Small Wars Journal

The Russian COIN Campaign in North Caucasus

Thu, 06/28/2012 - 5:30am

Motto: “Successful counterinsurgency efforts necessitate changing minds, and changing minds is a government function that is much more difficult than destroying a 50-ton tank or a state-of-the-art missile cruiser. Changing the collective mind of a population requires dedication and committing all the elements of national power—diplomatic, economic, informational, legal, and military—in a synchronized effort so that the total effect is greater than the sum of the individual parts”.

You state that “insurgencies are first and foremost a political struggle, and therefore the military should never be the primary agency for conducting a counterinsurgency campaign”. Being predominantly a political battle how did the Russians strategically design their COIN campaign? As a military-centric campaign or as an interagency whole of government approach where the military is just one part in a larger concert of governmental instruments?

Well, it really depends on what period you’re talking about.  There wasn’t a strategic design for a COIN campaign in 1994 because the Russians didn’t really understand what they were getting into. Also, it’s important to remember that, during the early 1990’s, Chechnya was not President Yeltsin’s number one concern. The fate of Tatarstan or keeping the communists from taking back power were at the forefront of his mind. Moreover, the Russians never believed that Dudayev was capable of holding onto power because the situation in Chechnya was so precarious. So there wasn’t any planning. However, the 1999 war was a dramatically different story. Between the wars, the Russians made some significant changes to the way they operated, and – as Prime Minister Stepashin himself stated – the Russians had been planning a reinvasion of Chechnya at least as early as March of 1999 (a good five months before the Moscow apartment bombings and Basayev’s raid into Dagestan).  The second war was a full-blown governmental approach that involved the executive, legislative and judiciary branches, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior, the FSB, the media and the military among others. Without a doubt, the Russians had more success in 1999 because they took a much more comprehensive approach. However, this doesn’t explain why there is still heavy fighting in the Caucasus – and why it seems to be getting worse – especially if they took this “whole of government approach” that I say they did. Understanding this puzzle lies in understanding who the Russians see as their target audience.  In 1999 (and still today), the Russian strategic campaign is primarily directed at the general Russian population and the international community. By their own standards, if the violence in the Caucasus doesn’t spread into the rest of Russia, threaten to topple the administration, or handicap its ability to wield Russian influence abroad, then the Russian COIN campaign is successful. Think about that for a moment -- this approach is so completely different from “Western” approaches that many Western observers can’t even begin to start to wrap their heads around it. What the Russians still have failed to do is to take the “whole of government” approach and apply it at the local level in the Caucasus region and direct their efforts at the local populations (the usual Western approach) – this is why there is still a frightening level of violence going on in the region – and yet, it doesn’t seem to be having an effect on Russia (or even Europe). However, the Sochi Olympics could change all of that. Up until now, the Russian campaign has been brilliant at ensuring the Chechen (and now North Caucasus) situation doesn’t become a major problem for the administration’s hold on power or Russia’s ability to achieve its foreign policy objectives; however, the Russian campaign has not been successful at ending the insurgency – primarily because the local campaign is primarily military-centric.

How different is the ranking of priorities in the Russian COIN compared to the Western pop-centric approach? In what kind of missions and priorities were the main resources invested?

I assume you’re referring to doctrinal approaches here. It’s important to point out that there are still plenty of Western analysts who believe that heavy “enemy-centric” approaches are more effective than the “population-centric” approaches upon which our doctrine is based. Western doctrinal COIN approaches start with and revolve around “security” – for the government as well as the local population, whereas you can see from the chart in my book on page 201 that the Russian approach considers security of the local population a much lower priority. In the Western approach, it is important to start trying to gain the support of the indigenous population through a number of means (security, economic, civil affairs projects, diplomatic, etc), while the Russians initially put these types of activities way at the bottom of their list (although Ramzan Kadyrov has placed a much higher emphasis on those types of activities since he has assumed the presidency).  The Russian Main Effort has always been focused on the general Russian population within Russia proper, as opposed to the indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus.  And as an enemy-centric approach, they have emphasized killing the enemy over building support for themselves among the local population. All in all, I’d say the Russian and Western priorities are generally very different.

How did the Russians expect to gain the support of the local population using only coercion (sticks and almost no tangible carrots)?

Well, if we talk about what happened in 1999, the Russians were able to very successfully gain support of a critical part of the local population (the Gantimirov, Kakiev, Yamadayev, and Kadyrov clans) by giving them a significant share of political power and resources in the region. But I believe you’re talking about the general Chechen population today – which did not get a stake in the new government. As for them, I believe that the Russians didn’t feel the need to offer them anything except a reason to stop fighting. Unfortunately, because the average citizen in the Caucasus is more afraid of the security services than they are of the insurgents and terrorists, many young men feel it is safer to join the Caucasus Emirate and live in the mountains and forests than it is to remain at home – where they might be seized by the security forces at any moment. As I stated earlier – and as I make clear in the book – the Russian Main Effort is not focused on gaining the support of the local population, so the Russians don’t feel the need to offer carrots.

