A member of law enforcement forces stands guard during a rally to protest against satirical cartoons of prophet Mohammad published by Charlie Hebdo magazine, in Grozny, Chechnya, January 19, 2015.
A member of law enforcement forces stands guard during a rally to protest against satirical cartoons of prophet Mohammad published by Charlie Hebdo magazine, in Grozny, Chechnya, January 19, 2015.
Eduard Korniyenko / Reuters


The Russian Federation may be falling apart -- and its war against Chechnya is showing why. Unfortunately, most observers of the war in Chechnya miss the larger implications, limiting their analysis to the struggle for independence of one small region. Moscow blames radical Islamists for the trouble. Despite the undeniable role of fundamentalists in the Caucasus, however, Moscow had a greater hand in the federation's decline than it cares to admit.

Russia's latest war with Chechnya was sparked in August 1999 when radical Islamists, many of whom had infiltrated from Chechnya, staged uprisings in the neighboring southern Russian republic of Dagestan. Russian troops were sent and, despite Moscow's reassurances that the conflict was under control, the operations had evolved by September into the second full-scale war between Russia and Chechnya in five years. The innumerable deaths, the relentless bombardment of cities, and the torrent of refugees are eerily familiar, recalling the horrors of the 1994-96 Russo-Chechen war.

The Russian army -- even while weakened and demoralized -- has been more successful this time; Russian officials are proclaiming swift progress. But no real solution -- military or political -- is in sight. Instead, Russia is drifting back to the hoary Soviet practice of the big lie. It blames the bombing of marketplaces and civilian dwellings on Chechen terrorists and "bandits" while praising its own military for pinpoint strikes that supposedly destroy terrorist strongholds without hurting civilians. Russian leaders dismiss eyewitness accounts of civilian casualties as propaganda or as a double standard employed by the West, fresh from its Serbian war and out to weaken Russia. The Russian news media, too, like their state-controlled predecessors, are sticking to the official story. Only the military setbacks that began in mid-January have forced Russian leaders and the press to be more candid about the extent of Russian losses in the Chechen war. Nonetheless, honest debate is seldom tolerated, as even prominent Russian advocates of democracy and reform equate criticism of the war with disloyalty.

Moscow attributes the turbulence in Chechnya and Dagestan to external forces -- the bogeymen of radical Islam and foreign zealots. In doing so, it ignores the country's deeper afflictions. Russia has forced disparate ethnic groups to live together for decades but has proven inept at governing its wobbly empire. Now the fighting in Chechnya is endangering Russia's nascent democracy and dooming its efforts to make the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) the attractive coalition of friendly states it needs to be. Short-term Russian military successes will actually increase the appeal of political Islam as an alternative, given the heavy toll of Russia's unrestrained campaign on the lives of ordinary people.


It is no accident that the skein of the Russian Federation should unravel first in the North Caucasus, the bloodiest venue of tsarist imperial expansion. When Russia's Romanovs tried to conquer it in the nineteenth century, it took from 1816 to 1856 to subdue the fierce resistance. Thousands of noncombatants were killed, agricultural land was denied to guerrillas to starve them into submission, and people were deported en masse to various parts of Russia, many dying on the way. More than a million people fled or were expelled from their homelands, settling in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East, where they retained their ethnic identity.

After a period of brief and chaotic independence in the North Caucasus between 1917 and 1922, the Bolsheviks subdued the region anew with even harsher measures. In 1943-44, entire nationalities -- Balkars, Chechens, Ingush, and Karachai, of whom Chechens were the largest group -- were accused of collaborating with the Germans, loaded on trucks and railroad cars, and shipped to Central Asia. As many as a third of the 618,000 deportees died as a result; those not expelled were killed on the spot.

Using the classic divide-and-rule strategy, Joseph Stalin built artificial multiethnic republics that divided nations -- and ultimately sowed separatist and irredentist seeds. These seeds blossomed in the post-Soviet era, when 15 arbitrarily designated "union republics" of the Soviet Union qualified for independence to the exclusion of other, equally deserving ethnic regions. As a result, Russia today remains a mini-empire, not a voluntary federation. Its republics are now coming apart under the pressure of old grievances, a newly resurgent national consciousness, and dissatisfaction with the quality of life.

