In February, the head of the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation, Ramzan Kadyrov, announced the creation of a “state-of-the-art Special Forces training center the size of a city” in Gudermes, Chechen Republic. Kadyrov stated that the construction of the training center would not take longer than a year and that the facility would provide services to a number of foreign militaries and security forces:
That seems like an ambitious timetable given what Kadyrov says he has planned (among many other things, facilities for training in ‘underwater combat’), but if it ends up actually being built, negotiations are underway with Belarus and Kazakhstan to train their forces at the center. Latin American, Arab, and other ex-Soviet countries are other potential customers, Izvestia reports. (Joshua Kucera, EurasiaNet.org, February 16)
The planned center will be led by Chechen Special Forces instructors who have real-world experience and can apply any number of training methods and skills acquired from forces around the world. Belarus and Kazakhstan have already been mentioned as potential partners in the facility. According to observers and experts noted in Russian media publications, the long-term plan of the center appears to concentrate on recruitment of personnel from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Arab world, and Latin America. Among the training events highlighted in plans for the vast, sprawling complex are hostage rescue operations:
Under the project, the center will highlight a unique tactical town – a complex where you can fulfill the skills to free the hostages from the high-rise apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, kindergartens, and theater. In addition, the center will be able to conduct parachute, mountain, forest, water and other types of training. Also, there are plans to build a wind tunnel for testing operations in different physical conditions. (Interfax, February 16)
There will also be sports facilities on the grounds of the planned complex. Kadyrov is a well-known supporter of organized sporting events; he has a particular affinity for soccer and mixed martial arts.
Chechen Special Forces
Kadyrov commands the Chechen Special Forces. The group’s purpose is shrouded by rumor, much of which is attributable to the secret nature of its existence. Mark Galeotti, a well-respected observer of Russian government, politics, and organized crime who specializes in modern Russian history and security affairs, is currently the clinical professor in global affairs at the Center for Global Affairs of the NYU School of Professional Studies. In writing this week to disabuse the notion of a Kadyrov challenge to power in Moscow, Galeotti writes of the secretive nature of Kadyrov’s Chechen special services:
The more than 20,000 so-called “Kadyrovtsy,” the Chechen security forces, are notionally part of the national Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) structure, but in practice swear a personal oath to Kadyrov. He himself selects their commanders and issues their orders.
Similarly, his personal authority over Chechnya is absolute. He has used this to fill the republican hierarchy with his allies, friends, and relatives.
As a result, he has been able to take fullest advantage of the opportunities to plunder the federal subsidies which continue to pour into Chechnya, and also dispense such opportunities to his friends. (Mark Galeotti, The Moscow Times, March 22)
The service is reportedly trained by a former major in the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) named Daniil Martynov, a member of the service’s famed counterterrorism task force, Alpha group:
The Chechen special forces are formally part of the Russian Ministry of Interior and an integral part of the Terek special unit. They are officially called the Rapid Reaction Special Group in the Terek group of the Main Directorate of the Ministry of Interior in the North Caucasian Federal District. In reality, the Chechen special forces are completely autonomous and loyal to the leadership of Chechnya. (Mairbek Vatchagaev, The Jamestown Foundation, March 27)
Questions about why the republic required such a highly trained and capable force have been met by Chechen officials noting the rise of the Islamic State and a fear that the group could begin operations inside Chechnya. Given the difficulty in assessing the actual size, strength, capabilities, and global reach of ISIS, it is likely that Kadyrov’s government is using the narrative of ISIS reaching out from Syria to Eurasia (specifically Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan) in an effort to justify the creation and sustainment of this force:
Combating the Islamic State is only one of the possible uses of the Chechen special forces, otherwise it is hard to explain why officers from the Chechen Rapid Reaction Special Group, which is part of the federal and regional bureaus of the Russian interior ministry, would undertake a group parachute jump at the North Pole—certainly one of the places Islamists are least likely to strike. According to Kadyrov, Chechen forces will travel to the North Pole from March 30 to April 5. After landing, the group will conduct a 50-kilometer march to improve search and rescue operational skills in the severe weather conditions of the Far North and the Arctic (Lenta.ru, March 24). (Mairbek Vatchagaev, The Jamestown Foundation, March 27)
