The suicide bomber attack on the Chechen Parliament in Grozny Tuesday morning cast further doubt on the Russian leadership’s declarations that the strategic North Caucasus region, Russia’s soft underbelly, is stabilizing. More trouble is in stock for Moscow and her South Caucasus neighbors (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), as the violence in Chechnya, Daghestan and elsewhere escalates.
According to Al-Jazeera, six people were killed and 10 were wounded Tuesday morning during an assault on Chechnya’s parliament, a symbol of Russia-backed power. Chechnya is ruled by 34 year-old Ramzan Kadyrov, a pro-Kremlin strongman.
The attack began when a suicide bomber exploded himself outside of the parliament building, while gunmen shot their way in, killing three people in a standoff. Whether they were killed Kadyrov’s security forces, or blew themselves up when special forces stormed the building, is unknown. Rashid Nurgaliyev, Russia’s Minister of Interior, along with a delegation of regional legislators, was in the Chechen parliament building when it was attacked.
What is certain, however, is that this assault, following on the heels of an insurgent attack on President Kadyrov’s home village of Tsentoroi two months ago, challenges Russian assertions that President Kadyrov’s harsh approach toward insurgents has made Chechnya a stable region.
Russian political figures—even after the attack—are trying to spin the incident as a garden-variety “terrorist act,”arguing that the terrorists have no political, religious, or economic affiliations and that the country’s stability is indisputable.
But Russian analysts believe that the insurgents are using a new strategy, attacking Kadyrov’s symbols of power and undermining his credibility. Carnegie’s Alexei Malashenko believes that such an action is a “slap to the face” to Chechnya’s president, who promised that Chechnya was under (his) control, only to have his parliament assaulted and breached by separatist terrorists.
The attack was particularly harmful to Kadyrov’s tough-guy reputation because it occurred during a visit by high-ranking Interior Ministry officials from Moscow. Kadyrov won’t win any points in the Kremlin after Tuesday’s events.
Russian leaders often claimed that they need control of South Caucasus, namely Georgia, to protect the volatile North Caucasus. Just two months ago, Russian military forces established S-300 surface-to-air missile installations in Abkhazia, a separatist Georgian province which unilaterally proclaimed independence after Russia’s invasion in 2008. The missiles are clearly there as a projection of Russian military and political power.
The assault in Grozny demonstrates that there is no value to the 19th century-style, great-power foreign policy and military power projection beyond Russian borders when Moscow cannot control Islamist terrorists inside its own territory. Long-range anti-aircraft missiles are impotent against suicide bombers and trained terrorists.
It is equally important to remember that the North Caucasus suicide bombers and murderers are part of a global Islamist threat, which benefits from international ideological inspiration, Salafi/Wahhabi education (mostly in the Middle East and Pakistan), and, at least partially, from foreign funding.
The insurgents pursue an Islamist agenda, which includes creation of the Caucasus Emirate from the Black Sea to the Caspian. If created, such an emirate will jeopardize pipelines for the Caspian oil and threaten secular regimes, such as Azerbaijan’s.
The insurrection’s leader, Doku Umarov, proclaims himself an ‘Amir’, an Islamic military leader. Umarov’s insurgents declare that they are fighting “a Jihad in the name of Allah.”
Russian officials repeatedly said that the West (meaning, the U.S.) is supporting the North Caucasus insurgents. Nothing is further from the truth. An emirate in the North Caucasus will undermine stability in southeastern Europe and threaten U.S. friends in South Caucasus.
Instead of using military power projection to threaten neighbors, the Kremlin should work to undermine extremists’ legitimacy in the region and to disrupt overseas support of Islamist operations in North Caucasus.