These old grievances are causing today's problems. In the late 1950s, more than half a million "exiled nationalities" expelled from their original homelands in 1943-44 returned to find their homes and land occupied by other ethnic groups. The Caucasus was soon consumed by feuding between Chechens and Laks in Dagestan, Ingush and Ossetians in North Ossetia, and Turkic Karachai and Balkars and their Circassian neighbors. Sometimes these conflicts turned bloody -- like the 1992 violence between Ossetians and Ingush in North Ossetia that forced waves of Ingush refugees into Ingushetia.

Dagestan, home to 34 ethnic groups, was troubled long before radical Islamists surfaced there in the summer of 1999. Its political stability rests on a fragile balance of power between the biggest nationalities -- Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, and Laks. Together they account for more than 50 percent of the population and keep the peace by sharing power and wealth. But it has been a precarious peace. Chechens in Dagestan claim land occupied by Laks; Kumyks fear Avar dominance; and Lezgins press for autonomy and a union with their Azerbaijani kin. Elites in the dominant nationalities, whose powers rest on ties to Moscow, face opposition from proponents of change, most of whom object to Russian hegemony. Assassinations and bombings are common, as is organized crime -- including banditry and ransoms.

Ethnic animosities also exist in two other republics of the North Caucasus. As their names imply, both Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria are frail, shotgun marriages that divide nationalities (mainly Turkic and Circassian) across borders and combine dissimilar ethnic groups under one roof.

Compounding the ethnic tensions in the North Caucasus are the travails of high unemployment, pervasive poverty, and rapid population growth. Moscow's subsidies to the provinces have been sharply reduced because of economic problems, creating major troubles in North Caucasian regions that have relied heavily on such support. These hardships are worsened by crime, corruption, political assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, the struggle between communist holdovers and new seekers of power, and the disarray spawned by the decline of the empire.


Thus far, only Chechnya and Dagestan have attracted the outside world's interest through the outbreak of a major conflict. Internal tensions in the other five Caucasian republics -- Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, and Ingushetia -- have yet to gain international attention. But they are no less significant, and the fallout from Chechnya will only aggravate them.

The war in Chechnya has already sent new tremors into this precarious setting. Ingushetia, desperately poor and mired in social ills, has been overwhelmed by more than 200,000 Chechens fleeing Russian bombardment. The only reasons for the Ingush, as for other groups, to remain in the Russian Federation are the fear of Russian troops and the putative benefit of aid from Moscow. But such aid has stopped flowing, thanks to Russia's economic problems -- just as the republics struggle to accommodate the flurry of refugees. In Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, the imperial logic of Russia's artificial unions is also fading fast. Large groups seek to dominate the political order, while disgruntled minorities seek redress, either by trying to unite with their ethnic kin in other republics or by envisioning new units for political power and cultural freedom.

Moscow has manipulated the tensions between ethnic groups for centuries, but these rivalries now create disorder and threaten its grip on the region. Of course, other instruments of control are also available to Russia. These include the Russian Cossacks, descendants of escaped serfs and fugitives who settled Russia's imperial borderlands. The Cossacks maintain communities in parts of the North Caucasus and are determined to retain ties to Russia and preserve their identity -- a melange of martial tradition, Russian nationalism, and Orthodox Christianity. They are eager to repress any manifestations of Islamic identity or linguistic and cultural nationalism among North Caucasians.

But without good governance and an attractive national project, dissatisfied nationalities within the Russian Federation are rethinking their options. The Chechen war will intensify this dynamic of separation by leading even more groups -- especially Muslims -- to consider independence. As for the newly independent nations of the former Soviet Union, they will question the benefits of membership in the CIS, wondering whether the organization is simply a disguised imperial project that links them to a loser state.


Moscow is right about one thing: Islam will be the natural vocabulary of the dissatisfied South. Islamic ideology is an important source of identity and mobilized resistance against non-Muslim rule in the Caucasus, and it condemns as illegitimate the ineffective and corrupt regimes of the new Muslim republics. Islamists demand just rule in a region awash with postcommunist corruption. And sharia (Islamic law) offers a historically respected code of law and social discipline after generations of corrupt socialist rule.

