By Liz Fuller
(RFE/RL) — Over the past two months, Chechnya has entered a new phase of instability that differs in several key regards from the sporadic low-level insurgency of the past 16 years.
That violence has already cost some 30 lives. It has also arguably demonstrated just how hollow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov’s claims to total control over the region really are. Kadyrov’s classic response of systematic reprisals and large-scale detentions is likely to fuel the nascent discontent behind those attacks, however, rather than contain, let alone quash, it.
The new upsurge in violence marks the definitive end of a lull that followed the killing four years ago of Chechen insurgency commanders Khusein and Muslim Gakayev. It was those two brothers, together with strategist Aslambek Vadalov, who were said to have been behind the high-profile suicide attacks against Kadyrov’s native village of Khosi-Yurt in August 2010 and the Chechen parliament two months later.
The remaining nucleus of experienced militants — men in their 30s and 40s who had participated in the wars of 1994-96 and 1999-2000 — are believed to have left Chechnya for Syria to join the armed opposition to President Bashar al-Assad after the abortive December 2014 attack on Grozny.
Since mid-December, the Chechen authorities have reported a series of clashes between police and security personnel and mostly young assailants who in contrast to the Gakayevs’ hardened and experienced guerrilla fighters appear to be poorly armed and have little, if any, previous combat experience.
The first such attacks took place in Grozny on December 17-18; seven fighters and four police were reported killed in several separate incidents. Three wounded fighters, including a young woman, who were apprehended and hospitalized were reportedly executed days later.
Some three weeks later, Chechen police and security personnel launched a mass “sweep” operation in eight villages southeast of Grozny, taking into custody between 60 and 100 young men suspected of planning “terrorist attacks” at the behest of the extremist group Islamic State (IS). At least four, and possibly as many as 10, young men were killed in a pitched battle, the details of which remain unclear.
Then during the night of January 29-30, three young men aged between 18 and 20 were reported killed in a shoot-out with police in the southern district of Shali in which two police officers also died. Again, official accounts of what happened are contradictory. Some sources say the three attacked a police post, others that they were killed when police sought to check their identities.
In a separate incident late on January 25, a man who had been apprehended on suspicion of “extremism” and taken to a Grozny police station for interrogation succeeded in grabbing an automatic weapon and shooting four police officers before he too was shot dead.
As RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service pointed out in the wake of the Shali shootings, the recent incidents mark a new departure. The assailants are, according to police reports, mostly young, in their late teens or early 20s, which means that they have never known a time when the Kadyrov dynasty was not in power. Some of them are reportedly the sons of fighters killed during or after the 1999-2000 war.
Unlike earlier generations of Chechen fighters who perceived Russia as their primary foe, and therefore focused their attacks on Russian military personnel, the new wave are single-minded in targeting the “kadyrovtsy” — the police and security forces recruited by Kadyrov to serve as his private army, and whose reputation for gratuitous brutality rivals his.
Yet it seems that even some “kadyrovtsy” are ready to make common cause with the disaffected: Alikhan Muzayev, one of Kadyrov’s personal bodyguards, was reportedly executed in mid-January on suspicion of having plotted with fellow villagers an armed attack on the Chechen authorities.
As noted above, the Chechen authorities routinely attribute any manifestation of armed defiance to the successful efforts of IS recruiters. This may be true of some attackers, given that video footage posted online after the December attacks in Grozny showed 11 men who appear to have been the perpetrators swearing allegiance, in some cases in broken Arabic, to IS.
The wounded attackers apprehended in Grozny in December, and one of the men apprehended in January, reportedly confessed to acting on orders from IS. But even if those confessions were genuine, rather than extracted under torture, it is still possible that at least in some other cases, the young men who resorted to violence were motivated simply by a profound hatred of Kadyrov and his regime.
The Chechen authorities’ reaction to the upsurge in violence has been twofold: first, to punish the relatives of the young attackers by taking them into custody for questioning for days on end, dismissing them from their jobs, and convening meetings at which their neighbors demand their expulsion from Chechnya.
The father of Magomed Rashidov, a young Chechen allegedly in Syria on whose orders the three men killed in Shali late last month were reportedly acting, was induced to publicly disown him. It should, however, be noted in this context that Kadyrov appears to have taken to heart Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stern injunction that it is illegal to torch the homes of slain insurgents.
Meanwhile, as noted above, dozens of young men suspected of having fallen victim to IS propaganda have been taken into custody on suspicion of planning further attacks. The most recent such detention was that on January 31 of seven young men from the northeastern Sholkolvsky district suspected of either planning an attack on local police, or preparing to leave Russia for Syria. All seven were reportedly under the age of 25.
As for Kadyrov, he has resorted yet again to the ploy of identifying ever new internal enemies and threats against which the population should be on their guard, including the emergence of a heretical purportedly Islamic sect, and the lure of Internet games such as Blue Whale, which has been blamed for driving adolescents to suicide.
Oddly, Kadyrov has not publicly identified as a threat Isa Yamadayev, whom Novaya Gazeta recently identified as the mastermind behind a plot last year to assassinate him. Reports have suggested that Kadyrov was behind the killings of Yamadayev’s brothers Ruslan and Sulim in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
At the same time, Kadyrov may be exaggerating the threat posed by IS to bring back under his control those Interior Ministry and other armed detachments that were made subordinate last year to the newly formed National Guard. It was National Guard units that conducted the “sweep” operation in mid-January.
Last week, Kadyrov appointed as first deputy commander of the National Guard units based in Chechnya his personal security adviser, Daniil Martynov.
A poll conducted by RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service reinforces the perception that Kadyrov’s strategy of countering violent protest with new reprisals might prove counterproductive. Asked how best to respond to threats or pressure from the “kadyrovtsy,” just 2 percent of respondents advocated complying with their demands, while 8 percent advocated standing up to them. A majority — 45 percent — considered the optimum course of action leaving Chechnya, or better, emigrating, while 39 percent favored soliciting the support of trusted friends to “deal with the ‘kadyrovtsy’ on the quiet.”