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#13 - JRL 7009
January 7, 2003
By Ariel Cohen
A EurasiaNet Commentary
Editor's Note: Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation, and author of Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis (Greenwood/Praeger, 1998).

The late December bombing of the Russian headquarters in the Chechen capital Grozny, in which at least 57 people were killed, is the most recent indicator that Russia's campaign to crush Chechen separatism is not faring well. The Chechen conflict is one that Russia can ill afford to lose. Yet, some observers now believe that Moscow will be hard-pressed to achieve its goals. The end result may be a spread of instability across the North Caucasus region.

Blair Ruble, Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, expresses concern that Russian forces can subdue Chechen separatists. The inability to contain Chechen fighters may encourage the spread Islamic radical ideas to other areas of Russia and beyond. "Russia most probably lost the Second Chechen war, and hence is likely to lose its control over the Northern Caucasus," Ruble suggests.

While the majority of Russia's Muslims at present are loyal and moderate, Islamic radicals, including Osama bin Laden, can harness historical resentment against Russia to attract followers. Muslims in Russia have so far mainly characterized their resentment in bread-and-butter terms. Ravil Gainutdin, the Chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, suggests that up to 10 percent of Russian Muslims support armed struggle "to improve living conditions." But a significant, and perhaps growing, number of Muslims in Russia may be starting to embrace a more global and terror-friendly agenda.

A 2001 survey conducted in Dagestan by Professor Garun Kurbanov of Dagestan State University, published in the May 2002 issue of Central Asia and the Caucasus, indicates growing influence by Wahabbi clerics. According to the study, entire villages have outlawed "celebrations, including weddings, concerts, radio, and TV." The study also says that over 45 percent of Dagestanis oppose separation of religion and state, and 17 percent support imposition of religion by force.

The notion of the Chechen conflict representing a heroic struggle involving Islam against Orthodox Christianity has fueled successful fundraising efforts among Islamic donors from London to Lahore. Influential Islamic donors have dispatched tens of millions of dollars, along with hundreds of mujaheddin, or Islamic holy warriors, to the mountains of the Caucasus.

According to a senior State Department official in Washington, radical Muslims have funneled close to $100 million to Chechnya since a 1997 cease-fire ended the first Chechen conflict. According to Russian media sources in London, authorities largely ignored illicit fund-raising activities until the September 11 terrorist attacks. Russian officials from President Vladimir Putin on down maintain that Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates provide asylum and funds to Chechen rebels.

If State Department claims about Arab money funding the Chechen insurrection are credible, there is reason to believe that money from Saudi Arabia, Wahabbism's spiritual center, may be helping to build a solid core of Taliban-style activists in the North Caucasus. "The Saudis are getting a good ideological bang for the buck," says Stephen Blank, MacArthur Research Professor at the United States Army War College. Khattab, a notorious Arab fighter in the north Caucasus, died in the summer of 2002. A Saudi field commander with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, who goes by the nom-de-guerre Abu-Walid, seems to have taken his place. News reports suggest that terrorists recently apprehended in France had trained in Chechnya.

Russian claims of a link between the campaign in Chechnya and the global war on terrorism have not helped stop the insurgency in Chechnya. For that, Blank says, Russia has only itself to blame. The unprofessional conduct of its army [for background see the Eurasia Insight archives] and its corrupt (and often incompetent) security services, have done more to hamper than help Russia in attaining its political goals. If Russia is to increase its chances of succeeding in its current Chechen campaign, immediate military reform is needed, Blank says.

If a scenario plays out under which Russia indeed proves incapable of imposing peace on Chechnya, the implications for regional stability are troubling. As has occurred in Central Asia, the idea of an Islamic Caliphate in the North Caucasus could become increasingly attractive. A spread of Islamic radical activity could easily embroil both Georgia and Azerbaijan, threatening potential Caspian energy export. Also under such a scenario, Russia stands to see its international stature dwindle, as well as be confronted with ongoing insurrections. This may help explain why policy planners in the Kremlin are quick to invoke the threat of Islamist radicalism in justifying their refusal to back down in Chechnya.

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