Suspicions about Kadyrov’s implied authority under Russian President Putin have surrounded the creation of the special services. Many fear that Kadyrov’s purpose in creating the force is to surround himself with an element capable of sustaining his rule and the life of his government in Chechnya. The Islamic State hardly seems a realistic challenge to Kadyrov, even as the Caucasus Emirate continues to be a part of the fighting in Syria:
…fighting the Islamic State is probably not the sole purpose for the creation of the Chechen special forces, even though Chechens do play a prominent role in the radical group. It appears that the Chechen special forces may be preparing to assist the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. They could be used in breach of Russian law for specific objectives, when it would be inappropriate to use members of the FSB’s Alpha group. The mere existence of this special services group in Chechnya makes Ramzan Kadyrov an outstanding political figure not only in the North Caucasus, but at the federal level inside Russia. His newly elevated status, however, will hinder him rather than help, because it will meet serious resistance from federal officials who still remain suspicious of Kadyrov’s aspirations. (Mairbek Vatchagaev, The Jamestown Foundation, March 27)
Father and son
The creation of the special services is seen by many as an attempt by Kadyrov to ensure his continued rule in a land that has been wracked by war and threats of violent outbreaks throughout the post-Soviet period. Two wars have been fought by Chechnya against the Russian government, and an ongoing insurgency in the North Caucasus, though at its lowest ebb in recent years, is a concern for Russian strategists.
Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov, was a former militant commander who fought the Russians during the first Chechen war. For Chechens battling the Russian forces sent to reestablish Moscow’s control over the breakaway republic, the first war was arguably characterized more by its sincere nationalist foundations and less by the Islamist fundamentalism that would eventually become such an overwhelmingly dominant factor in the second war fought against Russian forces sent by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Akhmad Kadyrov, serving as the pro-Russian Chechen president, was assassinated on May 9, 2004 while attending a military parade. Akhmad’s son, Ramzan, was appointed prime minister and president of Chechnya in March 2007 by then-President Putin. At the time, Ramzan was just 30 years old.
Ramzan Kadyrov has taken on the issue of Chechen separatism and the wider North Caucasus insurgency with a particularly fervent animosity for the militants fighting his rule. He has been a magnet for accusations of human rights abuses and corruption in his government. A former rebel himself, Kadyrov switched sides with the rest of his family and moved to support Russia at the outset of the second Chechen war in 1999. After becoming prime minister following then-Prime Minister Sergei Abramov’s car accident in late 2005, Kadyrov immediately installed Sharia law in Chechnya. Chechnya has remained under Sharia law ever since. Kadyrov is a curious character among world leaders. He rarely varnishes his opinion and has been characterized as an organized crime figure running an entire federal republic of Russia. His loyalty to Putin is without question, and as such Putin has given Kadyrov wide latitude by which to exert his authority over what has been until Kadyrov’s rule a dangerous region for fundamentalist Islamism and violent separatist conflict.
Known for his compelling Instagram account and his unabashed loyalty to President Putin, Kadyrov has more recently been the subject of accusations of involvement in the assassination of Russian oppositionist leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on February 27. The intrigue following the assassination has been made more curious by the 10-day media hiatus of Putin and the arrest of five ethnic Chechens, to include Zaur Dadayev. Dadayev, a former deputy commander of the Sever (North) Chechen battalion, was initially labeled the prime suspect after Russian authorities claimed to have conducted forensic analysis had shot Nemtsov. Dadayev has since maintained his innocence and retracted his initial statement to Russian officials, claiming that he had protested his non-involvement from the start of the investigation:
“They kept shouting: ‘Did you kill Nemtsov?’ I was telling them that I did not. I thought they would bring me to Moscow and I would tell the court the entire truth about my innocence. Yet the judge did not give me a chance to speak,” the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets quoted Dadayev as saying on its website. (Russia Beyond the Headlines, March 11)
Chechnya: A recent history of conflict
Chechnya (officially known as the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation) is located in the restive and war-torn North Caucasus, a strategically valuable region of the Russian Federation that has been the site of separatism and insurrection against Moscow for centuries. Any historical analysis of the Chechen wars against external aggression and domination would be the length of several volumes of books. What follows is a succinct summary of recent campaigns for independence.
