Deep in the rolling hills of Southwest Russia’s mountainous Caucasus region lies a pair of restive territories home to a once nomadic collection of ethnic groups. The Avars and the Chechens, who call the north Caucasus region their home, represent a modern distinct identity whose struggle for independence is decades old. The Chechen’s history was especially marred following the collapse of the USSR, after which the Russian Federation executed a ruthless campaign to silence the unremitting cause for Chechen independence. With their ancient roots so closely tied and similar to those of other ethnic communities around the world, the people of Dagestan and Chechnya represent a new type of conflict that may reshape the geopolitical and cultural landscape of the modern world.
A History of Blood
After a chain of migrations of various ethnic populations in ancient times from locations such as the Fertile Crescent as well as Northeast and Central Asia, what came to be known as the Chechen and Avar peoples settled in the Northern Caucasus region. For centuries, this was the site of various invasions and imperial conflicts, involving empires such as the Cimmerians, Mongols, Scythians, Persians, Ottomans, and Safavids.
It was not until 1859 CE at the end of the Caucasian War that the Chechens and Avars would meet their greatest challenge, one which still torments them today. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, Russian Tsar Nicholas I commanded a years-long invasion of the Caucasus region. The Circassian Genocide became the first of many forced exiles of Chechens by Russian Imperial forces. By the conclusion of the Russo-Persian wars, this entire region fell under the control of Imperial Russia, an event which would define the rebellion of the native people thereafter.
A century and a half later, in what was then known as the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the first serious Chechen rebellions ignited. The rebellion began in 1940 under Chechen leader Khasan Israilov and was impassioned by the German invasion of the Caucasus in 1942. However, the first Chechen Insurgency was killed off in 1944 after the Germans scaled back their presence and when rebels began defecting to the Soviet Union. In response to this, U.S.S.R General Secretary Joseph Stalin deported Chechens in massive numbers from the Caucasus, scattering them across the territories of the U.S.S.R, some as far as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Decades after the fury of the Second World War died out, a new flame was struck ablaze in 1994 within the Caucasus mountains. The people of Chechnya desired independence from their Russian overlords.
Although the First Chechen War lasted only two years, the scars it left on the Caucasus region would not be forgotten. The devastating Battle of Grozny in 1996 saw Chechen forces holding out against the advancements of Russian artillery into the mountainous regions. The Chechens employed guerilla warfare and attacks on the flatlands for sufficiently long enough that Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared a ceasefire in August 1996. Shortly after, a new conflict broke out that would directly include the territory of Dagestan. In the fall of 1999, Islamist forces from Chechnya infiltrated Dagestan and declared a Jihadist separatist movement to cleanse the region of “unbelievers.” Meanwhile, in Chechnya, Russian troops entered and restored Russia’s Federal rule over the entire region. For the following nine years, heavy military offensives ravaged the Chechnyan capital of Grozny, while Chechen paramilitary separatists engaged in violent combat with Russian counterinsurgency troops. By 2009, the Chechen rebellion was largely crippled, with only marginal resistance scattered throughout the Northern Caucasus.
The Situation Today
The relative silence in the wake of the fallen Chechen revolution created a fertile breeding ground for latent animosity, which harms both Russia’s mainland and the Chechens themselves. In cases where ethnic minorities advocate a cause for independence from a greater geopolitical force, radicalism in their ranks is the downfall of their claims to legitimacy. For instance, the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) is often used to defame the words of peaceful Uyghur human rights activists. This is because ETIM has been linked to external extremist Islamist movements and a very small portion of Uyghur individuals traveled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State. By the same token, within Chechnya and Dagestan, jihadist cells lie dormantbefore committing atrocities and acts of terror in the Russian mainland to convey their messages—unfortunately destroying the image of their Muslim brothers in the Caucasus.
One of the most turbulent events occurred when more than forty terrorists took hostage nearly seven-hundred patrons of a theater in Moscow. The captors demanded that the Russian government surrender its control over Chechnya and end its presence in the region. Ultimately, Russian Federal Security Service spetsnaz operators pumped a highly toxic gas into the theater before attempting their rescue operation, ultimately killing hundreds of civilians in the process to subdue the attackers.
This, among other mutually destructive confrontations between Russian and militant Chechens in the aftermath of the second war, bore a much deeper hole into their tumultuous relationship. Unfortunately, the small portion of Chechens who take up arms against the Russians make the case for Chechnyan independence much more strained; the massive casualties on either side paint a misleading picture of hatred and radicalism, two images which chill the international community.
