When then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into the secessionist Caucasus republic of Chechnya at the end of September 1999, few people imagined that he would win the war and politically subjugate Chechnya. Many had expected a Russian defeat. After all, when Moscow's forces had occupied the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in a six-month campaign, a fierce guerrilla war raged there for years.
Chechnya became a hotbed for separatists mainly because Russian soldiers acted brutally during the invasion and the subsequent innumerable purges, kidnapping and killing many Chechens. Officially, the Russians lost more than 4,500 troops during the second Chechen war.
Now, the Moscow government has proclaimed the end of the "counter-terrorist operation," as the war against the separatists was officially called. Compared with the situation as it was five, six or seven years ago, the situation in the province, which is slightly larger than Connecticut, has substantially changed. Back then, the insurgents were able to repeatedly force the Russian military to take part in battles and could control entire towns with thousands of residents for days at a time. Now they are only able to conduct very limited nuisance operations such as firing on military bases or vehicle convoys. Reconstruction is progressing under an authoritarian regime. It feels a bit like East Berlin in the early 1950s.
Of the several thousand fighters who took to the mountains in southern Chechnya in the spring of 2000 to continue the resistance, hardly anyone is still operating against the Russians. Many rebels were killed, went exhausted into exile or took advantage of amnesties and returned to their homes. In their place came young men who were just children when Putin snuffed out the rebel republic.
The core consists of several hundred fighters, driven by extreme fanaticism but lacking political experience and military training. And the resistance is divided. After the death of Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected president of the breakaway republic in 1997 and shot by Russian security forces in March 2005, the underground movement split into an Islamist and a Chechen nationalist wing. The Islamists, led by the warlord Doku Umarov, are no longer fighting for Chechen independence. Instead, they want a Caucasian caliphate that stretches from the Black Sea to the Caspian. Maskhadov's last prominent comrade, Akhmed Zakayev, the self-styled prime minister of Chechnya, is licking his wounds in exile in London. He has no influence in Chechnya itself.
A Holy War Against the Kremlin
The Chechen separatists lost their battle with the Kremlin because in Putin they had an opponent who believed that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. One of the main reasons for their failure, however, was the fact that between 1996 and 1999 -- the years of de facto independence -- they were never capable of establishing a stable state, never mind one based on the rule of law. The Chechen Republic of Ichkeria was a lawless state where kidnappings became a thriving industry.
Power lay in the hands of rival gangs and President Maskhadov hardly controlled anything beyond his modest residency. The Islamists, with links to the Taliban, had already become stronger before the second Chechen war. They had what the traditionalists in the resistance lacked: international ties, a stirring ideology and donations. Their overestimation of their own capabilities led them to invade the Russian semi-autonomous republic of Dagestan in August 1999. They hoped to start a holy war against the Kremlin there. However, the intervention was a fiasco, provoked a Russian backlash and was the beginning of the end of Chechnya's independence.
From late 1999 until the spring of 2000. Grozny was reduced to rubble as it received a pounding from the Russian air force. Tens of thousands of people became refugees and thousands were killed; a political vacuum opened up. Russia wanted to maintain long-term control over the rebel province but needed local personnel to do the job. They turned to Akhmad Kadyrov, the chief mufti of Chechnya. After his assassination in 2004, his son Ramzan took over the role of Moscow's most loyal ally in the country. In February 2007, Putin appointed the 30-year-old as president of the semi-autonomous republic.
Success in Chechnya is Victory in a Mine Field
As head of his father's presidential security service, Kadyrov Jr. had acquired a reputation as the head of a group of killers and torturers. He now has his own militia of some 20,000 men, who hunt separatists. The "Chechenization" of the conflict, which old separatists like Zakayev complain about, is working. However Putin's choice of Kadyrov was, and is, controversial in Russian security circles. Many Caucasus experts in the Russian security services are aware that Putin's success in Chechnya is a victory in a mine field. During an internal meeting a few years ago, a general from Russia's domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, asked Putin why he decided to appoint Kadyrov. Putin responded by asking him to name another way to guarantee peace in Chechnya.
But none of Russia's security experts has a better solution. Moreover, Putin's tactics are not new. Even the Bolsheviks often named bandits as Communists in Chechnya after 1917 and handed membership registers over to them in a bid to somehow control the region.
In the process, the Kadyrov experiment in the laboratory of violence that is Chechnya is becoming more and more of a risk for Russia itself. Kadyrov's loyalty towards Russia is doubtful and it is becoming more difficult than ever to control his province directly from Moscow. In addition, Kadyrov's men have on numerous occasions had their Chechen adversaries shot on the streets of Moscow, without being prosecuted.
The certainty that he will not be held accountable for bloody acts of revenge in Russia has probably caused Kadyrov to lose any sense of perspective. He and one of his associates, a member of the Duma, are even suspected of killing Chechens who have fled abroad.
Moscow's rich and powerful are only a small step away from the temptation to also use their Chechen cronies in the ever-harsher clan struggles within the Russian elite. If that happens, "Chechenization" could very quickly turn from being just a dubious strategy in the Caucasus into a boomerang for Russia.