Violent incidents in Chechnya and Ingushetia; Azerbaijani MP attack; US journalist detained; pro-regime blogger killed in St Petersburg

Threatologist Eurasia: 6 April 2023


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This week's main stories:

  • Conflicting information about violent incident in Chechnya
  • Five declared wanted after attack in Ingushetia
  • Authorities label attack on Azerbaijani MP terrorist attack
  • Russia detains US journalist on spying charges
  • Pro-regime military blogger killed in St Petersburg
Conflicting information about violent incident in Chechnya

Two people were killed in an armed incident in Chechnya’s Gudermes on the night of 28-29 March. Accounts of what happened vary significantly.


Local residents reported a shootout at a police post in central Gudermes, as well as at a cemetery. Chechen Head Ramzan Kadyrov, by contrast, claimed that the security services had tracked two militants to a private house on the edge of the city and surrounded them; there were killed when they refused to surrender (Caucasian Knot, 29 March; Kavkaz Realii, 29 March). Chingiz Akhmadov, director of the pro-government ChGTRK Groznyy TV channel, dismissed reports about the police post and cemetery as erroneous and accused “European shaytans” -- by which he meant dissident Chechens living in Europe -- of spreading misinformation (Caucasian Knot, 31 March).


As Caucasian Knot noted, pro-regime officials were quick to praise Kadyrov personally for saving the lives of women and children at the scene of the incident (Caucasian Knot, 31 March). Kadyrov’s Telegram channel posted videos of Kadyrov at the scene in the aftermath of the incident. In one, he is accompanied by his 15-year-old son Adam (in full cosplay), Deputy Prime Minister Abuzayd Vismuradov, Emergencies Minister Alikhan Tsakayev, and Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov (Kavkaz Realii, 29 March). The bodies of the two alleged militants showed clear signs of abuse.


The Investigative Committee for Chechnya identified the two men as residents of Gudermes, relatives who were born in 1963 and 1989 (Caucasian Knot, 29 March). Kavkaz Realii cited local residents, via those behind the NIYSO Telegram channel, as describing one of the men as mentally ill and casting doubt on his purported involvement in insurgent activity. Instead, they suggested that the incident was staged for PR purposes (Kavkaz Realii, 29 March). Human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina noted previous occasions where the security services had kidnapped individuals and then staged incidents in order to demonstrate counterterrorism successes (Caucasian Knot, 30 March). Opposition Telegram channel 1ADAT, by contrast, speculated that those involved could have been insurgents (Kavkaz Realii, 29 March). 


The most recent incident of this nature to occur in Chechnya took place on 21 November 2022, when a man was killed after attacking a traffic policeman with a knife in Groznyy (Caucasian Knot, 29 March). 

Five declared wanted after attack in Ingushetia

Another incident occurred on 28 March, when unknown people attacked a traffic post on the border between Ingushetia and North Ossetia, leaving two policemen wounded (Caucasian Knot, 30 March).


The local Federal Security Service (FSB) department subsequently declared five Ingushetian residents wanted for their involvement in the incident: Mikhail Moshkhoyev, Amir Bokov, Amirkhan Gurazhev, Adam Ozdoyev, and Movsar Kottoyv. The FSB had already issued a statement identifying Moshkhoyev, Bokov, and Gurazhev as suspects, alongside Ramazan Eldiyev — who was found dead on the morning of 29 March (Caucasian Knot, 1 April). 


On 3 April, the Ingushetian security services imposed a Counterterrorism Operation (KTO) regime on Malgobekskiy Rayon, as they hunted the alleged attackers. A further clash ensued, resulting in an injury to one member of the security services. The owner of the farm where the militants were hiding — who is also the uncle of one of them — was detained. The militants themselves, however, escaped (Caucasian Knot, 3 April).


Commenting on the attack, Gannushkina dismissed speculation that the two events were connected and signalled the reemergence of some kind of broader insurgency (Caucasian Knot, 30 March).


Further developments to this story will be covered in subsequent editions of Threatologist Eurasia.

Authorities label attack on Azerbaijani MP terrorist attack

On the evening of 28 March, an unknown man attacked Azerbaijani MP Fazil Mustafa outside his home in Zabrat, a suburb of Baku. Despite being shot several times in the shoulder and leg, Mustafa survived the attack and is expected to recover. No one else was injured in the incident (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, 29 March).


Azerbaijan’s State Security Service (SGB) said it was classifying the attack as an act of terrorism. However, the statement mentioning this classification said the SGB’s Main Investigative Department had opened a criminal case under Articles 277 (covering an attempt on the life of an official or public figure) and 228.1 (relating to illegal arms trafficking) of the Azerbaijani Criminal Code. Article 214, which specifically covers terrorism, was not mentioned, for reasons unknown (State Security Service of Azerbaijan, 29 March).


The Azerbaijani Interior Ministry initially reported that four people were detained in an operation on 2 April in Baku’s Qaradağ Rayon in connection with the attack (Caucasian Knot, 3 April). Meydan TV subsequently reported that a further two people had been detained (Caucasian Knot, 3 April). 


According to Caucasian Knot, the security services suspect Sabuhi Shirinov as being responsible for executing the attack, and Azer Sarijanov of being the organiser. Both were among those detained and are alleged to have been recruited by the Iranian security services (Caucasian Knot, 3 April). Fellow Azerbaijani MP Vahid Ahmadov had earlier pointed the finger at Iran, with OC Media noting that “Mustafa has been outspoken in his criticism of Iran.” Another MP, Hikmet Babaoglu, alluded to Russian or Armenian involvement (OC Media, 29 March).

