Small Wars Journal

Gifts from Grozny: The Export of the Russian COIN Model to Syria

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 1:28am

Gifts from Grozny: The Export of the Russian COIN Model to Syria

Kiril Avramov

As early February 2018 was marked by the return of the nearly four hundred man-strong Chechen military police battalion back to Russia after a year and a half deployment in the Syrian city of Aleppo, it also presents a good opportunity to reevaluate the role and specifics the Chechen element deployment plays into the Russian counterinsurgency model in Syria. As their field mission in Syria tends to be multitasked and most likely goes beyond simple critical military personnel and infrastructure security provision, their deployment can arguably provide an informative insight into the logic of the Russian counterinsurgency method applied, one that has distinctively authoritarian features. A method, that despite its lack of attractiveness that draws harsh criticism and has distinct disadvantages for the regimes that practice it, seems to work for Bahsar al- Assad’s regime and those who advise and support them from abroad, as the Russian supplied know-how might not be that random and opportunistic at all.

Indeed, the method seems to be peculiar, especially if analyzed through mainstream Western academic consensus lenses, as it basically relies on fortification of local Syrian enclaves, territorial compartmentalization and various social and clan network-based compromises as opposed to the Western approach, which hopes to rebuild a monolithic and unitary nation-state. What Russians learned well in their own Chechen campaigns at home was to exploit the weaknesses of the warring clans and fractions and ultimately to saw heavy discord among the insurgents. Picking the winning fraction of Kadirov and his loyalists to export their peculiar authoritarian counterinsurgency model to Syria also does not appear to be random at all either. Kadirov is the actual epitome of the success of the Russian-type counterinsurgency that was employed in the Second Chechen Campaign.

The infamous current Head of the Chechen Republic, himself a devout Muslim and a modern, eccentric self-styled man of action with once allegedly massive presence on social media is the Russian “soft power” outreach vector to the Muslims In the Middle East and in Syria, in particular. He is the embodiment of the Russian strategic messaging to select targeted Syrian and other Islamic audiences alike. Messaging that concentrates on the “virtues” of the authoritarian approach namely, Moscow - backed and guaranteed security and order, instead of Western-inspired anarchy and havoc in search of democracy. Security and order offered by specifically selected fellow Muslim messenger and his loyal men on the ground. That of course, is only provided to the select few and loyal enclaves that support the embattled Assad regime. 

Grozny Model or What is in the Offer?

The alterative model for Syrian reconstruction the Russians tabled came as a sharp ironic response to the British and American reaction in 2016 to the fact that Russia is turning Aleppo into Syrian version of Grozny, the capital of city of the Chechen Republic, meaning the city’s devastation by the Russian offensive. The Russian diplomatic response resembled a particular jiu-jitsu maneuver where the example of Grozny used by Boris Johnson and John Kerry, as an accusation, was turned into a peculiar PR move to promote the economic and infrastructural post-conflict development of the Chechen capital under the “iron rule” of Ramzan Kadirov’. Apart from the nature of the colorful exchange between the opposing sides, the Russian response is illuminative in regards of their ideas about post-conflict reconstruction of parts of Syria, ones that are heavily drawn on the lessons of their own Chechen experience. In essence, what the Russians are tabling, as an offer, is security provision and channeling serious flows of resources and aid to select cities and territorial enclaves under joint Assad and Russian control, while relentlessly accusing the US of constant undermining of the Syrian territorial integrity. The “stick and carrot” policy is exemplified by the rotation of Chechen military police battalions that augment the Russian regular armed forces, while the “compassionate” Kadirov is offering humanitarian aid and highly symbolic reconstruction initiatives aimed to gain the sympathy and support of the local loyal Muslim population.

