The Kremlin has engaged in a variety of, and what seems to be, disconnected foreign policy moves. While continuing to support the al-Assad regime in Syria, it initiated the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Under Moscow’s pressure, al-Assad not only agreed to but actually began to engage in the destruction of the weapons. Finally, the Kremlin is not too excited by NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan despite increasing tension with NATO due to the conflict in Ukraine. Although this seems to be an unrelated position/activity, Moscow’s actions/ pronouncements are actually related. The Kremlin is much alarmed about transforming Syria and Afghanistan into training camps for terrorists who could then return to Russia. Even more so, it is alarmed by the prospect of terrorists in Syria acquiring either chemical weapons or at least the skills on how to use them. These Moscow fears are not groundless.
For many years, the Kremlin has not been much concerned about terrorists/potential terrorists from the North Caucasus or other Muslim enclaves of the Russian Federation going to Afghanistan to fight. One might assume that the Kremlin even supported such ventures if one would believe the late Emir Seifullakh, one of the leaders of the North Caucasian resistance. The reason for such calculation was quite clear: those who were training to fight would most likely never come to Russia. The Kremlin’s concern was not the Russian Islamists who go abroad but the foreign jihadists, mostly Arab and Pakistanis of various ethnic backgrounds, who come to Russia. The foreign fighters bring not just stamina, dedication and expertise but also weapons and funds. Some of the foreign fighters, such as Ibn al-Khattab played an important role in the First Chechen War.
The situation, however, has recently changed. By the beginning of the Second Chechen War, the number of foreign fighters and funding declined considerably. At the same time, another trend emerged: increasing numbers of Russian jihadists went to foreign countries to fight, mostly to Afghanistan and, later, to Syria. The numbers of Russia’s residents who have fought abroad are considerable. According to some Western observers, at least several hundred mujahideens from Chechnya are fighting in Syria. Russian Secret Police (FSB) put the number to 200. Putin confirmed this statement. In his view, at least 600 people from Russia fight in Syria. Some believe that the numbers are actually much bigger. Members of the North Caucasian resistance also claimed that at least 1,000 to 2,000 people from the North Caucasus are fighting in Syria, including 700-800 people from the North Caucasus.
While the North Caucasians are apparently the biggest group, they are not the only one. According to a Russian survey, at least 50 Bashkirs were trained for terrorism in Pakistan and are at large. There were apparently visible members of them who joined ISIS. The increasing number has naturally led to a diversification of the jihadists from Russia. It is most likely that they do not cling to one particular group of fragment resistance, which increasingly engages in fighting with each other. Some North Caucasian jihadists in Syria have apparently started to act on their own.
According to some reports, 800 Chechens took a village in Syria and imposed Shariat law. Others decided to go back to Russia to proceed with the fight and applied acquired skills. Jihadists from Russia are hardly unique in their desire to return to their native land. Several European countries are explicitly concerned with their nationals’ involvement in the Syrian and Iraq war, and who could return to the country of their formal citizenship not only quite indoctrinated but with the skills and appetite for terrorism. Moscow has become increasingly concerned with such a scenario, especially with the possibility of returned jihadists using acquired skills or materials to engage in terrorist attacks with the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Moscow might be increasingly concerned with the increasing flow of jihadists from the former USSR to Afghanistan since a Taliban victory reinforced by ISIS or general chaos is not in its interest. Still, the major problem for Moscow is not the numbers but the fact that folk do not always stay in the Middle East and die there but return to Russia. Moreover, some of Russia’s top brass imply that the West, most likely the United States, want jihadists to come back to Russia. The members of the Russian elite apparently think about the West’s plans in such a way. First, the Western elite preferred that jihadists move to Russia where they would be preoccupied and would not come to the Western countries. Secondly, Russians, seen here mostly as a foes, would be weakened by fighting with the jihadists. The vice-president of the First Service of the FSB (zamrukovoditelia pervoi sluzhby FSB), Aleksandr Roshchupkin, made this clear in one of his statements in May 2011. He said that the FSB did not exclude a situation where fighters who, upon receiving training in Syria, would return to Russia with the help of the “intelligence communities of foreign states” to engage in terrorist activities. Later, the Chief of the FSB, Aleksandr Bortnikov, expressed a similar concern in June 2013. According to Russian officials, the major avenue for going back and forth is most likely Turkey.