Respected by friend and foe alike as hardy warriors, the people of Chechnya have fought numerous conflicts over the centuries, most recently two major wars against the Russian Federation in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The aforementioned Russian expert Mark Galeotti is the author of the recently released book titled “Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994-2009.” Released this past December, Galeotti’s work is an incredible documentation of the two major wars Russia has fought in Chechnya since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Russian Federation at the end of 1991. In his latest book, Galeotti writes of the respect that even Russian military officers had for Chechen fighters during the war against the rebellion led by Imam Shamil in the Caucasian War:
In 1832, one officer admitted that ‘amidst their forests and mountains, no troops in the world could afford to despise them’ as they were ‘good shots, fiercely brave [and] intelligent in military affairs.’ Lieutenant-General Alexei Vel’yaminov, Yermolov’s chief of staff, noted that they were ‘very superior in many ways both to our regular cavalry and the Cossacks. They are all but born on horseback.’ (Mark Galeotti, “Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994-2009”)
The first war between Chechnya and the Russian federation was fought between 1994 and 1996. The conflict was protracted and bloody, with estimates of between 50,000 and 100,000 Chechen civilians and 17,300 Chechen militants/military killed. Russia lost more than 5,700 military personnel and more than 150 civilians in the fighting. The first war ended after more than 20 months of fighting with a tenuous agreement between the Russian Federation and Chechnya that ostensibly granted the Chechens de facto independence.
Galeotti summarizes the damage to Russian prestige and security strategy and the galvanization of a myriad of North Caucasian separatist and Islamist groups by noting of the first war in Chechnya:
Post-Soviet Russia fought its first war – the First Chechen War – in 1994-96. In effect, it lost: a nation with a population of 147 million was forced to recognize the effective autonomy of Chechnya, a country one-hundredth its size and with less than one-hundredth of its people. A mix of brilliant guerrilla warfare and ruthless terrorism was able to humble Russia’s decaying remnants of the Soviet war machine. (Mark Galeotti, “Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994-2009”)
Russian public sentiment was opposed to the war, and eventually the constraints on former President Boris Yeltsin forced the government in Moscow to agree to a ceasefire. The Chechen and Russian leaders signed the Khasav-Yurt Joint Declaration and Principles for Mutual Relations in Dagestan on August 31, 1996. The agreement set forth a path that would lead to additional agreements that temporarily ended the war. However, the peace was shattered in 1999 following incidents that ignited another war in the North Caucasus. In September of 1999, a series of apartment bombings in Moscow killed nearly 300 Russians and injured 650. These bombings, together with the ongoing war in Dagestan (neighboring Chechnya to its east), effectively ignited the second war in Chechnya.
At the time, former Chechen separatist military leader Aslan Maskhadov had been elected to the office of president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the de facto independent Chechnya of the brief interwar period. Maskhadov had begun moving to avoid the co-opting of the nationalist-based Chechen separatist movement by Islamists, but with little success. In doing so, Maskhadov’s ruling nationalist group had split with the Islamist militant group led by guerilla leader Shamil Basayev. In an effort to placate the Islamists and avoid a split, Maskhadov agreed to install Sharia Law in February of 1999. It did little to sate the appetite of the Islamist guerilla militants for further action against Russian domination. During this time, there were several attempts on Maskhadov’s life, all assumed to be conducted by Russian intelligence services.
