09.06.23 Future Review

The Cradle of Disintegration: Will the North Caucasus Once Again Become the Epicentre of Separatism in Russia?

Russia's failures in the war against Ukraine have sparked another round of discussion about the possibility of Russia's disintegration. One of the traditional catalysts for centrifugal tendencies in this debate is considered to be the North Caucasus. The presence of Chechen forces within the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, opposing Moscow and the Kadyrov regime, and pledging to continue the fight directly on Russian territory, further fuels such discourse. However, according to experts, these forces remain fragmented for the time being, and the demand for new separatism does not appear to be sufficiently consolidated. Nevertheless, excessive repression by the current Chechen regime, against the backdrop of potential political weakening in Moscow, may spur its consolidation.

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a series of failures on the frontlines, and the negative impact of sanctions on the Russian economy have generated debate about the possible disintegration of Russia. Ethnic minorities, whose military losses are significantly higher than the Russian average, are often portrayed as a potential driving force behind this process in the West. One of the evidently vulnerable areas is the North Caucasus, where the risks of ethnic separatism are particularly high. The region has indeed seen an increase in structural tensions as a result of the war in Ukraine, as demonstrated, in particular, by the protests against mobilisation in Dagestan. However, experts argue that the situation is far from reaching the scale expected of a national movement. Jean-François Ratelle, a researcher at the University of Ottawa, has come to this conclusion while studying individuals from the North Caucasus fighting on the side of Ukraine.

Until February 2022, the majority of radically inclined 'anti-Russian' ethnic forces were dispersed throughout Syria, Turkey, Western Europe, Georgia, and the North Caucasus. However, immediately after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Volodymir Zelensky called on foreigners with military backgrounds to join the fight against the aggressor, and the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine was formed within the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Most of the volunteers in this legion are professional military personnel with combat experience.

Established in 2014 and integrated into the Ukrainian Armed Forces in 2016, the Georgian Legion consisted of about 200 fighters prior to February 2022. However, after the start of the invasion, their numbers soared to approximately a thousand experienced soldiers, half of whom are ethnic Georgians. In addition to Georgian fighters, over a thousand Chechens are also fighting against Russia's aggression in Ukraine. The 2022 invasion has become a leitmotif for unifying and mobilising narratives among fighters from the North Caucasus. The strength of the battalions led by Dzhokhar Dudayev and Sheikh Mansur has increased significantly, and these units have also begun to integrate Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar fighters who are determined to continue the fight against the Kremlin on Russian territory, first and foremost in Chechnya.

Chechen insurgent groups, previously opposing Russia in Syria, such as Ajnad al-Kavkaz and their military commander Rastam Ajiev, arrived in Ukraine in the summer of 2022. Over 25 veterans of the Second Chechen and Syrian wars joined formations loyal to Ahmed Zakayev. However, there has been no real unification of Chechen forces under a common leadership. Instead, the war in Ukraine has exacerbated the existing tensions among different Chechen factions, according to Ratelle. Separate military formations in Ukraine established three organisations, each declaring itself the heir and representative of an independent Ichkeria. The friction between them currently manifests itself as disputes about the future of independent Chechnya, but the interwar period in the republic vividly illustrates that such ideological tensions can quickly dismantle temporary, situational alliances formed on the battlefield and lead to discord. The absence of a shared narrative, whose unifying force would neutralise specific disagreements and lead to consolidation, likely indicates a lack of demand for it.

Indeed, a war can unite even the most diverse forces in the face of a common enemy. For example, in Ukraine, Chechen traditionalists and Salafists, far-right Ukrainians, and members of Islamist groups may fight together in the same unit against Moscow. Kyiv's military victory could create conditions for the continuation of their struggle, but it is even more likely to lead to internal divisions, weakening the cohesion of the established anti-Russian front in Ukraine, notes Ratelle. In light of the already visible contradictions between the groups and their lack of a common ideology, it seems highly doubtful that the North Caucasus will become a catalyst for the mobilisation of non-Russian ethnic minorities against Moscow and the epicentre of disintegration. Ratelle refrains from making any predictions regarding the possibility or lack thereof of any territorial transformation of Russia as a whole, merely noting that history has shown that revolutions and mass movements often arise where they are least expected.

However, the potential for destabilisation in the North Caucasus undoubtedly exists. In the event of Russia's actual defeat in Ukraine, the political weakening of Moscow appears highly likely, and this, in turn, could lead to a weakening of support for the Kadyrov regime. Under these circumstances, the consolidation of anti-Kadyrov forces may become a reality. Thus, the main threat is not so much insurgent units or separatism per se, but rather the Moscow-nurtured repressive Chechen regime, which is accustomed to relying on violence and unconditional Kremlin support.