Contributors to Kavkaz Center also implicitly support these notions and state with a sort of air of irony that the leading mujahideens could easily go back and forth. The author of this piece also can confirm the role of Turkey as the place from which Syrian and other jihadists could head in any direction, including Russia. While attending a conference in Istanbul (2013), I was introduced to a young man who openly proclaimed his affiliation with al-Nusra, al-Qaeda affiliate, and said that he fights in Syria against al-Assad. He, and quite a few other participants––all from Syria––go back and forth through the porous Turkish/Syrian border, possibly even with the tacit approval of Ankara, which patronizes them as the way of dislodging Assad and diminishing Teheran’s influence in the region.
Indeed, as I was told by one of my casual acquaintances, quite a few jihadists live in Istanbul without any problems with the authorities. From Turkey, they can go to Russia; and this, in fact, has started to happen. Consequently, Russian authorities have started to deal with jihadists who, upon receiving training/experience in Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan return to Russia.
In May 2013, Russian law enforcement killed a person near Moscow who was suspected of planning a terrorist attack and who had been presumably trained in the “tribal regions in Pakistan.” Later, it was discovered that his name was Iulai Davletbaev, and he was from Bashkiria. His helper, Robert Amerkhanov, was also from Bashkiria and most likely was an ethnic Bashkir. While Russian law enforcement was able to deal with these particular Bashkir jihadists, they were not successful in another case. Indeed, on the eve of the Sochi Olympics two jihadists were featured in a video on You Tube. They proclaimed that although from Dagestan, they actually belonged to Ansar al-Sunna and were responsible for the terrorist attack in Volgograd in January 2014. One might add that the North Caucasian resistance has tried to dissociate itself from al-Qaeda. One contributor to Kavkaz Center disapproved of the affiliation of al-Nusra to al-Qaeda.
While the terrorist attacks in themselves create problems for Moscow, the Kremlin dreads the prospect of terrorist attacks using chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. This fear should be taken into account when observers calibrate the Kremlin’s dealing with the civil war in Syria. When the massive use of chemical weapons took place in Syria, the President of the United States stated that the “red line” had been crossed and the U.S. would strike the al-Assad regime. Moscow protested and said that it was the jihadists who should be blamed; and observers noted that Moscow’s proclamation was just a way of preventing a U.S. strike. The observers were undoubtedly correct in one important respect: the Kremlin did not want a major war in the Middle East—and a conflict with Syria would most likely entangle Iran and Israel, leading to a much broader conflict—and for a variety of other reasons. Still, one should not look at Moscow’s policy just through this lens. The Kremlin people, while having no illusions about Assad have even fewer illusions about the jihadists and their willingness to use chemical weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction against their enemies. The Kremlin is afraid that those jihadists who decide to go back to Russia could either acquire the skills to deal with chemical weapons or actually bring them to Russia for terrorist attacks. One might add that Russian officials have the same fear as their Western counterparts.
Marat Musin, a Russian observer, believes that up to 4,000 people from Russia fight in Syria. The most dangerous thing is that they acquire skills to deal with chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. A contributor to Ridus, a Russian vehicle, noted that the North Caucasian fighters look for chemical weapons to “conduct mega terrorist action in Moscow.” This is not just the assumption of Russian observers. There is, indeed, indication that the members of the North Caucasian resistance—as well as, of course, the members of jihadists elsewhere, would not mind using chemical weapons, actually any weapons of mass destruction, for their attack.
