs of wear. Dmitry Trenin, head the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in a Twitter post “the night attack in Grozny looks senseless, except as an attempt to embarrass Putin hours before his annual address to parliament.” His assessment would seem to be spot on. More importantly the implications of this embarrassment can not be understated at time when many feel Russia is facing a serious impasses both internationally and domestically and many feeling that Putin has painted himself and Russia into a corner from which their isolation can only spell disaster
Feature Photo / “Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Alpha Group, c. 2011” – Wikimedia Commons, 2014
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Chris is the Assistant Editor at DefenceReport and Senior Analyst. He is also PhD student at King's College London, Department of Defence Studies. He holds both a BA in Anthropology and an HBA in History from Lakehead University, as well as an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He specializes in irregular conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, insurgency, revolution, guerrilla warfare, resistance movements, and rebel forces. His primary area of focus is the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. Chris is an Associate Member of the of The Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies at King's College London, a Member of the Second World War Research Group at King’s College London, as well as an Associate of King’s College London. Chris has formally served as an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, as well as a defence and foreign policy advisor in the Canadian House of Commons to the office of a Member of Parliament.