April 26, 2023

IntelBrief: Trouble Brewing on Russia’s Periphery

Pool Photo via AP

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Russia’s costly war effort in Ukraine appears to be fueling long-simmering unrest in regions of the Russian Federation, particularly the North Caucasus, where minority groups are more prominent.
  • Families in non-ethnically Russian regions have borne disproportionate casualties and hardships as Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to minimize the effect of the war on his core supporters.
  • Unrest is likely to flare if Putin launches another significant troop mobilization to replenish Russia’s ranks in Ukraine.
  • The Ukraine war appears to be causing Putin’s regime to thin out its most loyal security forces in restive regions and possibly emboldening his opponents.

Facing a stalled and costly war in Ukraine, coupled with extensive Western sanctions on Russia, both of which could fuel popular unrest against his regime, Russian President Vladmir Putin has sought to cut off a major source of domestic opposition among his core constituencies by mobilizing personnel disproportionately from Russia’s peripheral regions, particularly the Muslim-majority regions of the North Caucasus, largely inhabited by various non-Russian ethnicities. The regime has also resorted to significant repression and arrests of war critics not only in the locales that house Putin’s core supporters, but also in North Caucasian and other regions whose resentments towards Moscow predate the Ukraine war.

Some close observers of Russian politics maintain that the Kremlin under Putin has been much tougher on the country’s ethnic minority populations than the final Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was when the Soviet regime’s future was perceived to be at risk. In the event of a fracture of Russia’s politics, experts assess that Putin’s core base will rally to him in any protracted and significant domestic political struggle out of a long-held perception that Putin halted the country’s possible rupture by preventing the attempted breakaway of Chechnya in the Second Chechen War, first as prime minister and later as president. In suppressing the Chechen rebellion, Putin pioneered some of the same brutal, destructive tactics in leveling Chechnya’s capital that his forces have used in the current war in Ukraine and which his main Middle Eastern ally, Bashar Al Assad of Syria, has echoed during his Russia-backed military suppression of the Syrian uprising while reducing the cities of Homs and Aleppo, among others, to rubble.

After securing control of most of Chechnya by mid-2000, Putin installed forces and elites loyal to pro-Kremlin Chechen figure Akhmad Kadyrov to maintain control of the country. After Kadyrov’s 2004 assassination – an illustration of simmering domestic resentment of the Kremlin’s heavy-handed tactics – Kadyrov was succeeded by his son, Ramzan, who has in recent years boasted of (and overstated) the exploits of pro-Ukraine war Chechen forces, loyal to the Kremlin, against Kyiv’s troops. Some Chechens and members of other North Caucasian Russian Muslim minorities have, in past years, joined global jihadist organizations, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State organization, and have fought in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, the Balkans, and elsewhere. However, most Islamist Chechens and other Russian Islamists appear focused on pursuing domestic, rather than global, political agendas.

In the face of the Ukraine war’s heavy death toll – with Russian force casualties reportedly falling disproportionately on ethnic minorities who are often pressed into service against their will – numerous incidents of agitation suggest Putin may be failing to preserve calm throughout Russian territory. In September 2022, ethnic-Russian recruits and recruiting stations in several North Caucasus regions were targeted with violence and other acts of agitation and violence during a recruitment drive organized to replenish and reinforce the invasion force in Ukraine. In November and December 2022, among other examples of unrest, videos on Twitter showed hundreds of military personnel in the Tatarstan capital of Kazan rioting or walking off their training base, protesting poor living conditions and inadequate weaponry. In January 2023, gunmen from the small, Muslim-majority republic of Ingushetia attacked a Russian guard post at the republic’s border with North Ossetia. Although a clash earlier this month in the Chechen town of Guderme between pro- and anti-Kadyrov Chechens did not appear to shake Kadyrov’s grip on power in the province, it suggested deep Chechen unrest related not only to high Chechen casualties in Ukraine, but also over lingering grievances concerning Putin’s tactics in the Second Chechen War and his other conflicts with the Chechens. Some reports indicate that underground arms depots have been uncovered in Chechnya, and court cases against those involved in earlier violent attacks on Russian forces in the region have been revived.

The unrest and resentment in outlying Russian regions might cause Putin and his allies to avoid additional mobilizations if the war effort falters further. Experts assess that unrest in outlying regions could escalate beyond the Kremlin’s capacity to restore order, in large part because Moscow has drawn down its security forces in the North Caucasus to beef up forces in Ukraine. Rather than immediately apprehend the gunmen who attacked the guard post in Ingushetia in January, Russian security forces allowed them to flee. Experts argue that the violence in the North Caucasus might not have been prevented had Russian security forces conducted adequate intelligence operations or received the necessary cooperation from North Caucasian officials to penetrate anti-Moscow groups operating there. Still, most opposition groups in Russia, including those in the North Caucasus and other regions, oppose destabilizing the country, warning that doing so would be counterproductive. Even those who oppose Putin and his war in Ukraine fear the possible disintegration of their country and are likely to support the regime if violence in the country appears to be escalating beyond the Kremlin’s control.