In sum, the “Grozny model” promises security and prosperity to the loyal Syrian enclaves, if they accept the distinct features of “Chechenization” of their own local politics and economic development under Assad control, bearing all related negative costs attached, such as oppressive corruption, nepotism and blatant disregard for human rights. The active involvement and use of the “Chechen element” in the Syrian conflict, arguably serves multiple purposes beyond the purely tactical engagement on the ground tightly connected with the overall Russian strategic messaging and psychological warfare efforts abroad that target global auditoria. These include the exemplification of the Chechen deployment, supplemented by the “soft power” outreach of Kadirov in Syria, as a proof that the specific Russian “Chechen-tested” counterinsurgency method is a working success that could be “exported” abroad. In addition to the former, it also augments the overall efforts of official Kremlin to demonstrate that there is a “brighter side” of the authoritarian counterinsurgency method that illustrates to the global audiences not only its efficiency, but the Russian resolve and fortitude of own stance in what they see as a heated “judo-like” wrestle in the latest bout against the liberal democracies of the West in terms of foreign policy and strategic security solutions superiority.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Kiril Avramov is a post-doctoral fellow at the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science and former Vice-Rector of the New Bulgarian University in Sofia and a former Senior Fulbright Visiting Researcher at CREEES, UT Austin, Texas.


Dr. Avramov,

1. Russian counterinsurgency practices have historically been effective, and have involved: a combination of divide-and-conquer along ethnic, class, and sectarian lines, as well as the co-option of locals. Such methods enabled Russia to keep control in Ukraine and Poland during the 18th Century, and the Soviet Union to defeat post-1944 insurgencies in formerly German-occupied areas of the Soviet Union (particularly Ukraine and the Baltics) and its new conquests in Central Europe (particularly Poland).

2. Moscow has always prioritized intelligence, and used spies to infiltrate insurgent formations and networks.

3. The Soviet Union deviated from its historically effective approach in 1968 (Czechoslovakia) and 1980 (Afghanistan), by relying almost exclusively, and unsuccessfully, on conventional force. Although the Prague Spring was suppressed, Operation Danube highlighted the sclerosis of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Armed Forces, and the intelligence services themselves. Yeltsin compounded these failures in late 1994, when he sent unprepared armored columns to their destruction in Grozny. They lacked military support, training, intelligence, and most importantly, local counter-insurgents.

4. Putin’s invasion of Chechnya in 1999 saw a return to Russian counterinsurgency norms: far greater use of special forces, far better intelligence, and most importantly, key Chechen allies. Is Chechnya more “Russian” now than from 1996 to 1999? Probably not. However, no other Russian republics, or former republics of the RSFSR, have attempted to secede.

5. I would argue that Putin’s “Chechen model” (which actually has centuries of pedigree) was also used in Georgia in 2008 and the Ukraine (Donbas) in 2014. Russian partnered with Abkhazian and South Ossetian paramilitaries, and used special forces and airpower as much as possible in order to avoid subjecting the 58th Army to a Georgian insurgency. Despite the images of Russian tanks rolling into the Roki Tunnel that reminded many of Grozny in 1994, Putin was very careful. The Donbas War in 2014 saw continued refinement, as Russian servicemen never comprised the majority of the forces of “Novorossiya”, but were crucial in defeating Ukrainian offensives and leading insurgent offensives. Of course, Russia is both insurgent and counterinsurgent at present.

6. Russia’s experience since 1999 in dealing with intersecting conflicts as well as disparate and capricious armed actors, meant that it could tread on the thin ice of Syria, compete and partner with Iran, send feelers to the Turks and the Syrian Kurds at the same time, and avoid winning Assad’s war for him so that he and Khamenei can carve out their “Green Crescent”.

7. Syria will not become a liberal democracy in near future, as it is too divided internally and is too vulnerable to external influence. The best that we can hope for is a weak federative state and pronounced local autonomy, perhaps along the lines of its neighbor Lebanon. Putin has ensured that an Alawi/Druze/Christian statelet will survive in western Syria, however, the Kurds and Sunni Arabs have their grievances still, and it will be up to others to convince Assad that total victory is beyond reach.