Russia’s Southern Burden
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In the coming decades, challenges from the North Caucasus will
constitute the most serious threat to Russia; the entire region is
rife with problems. Russia’s other Muslim enclaves are not safe
from the threat of conflict, either. Outside of Russia, potential
ethnic clashes in Kazakhstan remain a concern, while the unstable
political regimes in Central Asia are now being pressured by
Islamic fundamentalists. These are some of the reasons why the
problems connected with the conflict in Chechnya, and its
aftermath, need to be scrutinized in the broader context, assert
Alexei Malashenko and Dmitry Trenin, leading researchers at the
Carnegie Moscow Center.

The primary focus of their book is the impact of the
confrontation in Chechnya on Russian society, as well as its impact
on the country’s domestic and foreign policy. The authors place
particular emphasis on the tendency to use the Chechen war as an
instrument of internal policy-making. This tendency became overt
with the onset of the second military campaign in Chechnya in 1999,
and played no small part in advancing Vladimir Putin’s image as a
strong Russian leader. Today, however, this war no longer greatly
influences the president’s rating.

While describing the public consciousness as increasingly
fearful of Islam and hostile toward ethnic groups from the
Caucasus, Malashenko and Trenin point out the reverse trend – a
growing number of radical Islamists, spurred by the situation in
Chechnya and, especially, the defeat of the Russian troops in the
first Chechen campaign. By the same token, the collapse of social
and economic life in Chechnya that followed the opposition’s
entering Grozny under the green standards has cooled the zeal of
its many enthusiastic supporters and helped discredit the idea of
an Islamic state, which was officially proclaimed by Aslan
Maskhadov. Central Asia, too, had its share of “antifundamentalist
immunization” with the outbreak of a ferocious civil war in
Tajikistan in 1992 following the Islamists’ rise to power.

While pointing to an increase in radical pro-Muslim activity on
the international stage, the authors, however, find no evidence to
prove its direct correlation with the activities of the Chechen
separatists. Furthermore, the Muslim organizations, keen to
maintain their presence in the North Caucasus, are reluctant to
show open support for the Chechen militants. By the authors’
estimates, the number of “Wahhabis,” as followers of radical Islam
are called in Russia, is insignificant in the North Caucasus.
Nonetheless, they present a potential threat, especially as their
ideas find fertile ground in the younger generation.

The authors see no drastic upswing in the outside financial
support for the Chechen opposition and in the number of foreign
“mujaheedin” fighters involved in the military actions in Chechnya
They describe as groundless the allegations that Chechen militants
coordinate their actions with the radical Islamic movements of
Central Asia (with the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, in
particular). Still, they do not deny contacts between them as well
as the involvement of Central Asians in the military actions in
Chechnya. In their view, the existence of an “Islamic
International” coordinating the actions of fundamentalists in
different regions is hardly probable.

Malashenko and Trenin pay particular attention to the effect of
the Chechen conflict on the army and defense development.
Assumingly, the continued confrontation in the North Caucasus and
the need to prop up stability in Tajikistan should have served as a
catalyst for a revision of the Russian Armed Forces’ military
priorities and reassessment of various threats. But, in fact, the
conservative-minded military were slow to abandon their doctrine
whereby the main threat comes from the West, with conflicts in the
South being merely part of a global confrontation. This kind of
mentality revealed itself during the crisis in Yugoslavia in 1999,
when Muslim extremists from the Kosovo Liberation Army were treated
as agents of the West. At long last, the military had to come to
grips with new challenges, which signaled the beginning of their
southbound “re-orientation.” Today, considering the state of the
conflict in Chechnya and that of the military reform, it would be
an overstatement to say that Russia has accomplished a structural
and functional reorientation of its Armed Forces to cope with new

The conflict in Chechnya contributed to a higher status of
security agencies in the state hierarchy and the active penetration
of security officials into the top echelons of power (Putin’s
election as president is quite indicative of this trend). After
Yeltsin’s resignation the government’s stance on freedom of the
press toughened, and so did the political regime as a whole.

The process of shaping Russia’s “southern” policy was not easy,
according to the authors. In the early 1990s, Moscow tended to
withdraw from the troublesome region. But later it opted for a
large-scale intervention in the conflicts in Central Asia and the
South Caucasus with the view to stabilizing the situation and
upholding its geopolitical interests there. Russian policies in the
post-Soviet environment were modeled after classic examples of the
19th-century geopolitical thinking of czarist Russia while its
assumed adversaries went by pragmatism.

Nonetheless, Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in the South
helped it develop deeper insight into the nature of the forces that
confronted it and identify the country’s prospective allies. Thus,
Turkey turned out to be Moscow’s virtual partner, whereas initially
it was ascribed (and not without reason) the role of Russia’s chief
adversary in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Common interests,
notably stabilizing the situation in Central Asia and the South
Caucasus, bound together Russia and Iran, which is now its major
regional partner despite the serious frictions over the division of
the Caspian Sea.

The improvement of Russia’s relations with Azerbaijan and
Armenia is a tribute to the second, more successful, Chechen
campaign marked by a strong antiterrorist agenda. The threat of
Islamic fundamentalism resulted in Russia’s rapprochement with the
Central Asian regimes and opened new vistas in the cooperation with

The recognition of terrorism as a paramount threat brought it
home to the Russian leadership that it is on the same side of the
fence with the U.S. and Israel. Chechnya and the challenges from
the South, which have burdened the Russian policy all through the
past decade, ultimately predetermined the change in Moscow’s
position in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. This change has
reinforced Russia’s role in world politics and in addressing its
overriding concern – the fight against international terrorism.

The message of the book would be incomplete without its authors’
admission that “researchers seeking to find out the real impact of
radical Islam in the North Caucasus run up against a lot of
difficulties and are forced to rely on indirect rather than direct
proof… and, at times, on their own intuition” (p. 82). It seems
that well-documented research on Chechnya has yet to come.