Backgrounder: A brief history of the North Caucasus insurgency
The North Caucasus has experienced insurgent violence since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This backgrounder outlines the key phases of post-Soviet armed struggle in the region. It provides an overview of Chechnya’s two wars with Russia; the evolution of the Chechen separatist movement; jihadist state-building under the Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz, IK) and the Islamic State (IS); and jihadist violence after the collapse of organised insurgency.
- Post-Soviet collapse and regional conflict
- The Chechen Wars (1994-1996) and (1999-2002) and the emergence of insurgency
- The radicalisation and regionalisation of the North Caucasus insurgency
- Insurgent state-building in the North Caucasus: The Caucasus Emirate (IK) and the Islamic State (IS)
- Post-insurgency political violence in the North Caucasus
- Recommended reading
Post-Soviet collapse and regional conflict
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, its fifteen constituent republics all became independent sovereign states. However, nationalist movements in several territories that formed part of the second tier of the Soviet administrative structure also demanded independence. They argued that — culturally, historically, and legally — they had equally valid claims, and they saw little reason why their political futures should be determined by the administrative structure of a now defunct state.
Within Russia, two areas stood out: Tatarstan and Chechnya. Tatarstan was eventually able to reach agreement with Moscow, gaining considerable autonomy in return for remaining within the Russian Federation. Chechnya, however, was unable or unwilling to do so. In 1991, under the leadership of former Soviet Air Force Major General Dzhokhar Dudayev, it unilaterally declared its independence as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (Chechenskaya Respublika Ichkeria, ChRI). Russia, under President Boris Yeltsin, forcefully rejected Chechen independence and sought to keep Chechnya within Russia.
Throughout the early 1990s, conflict between Russia and Chechnya gradually escalated. Chechnya faced a broad array of problems, mirroring those seen elsewhere in the former Soviet Union: a deteriorating economy; the inability to provide basic services; massive corruption; and a general collapse of the state. Demographics shifted, as Chechens returned to the republic and ethnic Russians fled. Chechnya became a legal grey zone, independent but unrecognised and plagued by criminal activity. Russia, meanwhile, repeatedly tried to undermine the ChRI through economic and military means, including backing multiple attempts by opposition groups to seize power.
The Chechen Wars (1994-1996) and (1999-2002) and the emergence of insurgency
An already unstable situation deteriorated further when, in December 1994, Russia launched a full-scale military intervention. Moscow sought to remove the ChRI leadership and reestablish control over Chechnya, in what it euphemistically characterised as an operation to restore constitutional order. Yet the operation was beset by hubris and poor planning and failed to take into account the degraded state of the Russian military and public sentiment within Chechnya. A war that was marked by considerable brutality and extensive human rights violations on both sides culminated not with Chechnya’s subordination, but with Moscow’s defeat.
The ChRI’s pyhrric victory
The peace treaty that ended the First Chechen War in 1996 provided for Russia’s withdrawal from Chechnya and a five-year deferral on any decision about Chechnya’s constitutional status. Yet the ChRI’s victory was pyrrhic in the extreme. The volatile Dudayev had been killed in the latter stages of the war. It fell to Aslan Maskhadov, the former Soviet Army general who had overseen the military campaign, to manage post-conflict reconstruction. He faced a formidable array of problems: a destroyed economy and infrastructure; a traumatised and displaced population; a lack of money and external support; and a proliferation of paramilitary groups vying for influence. Maskhadov’s ability to address these issues was undermined by a lack of aid, the non-payment of pensions and money for basic services, and Moscow’s failure to honour its obligations under the peace treaty.
The return of war to Chechnya
Over time, Moscow’s position hardened, particularly following Vladimir Putin’s ascension to the Russian leadership in 1999. Abandoning earlier support for Maskhadov, Putin shifted to framing Chechnya as an existential threat. Amid widespread instability in Chechnya and political determination and a desire for revenge from the new Russian leadership, Russia renewed the war. This time the preferred euphemism was a “Counter-Terrorism Operation” (KTO). A brutal military campaign saw the ChRI leadership driven from the capital into the forests and mountains. Russia implemented a policy of ‘Chechenisation’ — installing a pro-Russian Chechen administration under the leadership of Chechen Mufti Akhmad Kadyrov. The separatists transitioned to insurgent tactics in early 2000, and the war as such could be considered over by the time Putin terminated the military phase of operations in April 2002. The KTO, however, remained in place until April 2009.
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The radicalisation and regionalisation of the North Caucasus insurgency
Maskhadov insisted the ChRI remained the legitimate authority in Chechnya and formally led the ChRI’s irregular forces until his death in March 2005. His control over many of the armed groups, however, was tenuous at best. In ideological terms, the first war was widely regarded as a nationalist-separatist conflict, with Islam playing only a secondary, instrumental role. It was Moscow’s decision to use force, rather than ideology or popular support for Dudayev, that was a critical driver of resistance to Russia. War, however, accelerated and distorted region-wide processes of Islamic revival. Within the separatist movement, a loose Islamic camp formed. Bolstered by ‘foreign fighters’ and ideologists, who migrated to the republic from 1993 onwards, this camp rose to prominence in the inter-war period.