What kind of instruments did the Russians use in order to compete in the battle for ‘‘changing minds’ and gaining the support of the Chechen population? Robert Cassidy once said that “counterinsurgency necessarily means that the objective is the four inches between the ears of the people”. Moreover General Nick Carter once said to me that “the most important lesson is to understand that if you are going to prevail in a counterinsurgency campaign it is about winning the argument for the minds of the population on behalf of the government, against the insurgency. In essence that means you have to understand that everything is there for that battle - for the minds of the people - which means essentially it is about influence; about influencing a range of different audiences and constituencies.”

Those are good quotes; the only thing I would add to them is a quote of my own “successful COIN efforts necessitate changing minds, and changing someone’s mind is much more difficult than destroying a 50-ton tank or even a missile cruiser” – which is why a plan to engage the local population using all the elements of national power is so important. In the first war, there wasn’t much of this activity at all – which resulted in terrible failures like Pervomayskoya – where extremely poor handling of the situation resulted in Russian hostages publicly praising their Chechen terrorist captors for saving them from dying at the hands of the Russian military forces that had been dispatched to “save them.” There really wasn’t much of an attempt to “change hearts and minds” during the major combat operations of the 1999 War either. However, since Ramzan Kadyrov has taken over, he has embarked on an aggressive counter-ideological campaign against the Caucasus Emirate designed to discredit their Salafist ideology in order to discredit them as a legitimate option in the minds of the people. He has also launched a number of programs to win hearts and minds to himself -- including restoring essential services, developing the economy and infrastructure, creating jobs, supporting religious and cultural development, offering sanctuary to former fighters, etc. Although much of Kadyrov’s efforts have been primarily for show and has turned Grozny into what I call a “Kadyrov Village,” he has had some success – and would have a lot more success if the local population could trust his security forces not to harm them.  Much of Kadyrov’s attempts at a “hearts and minds” campaign has been eroded because of the environment of fear that so many people live in. How many beautiful and healthy things could grow in a greenhouse filled with poisonous gas? Fear is poisonous to the soul, and nothing good ever grows in an atmosphere filled with fear.

How would you describe the culture of the Russian military at the beginning of its 1999 North Caucasus campaign? Had the Russian Army an organizational culture optimized to deal with an insurgency? How different is it today?

The short answer is, “no,” the Russians didn’t have a culture optimized to deal with an insurgency in 1999 – and it’s only slightly better today. In particular, the Russians couldn’t (and still can’t) exercise decentralized control with positive leadership that (even the Russians admit) is necessary for counter-guerrilla and COIN operations. They’ve tried numerous experiments to develop an NCO corps and they’re currently in the midst of a major reorganization in order to try and surmount some of those challenges, but they’re not there yet – and realistically, they won’t get there for another 20 years.

It is said that insurgencies are rarely defeated militarily, but they end through political accommodation. How do you assess the effectiveness of the Kadyrov reintegration of the former insurgent fighters? To what extent did this weaken the insurgency?

Again, there have been different phases of this effort. Had the Russians not been able to co-opt the Kadyrovs and Yamadayevs to their camp in 1999, things would not be as they are today.  Yes, I know, there are many people who say that Kadyrov senior had been a KGB/FSB mole the entire time and that between the first and second wars he was working to destabilize the Maskhadov government – but that’s another issue.  But let’s just discuss the past seven years to keep it simple, shall we? There was a large influx of fighters that left the insurgency after Shamil Basayev’s death, and many of those fighters were given jobs in Kadyrov’s security services. Some of those fighters provided information that hurt the insurgency then – and some of them are still providing information to the authorities. However, most of the former fighters aren’t trusted by the Russian security services, and it must be assumed that a large part of them still provide some information to the insurgency – or at least don’t participate in active operations against the insurgents. Really then, the question comes down to “how do you define the ‘effectiveness’ of the reintegration program.” If you define it as “preventing the majority of the former fighters from taking up arms against the government,” then, yes, the reintegration program has been successful – maybe 90% successful. If, however, you define effectiveness as “actively works to destroy the insurgency,” then I’d put the number much lower – somewhere around 15%. Then there is the current program to convince fighters to leave the mountains and former fighters who are now residing in other countries to come home. Those programs are not very popular and it seems like the only reason anyone voluntarily comes out of the mountains or returns from abroad is if their families are threatened. This is part of Kadyrov’s larger counter-sanctuary campaign which could be summed up as “it’s time to come home.” This is a self-licking ice cream cone – Kadyrov keeps telling everyone that Chechnya is now safe and stable and constructs lots of new buildings to prove it. Then he coerces refugees to come home, and then he says because the dissidents are coming home, it must be because of all of his new policies and the way he rebuilt the city. Therefore, the rest of the refugees and former fighters should return as well.  Kadyrov is no fool, although very few people believe his efforts are genuine, he is pulling off some pretty good stuff. He’s managed to bring former rebel commanders and fighters onto television who publicly disparaged their former leaders and their former cause – even saying things to discredit the heroes of Ichkeria like Makhadov, Basayev and others.  Viewers were left with the inescapable conclusion that even if the ChRI had stopped the Russians in 1999, it wouldn’t have been able to form a government that could have operated independently from Russia – hence, the situation in Chechnya now is the best thing that could have happened for the population. This is great stuff – unfortunately, it’s not working because the people still don’t feel safe – and innocent people still “disappear” almost every week. So overall, to answer your question, despite their best efforts, the current campaign to reintegrate fighters back into the government isn’t working – because very few locals trust either the Russians or Kadyrov -- and no one will enter into a contract with someone they don’t trust.  This is why population-centric approaches are important.

