The North Caucasus insurgency: A backgrounder

This backgrounder explains the evolution of the contemporary North Caucasus insurgency, from its origins in the collapse of the Soviet Union to the present day. It covers the two Chechen wars (1994-1996) and (1999-2002); the radicalisation and regionalisation of the Chechen separatist movement; jihadist state-building under the Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz, IK) and the Islamic State (IS); and jihadist violence following the collapse of organised insurgency.

A map of the North Caucasus, which has experienced prolonged insurgency

Post-Soviet collapse and regional conflict

In order to understand the origins of the North Caucasus insurgency, we need to go back to the collapse of the Soviet Union. When this happened in the early 1990s, its fifteen constituent republics all became independent sovereign states. However, nationalist movements in several territories that were in the second tier of the Soviet administrative structure also demanded independence. They argued that — culturally, historically, and legally — they had equally valid claims. They saw little reason why their political futures should be determined by the administrative structure of a defunct state.

Competing sovereignties

Within Russia, two areas stood out for the strength of their separatist movements: Tatarstan and Chechnya. Tatarstan eventually reached 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.

Unstable Chechnya

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. These included 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. This included backing multiple attempts by opposition groups to seize power.

The Chechen wars and and the emergence of the North Caucasus 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 re-establish 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. It failed to take into account the degraded state of the Russian military and public sentiment within Chechnya. The war was marked by considerable brutality and extensive human rights violations on both sides. However, it culminated not with Chechnya’s subordination, but with Moscow’s defeat.

The ChRI’s pyhrric victory in the First Chechen War

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. Instead, it fell to Aslan Maskhadov, the former Soviet Army general who had overseen the military campaign, to manage reconstruction.

Maskhadov faced a formidable array of problems. These included a destroyed economy; a traumatised and displaced population; a lack of money and support; and a proliferation of paramilitary groups. Maskhadov’s ability to address these issues was undermined by a lack of aid and money for basic services. Moscow also failed to honour its obligations under the peace treaty.

The return of war to Chechnya and the birth of the North Caucasus insurgency

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 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. 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. He 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 a nationalist-separatist conflict, with Islam playing only a secondary, instrumental role. Instead, it was Moscow’s decision to use force, rather than ideology or popular support for Dudayev, that drove 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.

Islamists ascendent: The ideological transformation of the North Caucasus insurgency

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. It was this that transformed it from a Chechen to a North Caucasus insurgency. Radical actors in Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria aligned themselves with the ChRI. However, they pushed for an ideology that more closely reflected their interests.

The North Caucasus insurgency’s state-building efforts

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. It transformed the official rationale for armed resistance and positioned the North Caucasus insurgency 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. In other words, 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 the North Caucasus insurgency 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 North Caucasus 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 rival groups within the North Caucasus insurgency

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 insurgency 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.

Political violence after the decline of the North Caucasus insurgency

Jihadist violence in the North Caucasus nevertheless continued beyond the existence of an organisational infrastructure. 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.

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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.