Russia detains US journalist on spying charges

The arrest of US journalist Evan Gershkovich, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, on espionage charges has attracted considerable attention this week (BBC News, 31 March). The reasons, context, and repercussions of this incident — the first detention on spying charges of a foreign journalist since 1986 — for the most part fall outside the remit of this newsletter, and have been well covered elsewhere. However, what is of particular relevance here is that Gershkovich’s reporting included work on Russian Private Military Companies (PMCs).


In a statement expressing concern at the arrest, Reporters Without Borders noted that Gershkovich had travelled to Nizhnyy Tagil, an industrial city 140km north of Yekaterinburg. There, he had been “investigating the methods used by the privately-owned military company Wagner for recruiting members of the local population” (Reporters Without Borders, 31 March). Dmitriy Kolezev, a journalist from Yekaterinburg who now lives abroad, said on Telegram that prior to the trip he had been in contact with Gershkovich, who wanted the telephone numbers of local journalists and politicians; he said Gershkovich was aware that he would be followed by the security services while there (Kommersant, 30 March).


In this context, it is worth recalling that Gershkovich is not the first journalist or researcher working on PMCs to suffer an unfortunate fate. Thus, Vladimir Neyelov, head of the Centre for Research Into Strategic Challenges, was sentenced to seven years on treason charges for providing information to a German consulting firm (BBC News, 2 July 2020). Maksim Borodin, a journalist who wrote about Wagner losses in Syria, fell out of the window of his fifth floor flat in Yekaterinburg in April 2018 (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 15 April 2018). Alexander Rastorguyev, Orkhan Dzhemal, and Kirill Radchenko died in mysterious circumstances in July 2018 while investigating Wagner activities in the Central African Republic (Committee to Protect Journalists, undated). Petr Verzilov claimed he was poisoned while investigating those deaths (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 27 September 2018). Russian legislation makes any form of investigative reporting into PMC activity almost illegal by definition. Whatever the broader significance of the incident, it is further evidence of the challenges facing efforts to shed light on Russian PMC activity.

Pro-regime military blogger killed in St Petersburg

Maksim Fomin, better known as Vladlen Tatarskiy, was killed on 2 April as a result of a terrorist attack on a cafe in St Petersburg. Fomin had built a reputation as a regime propagandist on social media, actively promoting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At least 30 other people were wounded in the attack (BBC Russian Service, 2 April).


Fomin portrayed himself as a voyenkor, or military correspondent. This genre of social media actor has emerged relatively recently, and has about as much in common with true journalism as regime human rights ombudsman have with genuine human rights activism — that is to say, not a lot. Fomin had been due to give a talk about his supposed profession when the attack happened. Originally from Makiivka, Donetska Oblast, he had been in prison for robbery when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, and subsequently fought with the separatist forces. 


The attack supposedly resulted from a bomb placed in a bust of Fomin that a woman handed to him as the event was due to start. Russian media quickly identified the alleged perpetrator as St Petersburg resident Darya Trepova and drew comparisons with the assassination of another pro-regime figure, Darya Dugina, in August 2022 (Kommersant, 2 April; Izvestiya, 2 April). Russia’s Interior Ministry subsequently reported on Trepova’s arrest and released a video in which she confesses. The National Antiterrorism Committee, meanwhile, claimed that the attack was organised by opposition leader Aleksey Navalnyy’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and the Ukrainian security services. Foundation Head Ivan Zhdanov dismissed the accusation. The cafe where the attack occurred was formerly owned by Wagner’s owner, Yevgeniy Prigozhin; several nearby buildings also belong to Prigozhin’s property empire (BBC News, 3 April).


Fomin does not seem a great loss to humanity, to put it mildly. But the glee with which some people — academics and journalists included — responded to the incident on social media is a symptom of the radicalising effect of the war and the way that moral boundaries have shifted. Social media, it must be said, hardly brings out the best in people. But even allowing for this, it is hard to imagine that 14 months ago many of them would have been prepared to defend an act that involves killing someone (a) who is not actively fighting; (b) who is miles away from a conflict zone; and (c) in a manner that makes other casualties unavoidable. While the justifiability of (a) and (b) are open to debate, (c) certainly seems to place the act in a different category to the Dugina assassination. What seems equally unlikely is that all of those now rejoicing have considered the full consequences of expanding the category of “acceptable targets” in such a way, just because they consider the cause to be just.

Other stories of interest
  • A Moscow military court has sentenced activist Vyacheslav Popov to nine years in prison on charges of preparing a “terrorist attack” on a military unit in Kaliningrad. Popov pled guilty to the charges (Sever Realii, 29 March).
  • An appeals court in Pyatigorsk has reduced the sentence of a Kabardino-Balkarian man convicted of attacking security service personnel, from three years 10 months to three years eight months (Caucasian Knot, 29 March 2023).
  • A Dagestani man, convicted in March 2022 of being a member of the Islamic State (IS), claims that he was tortured and evidence in his case fabricated. An appeals court rejected his claims (Kavkaz Realii, 30 March).
  • A member of Ukraine’s Right Sector and former member of Baltic Vanguard of the Russian Resistance sentenced to nine years for planning Victory Day “terrorist attack” against Russian military personnel in 2022 (SOVA Center, 29 March).
  • A man who was already serving a sentence in Stavropol Kray has been convicted of membership of IS (SOVA Center, 31 March).
  • Karim Zidan explores the role of mixed martial arts (MMA) clubs in recruitment for Wagner (Bloody Elbow, 30 March).
  • A Moscow court issues an arrest warrant for Denis Kapustin, commander of the Russian Volunteer Corpus (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, 4 April). For more on the group, see the 9 March edition of Threatologist Eurasia.

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