Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series providing background on and context to the recent abuses suffered by the LGBTQ community in the Russian republic of Chechnya.
Russian President Vladimir Putin put Moscow-backed Chechens in charge to clean up the Muslim dominated semi-autonomous republic of Chechnya, free it from terrorism, and make it an example of what would happen if anyone threatened Russia. This led to the rise of the Kadyrov family.
First there was Akhmad, who was assassinated, and then his son, the current Chechen president, Ramzan. To make Chechnya safe, Putin allowed Kadyrov a free hand to do whatever he wants. This has resulted in the continued occurrences of “zachistka” operations: mopping-up raids. Entire villages have been “swept clean” of any potential threats against the Kadyrov clan, or Moscow. Any behaviors out of line with Moscow, and not considered moral for Chechen tradition or Islam, is handled with pure brutality.
Kadyrov is an authoritarian leader who does not tolerate dissent and who receives personal backing, militarily and financially, from Moscow as long as Chechnya remains peaceful. “Peaceful” in this context is defined as no opposition to Moscow.
Ramzan has kept this definition of peace intact. But Chechnya knows no Western notion of liberty – which is unfortunate, because historically Chechens honored liberty and egalitarianism. It has mostly recovered from the wars, and its capital, Grozny, is now a modernesque city with glitz and glamor, and Russia’s largest mosque, paid for by Moscow.
But beneath the surface, tensions and terror still lurk. Nationalism is still rising, opposed to Kadyrov and to Wahhabism, an austere, fundamentalist movement within Islam. Making matters worse, many Chechens, perhaps up to 2,000, from Chechnya or refugee centers through the Middle East have joined ISIS. In fact, some of ISIS’ most effective commanders and field operators have been Chechen. Entire brigades of ISIS are filled with Chechens.
As expressed in the first issue of Dabiq, once ISIS’ propaganda magazine, the destruction of Russia is one of its two main goals (death to America is, of course, the second). Chechen elements inside Syria have vowed to take the fight home to Russia once they are finished with forming its planned Caliphate. Consequently, this gives Putin more reason to fight in Syria (to keep the Chechen Wahhabist there), and allows Kadyrov more reason to rule with an iron fist inside Chechnya.
Thus, most of Chechnya that is an honorable, hospitable, loving population is kept under siege, looking peaceful and ordered, but kept in fear by Putin, Kadyrov and radical Islamic extremism (which is antithetical to the traditional Sufi Islam practiced by most Chechens). The home-grown terrorist elements inside Chechnya, the Caucasus Emirate, which was solely dedicated to a regional caliphate, has split, and members are pledging allegiance to ISIS.
To summarize, the potential militant groups inside Chechnya include nationalist (mostly dormant, but never quiet); ISIS; Kadyrov’s elite cadre; and the Caucasus Emirate.
Adding more complexity, Chechen nationalists have been flocking to Ukraine to support its war against the Moscow-backed rebellion, and Moscow has recruited Chechens to its side in Ukraine, fighting in support of insurgents. This is a proxy ethnic-civil war – a rare event for international-relations scholars to study. In other words, all groups that wish to foment change in Chechnya are honing their military prowess in other nations, becoming battle-hardened and ready to strike when they return home.
To add more complexity, Chechnya’s government has just opened a special operations school where it trains individuals to become elite soldiers. Chechen commandos have come in contact with even U.S. Special Operations Forces, and have fared far better than most would imagine. They have earned respect for their brutality in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine and other battle theaters. Reports indicate that this training school is now operational, and it employs elite contractors as its instructors, from many different countries. Let that sink in for a minute to understand my meaning.
Putin has just deployed 1,000 Chechen special operators to Syria to fight against ISIS and other elements opposed to the Bashar al-Assad regime. These forces are Putin’s ace in the hole: Muslim commandos trained and paid heavily to do Putin’s bidding in the Middle East.
But what happens when all these fighters return to Russia? What happens when Putin is no longer in charge, and when Chechen President Kadyrov falls from power? What happens when ISIS inevitably loses its territorial control, and fighters return to wreak havoc on the domestic front?
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at Augusta University. You can follow him on Twitter, @polscountrydoc.