The Islamists in ascendency
The Islamists repeatedly challenged Maskhadov for control over the entire insurgency and had a significant impact on its ideological orientation. From 1999 onwards, they dominated the ChRI. They were also responsible for many of the largest terrorist attacks in Russia’s history, including the 2002 Moscow theatre siege (Dubrovka/Nord Ost) and the 2004 Beslan school siege. Conflict, meanwhile, increasingly spread beyond Chechnya’s boundaries to the neighbouring republics of the North Caucasus. Radical actors in Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria aligned themselves with the ChRI, but also pushed for an ideology that more closely reflected their interests.
Insurgent state-building in the North Caucasus: The Caucasus Emirate (IK) and the Islamic State (IS)
The dual processes of regionalisation and Islamisation culminated in October 2007, when rebel leader Dokka Umarov formally abolished the ChRI and replaced it with the IK. This was an explicitly jihadist state-building project, one that transformed the official rationale for armed resistance and positioned the group as part of a global jihadist movement. Yet the IK’s state was a virtual phenomenon: the group was never able to control or govern territory. The IK was as much a product of insurgency’s weakness as it was of its radicalisation.
Uniting regional insurgency under a jihadist umbrella
The IK functioned as the main umbrella for insurgent violence for the next seven years. Regional instability increased significantly and, from 2010 onwards, Dagestan rather than Chechnya became the locomotive of the insurgency. The IK was the main internal threat to Russia’s security and carried out major insurgent and terrorist attacks throughout its existence. Unlike the ChRI, however, it was never able to threaten Moscow’s sovereignty over the North Caucasus. Russia in the 2000s was much stronger than in the 1990s, the insurgency much weaker.
A struggling insurgency
As time progressed, the IK faced increasing difficulties. By late 2010, many of the group’s founding and most charismatic leaders were dead, and an increasingly repressive Russia intensified security service operations in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Umarov was killed in September 2013, and it took six months for the IK to acknowledge his death and appoint a replacement. At the same time, the emergence of the conflict in Syria and Iraq provided a much more attractive opportunity for jihadist state-building. Numerous groups involving or led by North Caucasian insurgents emerged there, including those aligned with IS.
The decline of insurgent rivals
The twin pressures of security service pressure at home and a rival conflict abroad locked the IK into a downward spiral from which it was never able to escape. The weaker the IK, the more attractive the alternative; the more attractive the alternative, the weaker the IK became. In December 2014, several high-ranking field commanders sought to arrest the insurgency’s decline by pledging allegiance to IS, attempting to redirect the emotional appeal of IS’ ‘caliphate’ back into the region. The central IK leadership rejected this move, but the IK was clearly the weaker faction, and the deaths of its remaining loyalists meant it more-or-less ceased to exist by August 2015. IS declared the North Caucasus part of its caliphate in July 2015, but this too did little to change the operational realities on the ground. The Russian security services continued to decimate insurgent ranks and, by the time IS’ own leader in the region was killed in December 2016, IS too had virtually ceased to exist.
Post-insurgency political violence in the North Caucasus
Jihadist violence in the North Caucasus nevertheless continued. Since 2017, the region has witnessed numerous insurgent and terrorist attacks and counter-terrorism operations. These, however, have been fundamentally different in nature: There is no recognised insurgent leadership on the ground, nor is there an infrastructure to support armed struggle. Instead, ‘insurgent’ attacks have mostly been perpetrated by isolated groups pledging allegiance to jihadism and, more often than not, IS, but relying on rudimentary and seized weapons. The Russian security services, moreover, remain the main driver of violence, carrying out operations to thwart both real and invented security threats.
Cerwyn Moore and Paul Tumelty. 2008. ‘Foreign Fighters and the Case of Chechnya: A Critical Assessment.’ Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 31:5.
Domitilla Sagramoso. 2012. ‘The Radicalisation of Islamic Salafi Jamaats in the North Caucasus: Moving Closer to the Global Jihadist Movement?’ Europe-Asia Studies, 64:3.
Aurélie Campana and Jean-Francois Ratelle. 2014. ‘A Political Sociology Approach to the Diffusion of Conflict from Chechnya to Dagestan and Ingushetia.’ Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 37:2.
Julie Wilhelmsen. 2017. Russia’s Securitization of Chechnya: How War Became Acceptable.
Cerywn Moore and Mark Youngman. 2017. ‘Russian-Speaking’ Fighters in Syria, Iraq, and at Home: Consequences and Context.’ Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats.
Mark Youngman. 2020. ‘Ideology along the Contours of Power: The Case of the Caucasus Emirate.’ Perspectives on Terrorism, 14:2.