To be sure, Islamists include extremists and "fanatics" in their ranks. But a broadening spectrum of political Islam is now a force to be reckoned with in the Muslim-dominated regions of Russia. Russia and other post-Soviet states are becoming increasingly open -- through trade, travel, and the flow of information -- to cultural currents from the Muslim world, of which the North Caucasus was for so long a part.

Why is political Islam now so appealing to the republics? Existing political systems are eliminating all other political forces without addressing underlying economic and social problems, such as poverty, inequality, and corruption -- making Islam the default choice. Russia's single-minded depiction of the problem in the North Caucasus as one of Islamic fundamentalism may strike a responsive chord in the West, but it is an oversimplification. Most Chechen forces are driven more by their political gripes with Moscow than by their desire for an Islamic state. Not all the region's fighters are born-again Muslims, foreign Islamic interlopers, Saudi stooges, or exiled Chechens.

For instance, Moscow has now placed a price on the head of Chechen guerrilla commander Shamil Basayev. But it was Russian military intelligence that trained Basayev in 1992 to fight alongside secessionist Abkhaz forces, in an effort to tame an overly independent Georgia. Russia sent Chechen fighters to other Georgian regions and Moldova to maintain its dominance in the "near abroad." These same forces are now deployed against the Russian army. The wave of bombings in Russian cities in 1999 -- a key casus belli for Russia -- is attributed to Chechens, a debatable conclusion given the Chechens' steadfast denials and, more important, Moscow's failure to produce a shred of evidence.

The guerrilla commander Khattab is characterized in the Russian press as a fanatic Arab interloper. Though dubbed a Middle Eastern "Muslim zealot," Khattab is actually of Chechen origin, resuming the fight for Caucasian independence decades and centuries after his ancestors fled the violence of commissars and tsars. Today's fighters are joined by other battle-tested Muslims from abroad, many of whom gained combat experience during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Veterans of the anti-Soviet Afghan campaign have embraced an ideology dedicated to rolling back the centuries-long Russian conquest of Muslims. Their methods are sometimes extreme, but so are those of the Russian army. Ordinary North Caucasians are, tragically, caught between fundamentalist Muslim fighters and the Russian army.

This pattern threatens to reproduce itself in a war of extremes, as militant Islam becomes the rationale for Russia's unbridled military force, begetting an even more radical Islam and a stronger Muslim identity. Moscow has convinced itself that Muslim extremists are the essence, not a part, of the problem. As a result, Russia has no viable strategy to govern an increasingly turbulent area.


Despite the number of problems, Moscow still has good reasons to hold on to this hornet's nest. Russians are correct to argue that Chechen efforts to destabilize Dagestan could not have been ignored.

What would happen if Dagestan fell? The other republics would find Moscow too poor to reward them and too weak to punish them. Russia's provinces already routinely ignore the center, and a fiasco in the North Caucasus would further strengthen their hands. Thus, the region's push for more leeway might lead to the loss of other non-Russian territories or at least to a debilitating reconfiguration. Although Dagestan is small (with a mere 1.8 million people and half the land of Virginia), the activities of Islamic militants there must be addressed.

First, the Russian government fears that the spread of upheaval from Chechnya to Dagestan and beyond could prompt roughly one million Russians to depart the North Caucasus. This migration would have several dangerous consequences: Russia's meager budget (now only slightly larger than that of Illinois) would suffer an additional burden, jeopardizing the economic recovery begun in 1999; Russian refugees would overwhelm southern Russia; and Moscow's inability to protect ethnic Russians, even within their own country, would further erode the government's legitimacy.

Second, the economic stakes are high in Dagestan, even higher than in Chechnya. Dagestan commands 70 percent of Russia's Caspian Sea coast, and Makhachkala, its capital, is Russia's only all-weather port on the Caspian. Thus the losses in fishing and commerce would be substantial. Even more critical is the pipeline carrying oil from Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, to global markets, which traverses Dagestan before crossing Chechnya to Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossisk. Russia would lose millions of dollars annually if this pipeline did not operate reliably -- something Chechnya's instability has already threatened. Russian leaders also rightly worry that an upheaval in the North Caucasus would accelerate the shift in trade from the traditional north-south axis to a new east-west axis, resulting in even closer links between the South Caucasus and the West.