Basayev was instrumental in integrating Wahhabism into a Chechen conflict that prior to the second war had been largely characterized by nationalist sentiment. Basayev’s Salafist sponsors were a key component that changed the overarching character of the Chechen conflict from one based in nationalism to one firmly rooted in Islamist ideology and Salafism:
The armed activity of the Salafis has been guided by the principles of jihad and was aimed at pursuing an alternative state-building project—the creation of an Islamic Caliphate in the Northern Caucasus based on fundamentalist values. Basayev, as a military strategist, quickly realized the organizational benefits of ‘Wahhabi’ structures and the efficiency of their mechanisms for generating support. In particular, by the summer of 1998 following his failure as Prime Minister and with his heroic image rapidly fading away, Basayev became increasingly involved in Salafi projects. Basayev was in good contacts with the Daghestani Islamist leaders and when the prosecution of salafis in Daghestan intensified he encouraged their migration to Chechnya. He then successfully employed Islam for his political ends in Chechnya, namely to compete with Maskhadov for power. (Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, “Ideology and Conflict Chechen Political Nationalism Prior To, and During, Ten Years of War”, Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder)
In 1999, Basayev and other Islamist leaders moved to invade neighboring Dagestan and incite wider war against Russia. Moscow declared that the perpetrators of the apartment bombing were led by Saudi-born jihadist Ibn al-Khattab, a veteran of Afghanistan’s war against Soviet occupation. Al-Khattab was falsely reported dead on numerous occasions but was finally killed when Ibragim Alauri (a Dagestani courier for al-Khattab) was flipped by the FSB and, carrying a letter laced with a nerve agent, assassinated him in Dagestan. Maskhadov opposed the plan and advised against it. Basayev went ahead and began incursions into Dagestan and, together with the apartment bombings, the second war in Chechnya ignited. The second war raged for years and slowly the conflict evolved from one inspired by nationalism-based separatism to one based largely on Islamist ideology, pivoting around Islamist leaders such as Basayev.
The second conflict further ravaged the breakaway republic. The reignited war decimated Chechnya’s infrastructure, thoroughly destroying the capital of Grozny. Estimates of war dead range on both sides. However, approximations of Chechen dead are roughly 16,300 militants. The number of Chechen civilians killed range between low estimates of 25,000 and as high as 80,000. Russia’s security forces (to include military, police, and intelligence personnel) numbered more than 7,000. The war raged on through multiple iterations, lasting until 2009 when the FSB officially declared the end of operations in support of anti-terrorism.
After a short ceasefire with Russia in March of 2005, Maskhadov was targeted by the FSB in a raid and Maskhadov was killed. Reports vary as to the ultimate cause of Maskhadov’s death. The official report by the FSB originally stated that they had intended to take Maskhadov alive, but he was killed inadvertently by a grenade. Other reports assert that Maskhadov’s nephew had shot his uncle while carrying out a prior agreement betwen the two to kill Maskhadov if there were ever a chance the Russians would take him alive.
Basayev later tracked down Alauri, the courier that had assassinated al-Khattab. Alauri was found in Azerbaijan and was killed on the orders of Basayev. Basayev himself went on to continue fighting, later becoming known for conducting the 2004 attack on a school in Beslan, North Ossetia (also located in the North Caucasus), which killed more than 350 children. Basayev was killed in a massive (and curious) explosion in neighboring Ingushetia near its border with North Ossetia. The detonation of the device that felled the Chechen militant leader was said to have been the result of an accident, though many theories also point to an assassination plot carried out by Russian intelligence services.
While many theories exist as to whether the apartment bombings that essentially catalyzed the second war in Chechnya were conducted by North Caucasus-based Islamist militants or Russian security services (most theories revolve around the FSB, led at the time by Director Vladimir Putin), what followed was another decade of war in the North Caucasus. Many analysts assert that the rise of Putin can be directly attributed to the attack and his later authoritative posturing on the crisis.
While the creation of the Chechen special services is of significant concern to those seeking a more transparent governance in Russia, the security landscape of the North Caucasus will continue to provide threats that substantiate claims made by the Kadyrov government that instability is always just a moment away. Though many observers of the creation of the unit and its purpose will assert that it is likely to be something of a personal army to Kadyrov himself, it is unlikely that any sort of incentive short of an order from Moscow would be enough to disband it.
Many observers of both Russian security strategy and the North Caucasus will note that, given Kadyrov’s expressed loyalty to the government of Putin, a unit as highly trained and capable as the one now being nurtured in Chechnya could not have been created without the tacit or explicit approval of the Kremlin. In any event, the existence of the group is another way in which outsiders can measure the strength of Kadyrov’s control over the restive Chechen Republic. With violence and separatism always threatening to boil over in places such as Dagestan (and, to a lesser degree, Ingushetia), the current nominal state of stability in Chechnya is enough political and popular support for Kadyrov to continue strengthening his grip on power in Chechnya.
(Featured image courtesy of usnews.com)