A contributor to Kavkaz Center noted, supposedly with reference to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, that the Caucasian mujahideens have a lot of experience in dealing with radiological weapons and, implicitly with any weapons of mass destruction. The plan to use such weapons either directly or indirectly was not just empty talk. In October 2013, Russian law enforcement had arrested two young men from the North Caucasus who planned to blow up a factory in the Kirov region. The factory is engaged in destroying chemical weapons, and an explosion could well lead to mass casualties. The potential terrorists had a plan of the factory and possibly a helper inside among the factory personnel. They had passports for foreign trips and had plans to go to Syria. As one of the locals noted, such an alarm (perepolokh) had not been sounded in the region, at least for the last ten years. Because of it, the authorities’ had increased security arrangements in the Kazan Gunpowder factory. Still, they were not able to prevent another terrorist attempt; and on November 16, 2013, an unknown individual shot a rocket at the petro-chemical plant in Nizhnekamlsk. A successful terrorist attempt could have led to mass casualties.
What was the broad implication for the Kremlin actions? To start with, Putin’s desire to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons is not a sham and cannot just be reduced to a desire to provide Obama an excuse for not launching a strike against Syria and a possible broader conflict with Iran. The Kremlin genuinely wants to eliminate chemical weapons that could, especially in the case of the Assad regime’s collapse, be in the hands of the people who could then transport them to Russia. The same consideration also plays a role in the Kremlin desire to keep Assad in power. The people in the Kremlin understand that the entire chemical weapon stockpiles might not be destroyed and the regime’s collapse could well help potential terrorists get chemical weapons for future use in Russia. Secondly, the Kremlin has now started to understand that even those who are trained to fight in foreign countries could be dangerous individuals for they could return to Russia in the future. The Kremlin also started to see the clear danger of instability even far away from Russian borders and ended its policy of implicitly encouraging jihadists from Russia to go abroad to fight. Now, the administration has started to treat them in the same way as those who are preparing to fight inside Russia. For example, Russian law enforcement arrested the members of a terrorist organization who recruited people for fighting in the North Caucasus, Afghanistan and Syria.
Finally, the Kremlin’s desire to increase its influence in Central Asia is not due exclusively to the desire to receive economic benefits or to preventing America and China from controlling the region. It is also due to a genuine fear of an influx of jihadists from Afghanistan with experience in dealing with all types of weapons. Indeed, already in May 2013, at the summit of ODKB, the central military alliance of several republics of the former USSR in Bishkek. Here Putin expressed concern in relation to NATO’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is clear that the Kremlin, while pleased with the decline of the U.S. influences in many parts of the world is not pleased with the abrupt end of the American-led venture in Afghanistan, for the Kremlin assumed that the jihadists could well move North—to Central Asia and Russia proper. There is no doubt that Kremlin anxiety will increase when the actual withdrawal starts. It looks like Russia and the West’s common interest would pull them together. Still, one should not expect this due to the conflict in Ukraine. It is clear that it is jihadists who would take advantage of discord between the United States, Russia and the European Union. And, in this respect, they could be quite similar to the Bolsheviks whose success was, in many ways, due to the lack of coordination /distrust between their major enemies. The point is that the Kremlin continues deeply suspicious of Western intentions.
Dmitry V. Shlapentokh is Associate Professor at Indiana University(South Bend), Department of History. He previous experience includes serving as an Expert witness at a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee Hearing titled China’s Rapid Political and Economic Advances in Central Asia and Russia, Eurasian Conflict Senior Policy Fellow at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, and Contributing Fellow for Central European and Eurasian Studies at the Hudson Institute.
Professor Shlapentokh has published a large body of work that spans journals, books, and media including The Role of Small States in the Post-Cold War Era: the Case of Belarus. Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College (monograph), Chechen Conflict Viewed Through the Prism of National Bolshevism”in Conflict and Peace in Eurasia (book chapter), and “Israel and the United States: A New Trend,” New Zealand International Review (article).
Read this and more articles in the new issue of International Affairs Forum available here.