Third, Russia's strategic position in the South Caucasus would be at risk should Chechnya's troubles spread. If the North Caucasus slips from Russia's grasp, Georgia and Azerbaijan, already eager to build ties with the West, would abandon Russia's orbit. Armenia, a traditional Russian ally in the South Caucasus with which Moscow has a defense treaty, would also be compelled to reorient its foreign policy, viewing Russia as a spent force. In addition, Russia would eventually lose its military bases in Georgia and Armenia. Emboldened by Russia's weakness, Turkey would readily step in to replace Russia as a key partner, as would Iran.

As long as Russia continues to offer little to attract other ex-Soviet states, Moscow's strategic apprehension is justified. If Russia were a prospering and democratic enterprise, regional states would seek partnership in the project, just like the European Union's neighbors want to sacrifice some sovereignty to a supranational project. But even under the best circumstances, Russia is at least half a century away from forging a new, prosperous, and voluntary commonwealth.


Moscow's official refrain is that what it is doing in Chechnya is nothing less than keeping the Russian Federation whole. The question remains whether Moscow's chosen methods merely delay or actually accelerate fragmentation. The Chechen conflict threatens many delicate political orders, even those in South Caucasian states. At a time when an uncertain succession to President Heydar Aliyev looms, Azerbaijan -- the only majority-Muslim country in the South Caucasus -- is vulnerable to ethnic and religious currents from the north, particularly if the upheaval in Chechnya fragments Dagestan: Dagestani Lezgins have long sought to unite with their kin across the border in Azerbaijan.

In Georgia, democracy has established a foothold. But there, too, the Chechen war could be disruptive, should Russia press for Georgian cooperation. Georgians believe Moscow is deliberately exacerbating the unresolved ethnic conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both regions in Georgia. And they worry about the extent of Russia's influence in Adzharia and Javakheti, regions with strong ties to Moscow, not least because of the Russian bases located there.

Azerbaijan and Georgia share poorly guarded borders with Dagestan, and Georgia abuts Chechnya as well. Both are therefore vulnerable to refugees or guerrillas seeking safe havens and staging areas, whom neither country has the resources to repel or accommodate. Russia has warned Azerbaijan and Georgia not to let Chechen fighters use their territory. It has also sought Georgian consent for Russian forces to patrol and stage operations along the border.

Other parts of the Russian Federation are hardly immune to the ripple effects of the war in Chechnya. Muslim-dominated Tatarstan wisely struck a deal for autonomy with Moscow in 1994, well short of the Chechen demands for full independence. Yet Tatar nationalism is growing. In an era of globalization and porous borders, Tatarstan is no longer insulated from the growing Islamic separatist movement. Tatarstan's large Russian population and its lack of shared borders with other states make secession unlikely. But Islamist activism in the republic is growing. And the brutality of the Chechen war, hardly reassuring to Russia's other Muslims, furthers Islam's appeal. If religious and nationalist forces become more prominent in Tatarstan, they are bound to affect neighboring Bashkortostan.


Having lost so much in blood and treasure, it is hard to imagine Chechnya willingly moving back into the Russian fold. After the 1994-96 Chechen war, Moscow could have cut its losses and accommodated de facto Chechen independence, thus staving off further instability in the North Caucasus. Instead, it chose to destabilize the weak but elected government of President Aslan Maskhadov, making it even more difficult for him to control the unruly republic. He was unable to rein in Chechnya's maverick former field commanders, Shamil Basayev and Salman Raduyev, who became warlords dedicated not just to Chechen independence but to an Islamic union in the North Caucasus. Yet even then, Moscow could have contained the 1999 insurgency in Dagestan without carrying the war any further.

The Chechen resistance will never defeat 100,000 Russian troops in a conventional battle. Instead, it hopes to draw Russian units into a protracted guerrilla war that increases both the economic costs and the number of Russians dead, thereby pressuring Moscow to withdraw. If the war drags on through the spring, the demand for a settlement will grow. The Chechens, in short, are fighting at the front but are hoping for a collapse of Russian will in the rear.

