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Why Isn't State-Led Mass Killing Occurring in Russia's North Caucasus?

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian government defeated a separatist insurgency in Chechnya with a scorched-earth campaign that killed thousands of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Despite that ostensible victory, Russia continues to battle separatist insurgents in its North Caucasus region, of which Chechnya is a part. According to the independent news site Caucasian Knot (here), from 2010 to 2013 this conflict killed more than 2,700 people, approximately 1,500 of whom were civilians. The group leading the separatist insurgency in its current form, the Caucasus Emirate, has also committed several major terrorist attacks in Moscow and elsewhere, and in early 2014 its leader publicly called on militants to attack the Sochi Olympics (see here).

The persistence of this insurgency and its success in carrying out significant attacks elsewhere in Russia raises an awkward question: Why hasn’t the same regime that perpetrated a state-led mass killing in Chechnya done the same in its fight against the substantial insurgency that persists?

I recently emailed a few experts on political violence and civil conflict in Russia to ask them about this puzzle. In their responses, a couple of them wondered if it was even a puzzle at all, suggesting that Russian forces may already be committing atrocities in the North Caucasus that amount to state-led mass killing. Jason Lyall, a professor of political science at Yale University who studies civil wars and conducted field research in the region in the early 2000s, told me that:

“Ingushetia and Dagestan have both recorded at least 1,000 civilian deaths since 2001 just from state authorities. Media coverage on this is terrible, but the local authorities in both Ingushetia and Dagestan have been “disappearing” young males as a matter of policy throughout the 1999-now era. (Which is one reason the insurgencies keep going rather than get stamped out). In short, depending on the definition of mass killing temporally/spatially, I’d say we might actually still be witnessing it, at least until recently, though not on the scale of the Second (or First) Chechen War.”

Kristin Bakke, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at University College London who studies political violence, including Russia’s civil wars, made a similar point:

“There is still widespread civilian victimization ongoing [in the North Caucasus], even if it is not to the extent that it was in the second war in Chechnya. I also worry that there is massive under-reporting on this matter, given how [Ramzan] Kadyrov now has free reigns to rule Chechnya more or less as he pleases.”

Bakke’s and Lyall’s remarks about the persistence of atrocities in the North Caucasus are echoed in a background briefing written earlier this year by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Zachary Laub for PBS Newshour. According to Laub,

“Security officials maintain broad authority to declare counterterrorist operations, which allow them to operate with few restrictions. Rights groups still allege killings, disappearances, and torture by Russian security forces, as well as collective punishment of families of suspects and excessive force that often causes civilian casualties.”

Still, all of the experts I consulted agreed that Russia has not attacked the current insurgency as aggressively as it prosecuted the war in Chechnya. None of them claims to fully understand why that’s true, but all three said that necessity, or the lack thereof, has something to do with it. Monica Duffy Toft, a professor of government and public policy at Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, who studies ethnic and religious civil wars in Russia and elsewhere, wrote:

“I don’t think it’s an issue of capacity since Russia basically obliterated Grozny two times in war since 1994. So, it has to be a matter of intention—it is not interested perhaps due to sanctioning by the international community (from 1999-2008 it seemed to care what the world thought) or it doesn’t/didn't feel it was needed to do so en masse since it was good enough at sweep operations, targeted arrests and assassinations during the wars.”

Lyall’s explanation expanded on that latter idea:

“There hasn’t been mass killing on the scale of Chechnya, for two reasons (at least). One is the demonstration effect that Chechnya had on the local populations; no one, including insurgents, is willing to risk open confrontation with the Russian state in Dagestan or Ingushestia. The insurgency keeps a fairly low profile, and the local authorities are quite strong, so there’s no need to repress civilians since most don’t actively support the insurgency. Second, in all three locations—Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Chechnya—the insurgents are largely confined to rural non-populated areas (i.e., forested mountains) that are isolated away from the republic centers. There’s no need to conduct large scale repression in these areas in part because there’s no large populations out there. These areas also represent a small [percentage] of the overall space of each republic, so each insurgency is pretty confined to a small, non-populated space, which has to lower the odds of observing mass killing.”

Bakke echoed that necessity-based argument and pointed out that two other drivers of the violence in Chechnya—racism in Russia against people from the North Caucasus and sympathy among foreign governments for crackdowns on groups with ties to international terrorism—were still present today, so we can’t explain the difference in strategies through changes in them. She also made an interesting point about variation over time in the professionalism of Russian security forces:

“Since 2007 Russia has been undergoing a process of military reform, aimed at—among other things—creating a more professional and less corrupt army, although some question the extent to which this has been a success. One report also suggests that in Dagestan, one of the hotbeds in the North Caucasus, President Magomedsalam Magomedov from 2010 to 2013 pioneered a “softer” approach to law enforcement, but after his dismissal, by Putin, mass arrests picked up. I.e. there is some evidence to suggest that the level of mass killings in the region are associated with both discipline of the armed forces and the guidelines for the local law enforcement agencies, but more empirical research is needed to establish the effect.”

Given what Bakke, Lyall, and others say about the persistence of atrocities in the region, it certainly doesn’t make sense to describe the absence of overt state-led mass killing in the North Caucasus as a preventive success. At the same time, none of these experts seemed to expect the situation to worsen sharply any time soon.

Consistent with those views, the Early Warning Project’s statistical risk assessments do not identify Russia as a country at relatively high risk of an onset of state-led mass killing. Russia currently ranks 82nd among the 162 countries we assess, placing it in the large pool of cases with estimated risks hovering close to zero. Since late 2013, we have also been asking our expert opinion pool to assess the risk of an onset of state-led mass killing in the North Caucasus region before the end of this year. As the plot below shows, the aggregate forecast from that pool ticked up a bit ahead of the Sochi Olympics but never exceeded 13 percent and has receded slightly since the spring. In short, in spite of the persistent insurgency and recent history of mass atrocities perpetrated by the same regime, neither our statistical models nor our opinion pool foresees a sharp escalation of state-led atrocities in the North Caucasus in the near future.