Dagestan, Chechnya’s geopolitical sister, presents a seemingly different story today. The regions share many similarities (such as their history and desire for autonomy), but numerous factors of modern day Dagestan’s composition make it a very different environment from Chechnya. Dagestan’s population is very diverse, with nearly 30 different spoken languages and ten different ethnic groups, compared with Chechnya’s population of over 95% Chechens. A combination of secrecy and demographic heterogeneity make Dagestan’s war seemingly less explosive, when, in reality, it is, if not equally, nearly as catastrophic as Chechnya’s war with Russia.
For the most part, Dagestani authorities attempted to prevent the same level of turbulence in Chechnya, but violent spillover during the Chechen wars scarred Dagestan’s territories as well. Radical Islamism is also a grave issue growing in the troubled minds of Dagestan’s younger population. Younger muslims in Dagestan are turning more from Sufi towards Salafi Islam, which is dangerously adherent to more puritanical and concrete principles—a perfect channel through which Dagestanis may funnel their political vitriol into campaigns of hatred against the Russians.
Islamism would heavily oversimplify the plight of the Dagestanis though; they too face the weight of Russia’s government corruption and human rights abuses. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his continued efforts to enforce a zero-tolerance policy on violence in Dagestan, began sending military generals to command brutal policing campaigns against any resistance within the restive Islamic region. Dagestan’s history and similarity to Chechnya taunt Putin, as it seems any other uprising in the caucasus would trigger much more violence and unavoidable scrutiny against the Kremlin. For now, Russia maintains its operations in Dagestan as secretive as possible while the region receives fleeting media attention, but this approach fools nobody. Dagestan is not the same as Chechnya, but their stories resonate ominously with one another—a constant reminder that Dagestan, too, is on the verge of surges in violence and a devastating reliation from the Kremlin.
Low level violence and skirmishes continue throughout Chechnya, with active protests ringing throughout the streets of Grozny. The tensions affect outsiders as well, with supporters of Chechen rights being targeted by Russian loyalists as traitors. Russia is a global power with stakes in multiple conflicts, and its relationship with its minority territories sets a dangerous precedent for nations like it. Sinister human rights abuses are occurring worldwide in the small pockets of much larger nations, and the people, if not overshadowed, are easily castigated as villainous when onlookers attribute the most radical of them as tributes to the whole. Amidst a changing world, the people of Dagestan and Chechnya will only make progress towards independence if each one of them lays down arms against Russia. But with such hostile attitudes towards their ethnicity and an already-vicious campaign to silence the greater Russian LGBTQ+ community, the starkly lacking human rights make hostile encroachment nearly inevitable.
A Place in Our World
Dagestan and Chechnya are not alone in their fight against one of the world’s largest superpowers. Their fight is echoed very strongly by their Islamic brethren to the east: the Uyghurs inhabiting Xinjiang province, China. The Uyghur are not only of similar Altaic and Turkic descent, but their people’s history is colored with conquest beneath Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan Empires through which their culture and identity persevered; that is, until their confrontation with the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century. Now, the Chinese Communist Party brutally scrutinizes their inhabitation of the Tarim Basin via extremely invasive modes of surveillance and control. Similar can be said of the Rohingya people’s occupation of Rakhine State in Western Myanmar, which was met with militaristic genocide at the hands of the Burmese government in August 2017, or of the Kurdish inhabitants of Northeast Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, where the Kurds repeatedly face the existential threats of terrorism and invasions.
Millions upon millions of people around the world, whose radiant cultures give shape to their unique identities, live in oppressed communities where their geography remains governed by immense federations whose power bases overshadow their cries for freedom. The international community, however, is becoming increasingly aware of these conflicts, but this may be as much of a disadvantage as it is a marker of hope.
In a post-9/11 world, global mindsets have a much lower threshold for extremist activity. When people actually hear of real-life extremism, their attitudes towards conflicts shift drastically in favor of those trying to contain the purported terrorism. While the world hears about Dagestan, the Chechens, the Uyghurs, the Rohingya and more, there is a sharp dichotomy between advocating for human rights and scapegoating draconian measures to contain the faintest chances of terrorist activity by any means. Sadly, Chechnya’s prolific violence sways the picture towards the side of terrorism. Russia’s global confrontations may not come to a head anytime soon, but the world is changing and many eyes are fixating on the Eurasian superpower in a time where regional conflicts are bringing out the worst in governments. Chechnya’s future is defined by the Chechen people’s collective willpower to defer violent measures in resisting Russian control.