Moscow's power is far from running its course. It can still destroy all of Chechnya's cities and towns and kill a large portion of the Chechen people. But it can never create a stable pro-Moscow government in Grozny. Most Chechens would regard a pro-Moscow regime as a collection of quislings; it would need the open-ended protection of Russian troops. Dependence on Moscow would only highlight the regime's illegitimacy and expose it to assassinations, kidnappings, and terrorism -- activities likely to be carried by Chechen militants into Russia proper.

Whoever wins the Russian presidential elections will face a nearly insurmountable task in the North Caucasus. Beleaguered and unpopular local leaders on whom Russia depends will find it hard to control opponents of Moscow-friendly policies and institutions. Refugees will have to be resettled and towns and cities rebuilt in the face of tightening budgets and pressing problems elsewhere in Russia. Ethnic tensions will mount.

In the North Caucasian mosaic, Moscow may temporarily keep rival groups off balance. But it is only a matter of time before people realize that Russia seeks control but shirks responsibility for fundamental problems. The deeper this conviction becomes, the more desirable the alternatives will be -- alignment with Turkey or even (like Armenia) with Iran. Variants of Islam or new regional associations will beckon. The precise nature of these alternatives cannot be foreseen, but all will diminish Russia's influence.

Even if Russia withdraws its forces at some point, Chechens face daunting tasks. A country that has been leveled must be rebuilt -- with little hope of largesse from Moscow. Order must be restored by disarming Chechen warlords and curtailing the power of clans and regions. Social cohesion will require integrating Chechnya's powerful and pervasive Sufi religious orders, some of which have been the historical source of militant resistance to Russia. The growing reality of political Islam will also have to be faced. Above all, the yearnings of the ordinary Chechen will need to be satisfied.

Few Chechens share the vision of a North Caucasus united under a fundamentalist banner; most simply seek to survive. Yet unless political reform and economic progress take hold in the North Caucasus, there will be plenty of recruits for radical Islam, separatism, irredentism, and the cult of the gun. Russia chose war to bring order to the North Caucasus; in doing so, it has made an even greater disorder unavoidable.


Both Russian and Chechen fighters feel that time is on their side. Yet if war, social disintegration, and poverty dominate the region, there can be no stable peace. To make matters worse, the West lacks the means to convince either side that its calculations might be wrong. The longer the war continues, the harder it will be for Western governments to resist calls for action and argue that criticizing the Kremlin -- let alone punishing it by deferring summits or denying loans -- will strengthen Moscow's resolve while weakening the prospects for reform. Silence will be difficult to sustain in Western democracies, particularly in the United States during an election year. Fortunately, the European Union, which has considerable economic leverage on Russia, is already addressing the Chechen issue with a bolder voice than Washington's.

For now, it appears that the West can do little to end the bloodshed in Chechnya. But as the war raises the human and financial costs to Russia, its citizens will register their unhappiness -- something they are already starting to do. Under these circumstances, Moscow will consider a settlement in which the West plays a major role. But meanwhile, the West should not tune out the Russian campaign in Chechnya for fear of offending Moscow. Doing so will damage its credibility among Chechens and reduce its diplomatic effectiveness. And the West will have done a disservice to those Russians who understand that the war is dangerous not only for Chechnya but for Russia, too.

In the Caucasus, as in the rest of the world, the West cannot routinely ignore the force of nationalist movements, which will continue to challenge empires similar to the Russian Federation. All multiethnic societies face nationalism, but not all will collapse -- good governance is the key. In future years, the West will regularly face the question of how to respond to poorly governed and disintegrating multiethnic states that do not accommodate minorities. This is why other vulnerable states, such as China, are watching Chechnya closely. Those seeking independence cannot be dismissed as terrorists or fanatics -- although these elements may well be present. Nor can the West simply accept other states' forceful measures against minority populations. Unfortunately, Moscow has made the mistake of pursuing a military solution to an inherently political problem. In doing so, it has jeopardized the country's chances for democracy and economic reform -- and for joining the West by embracing the mores of the 21st century.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Rajan Menon is Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and Director of Eurasia Policy Studies at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Graham E. Fuller is former Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and is currently a resident consultant at RAND.
  • More By Rajan Menon
  • More By Graham E. Fuller