COIN is also a competition for legitimacy. How did Ramzan Kadyrov perform in the counter-ideological/counter-narrative competition for the moral high ground with the Caucasus Emirate proselytes? At the end of the day, it seems that he has been able to accommodate and co-opt much of the insurgent goals.

Well, legitimacy is only important if you believe in a pop-centric approach, and it should be clear from my answers thus far that I am a proponent of that. The Russians, however, are not – so legitimacy is much further down their list of priorities. Nonetheless, the Salafist ideology is incredibly compelling for Muslims – which is why you rarely see Western countries trying to fight the ideological battle with the Salafists. Kadyrov, however, has found the answer. Kadyrov, as a Muslim – and as the son of the former Grand Mufti of Chechnya and a member of the Qadiriyya (a sect of Sufi Islam that believes that to be a good Muslim, one must accept the sovereign rule of the country one lives in) – has co-opted virtually every single tenet of the Salafist ideology, modified it so it consistent with Caucasus traditions and incorporated it into Chechnya. Thus, despite the fact that it is against Russian law, in Chechnya, it is possible to have multiple wives, the government voted itself out of a bicameral government (because it wasn’t consistent with Shari’a law), alcohol is forbidden except during very strict hours, women cover their faces, etc. Kadyrov has built the largest and most beautiful Mosque in Europe, he cooperates with Arab countries and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), he visits Muslim leaders and they visit him. In proving to the world that no one is more Muslim than he is, Kadyrov is trying to snatch away the ideological underpinnings of the Caucasus Emirate’s (CE) ideology and show that there isn’t any reason to accept their idea of an emirate because Chechnya has already achieved the kind of society the CE aspires to – and it happened because of Kadyrov’s rule. Moreover, because the CE is espousing a “foreign” Salafist ideology, Kadyrov is reminding the Chechens that he represents the true form of Caucasus Muslim tradition, and that the Salafists are outsiders with strange ideas that aren’t part of Chechen culture.  I go into much more detail in my book, but the short version is that it just doesn’t matter that Kadyrov’s efforts are largely for show, and even though the Salafists will argue that Kadyrov’s efforts aren’t real and that the people of the North Caucasus must accept the shari’a and stop visiting the shrines of their ancestors, in the end, the locals would be seeing that Kadyrov’s Chechnya is more Islamic than many of the Arab countries are – that is, if the people weren’t so afraid all the time.  Even Shamil Basayev stated that he would be willing to live as part of Russia if they would allow shari’a – and even though they don’t say it out loud, Kadyrov has essentially achieved that. So, according to Kadyrov’s campaign, why would anyone – even the insurgents – want to fight against him? Kadyrov then delegitimizes the insurgents by providing the obvious answer -- that they don’t really care about shari’a, or their stated ideals -  they just care about taking power for themselves. This is truly significant, because it is one of the few examples in the world today where a government is fighting an ideological campaign against the Salafists and winning. Yet, in the end, for Kadyrov and the Russians, it’s one step forward and two steps back because none of this ideological campaign can take root and flourish because Kadyrov isn’t considered to be “legitimate” by the local population. The irony of all this is that while they are winning the ideological battle against the Salafists, because they aren’t protecting the people and demonstrating legitimate government, they are actually empowering their most dangerous enemy, the secessionists and the remnants of the ChRI (Zakayev and others who want a liberal democracy).

Keeping in mind the economic resurrection and the social welfare provided under the leadership of Ramzan Kadyrov, but also his success in mastering the counter-ideological/counter-frame war, how can we explain the never ending support of the local population for the insurgents? Which is the recruiting ammunition for the insurgency? Is it fear, the discretionary application of law, government violence?

Yes, you’re correct – it’s all of that, and more. The crux of the matter is that Kadyrov (and the Russian government he represents) isn’t considered to be legitimate by a large portion of the population. For them, there isn’t any real benefit to being part of Kadyrov’s Chechnya (or for Chechnya to be part of Russia). The CE offers young men a means to fight the injustices they see. For all the things that Kadyrov does to hurt the insurgency or to improve his own reputation, when he names streets in Chechnya for Russian paratroopers or removes monuments to Chechen resistance from public areas, he sends a signal to a portion of the population that he doesn’t represent them, their ideas, or their traditions. More importantly, he gives plenty of ammunition to the CE –who is able to frame his actions in a way that suits their own cause and draw more supporters. As I make clear in the book, a particular action in and of itself is not nearly as important as how that action is used to frame an argument and shape ideologies – and ideology is what makes a man get up in the morning and say to himself:  “I’m ready to die for this cause today.” This is ultimately why I believe enemy-centric approaches aren’t effective – because insurgencies get their recruits from the population – and the side that doesn’t actively demonstrate its legitimacy and engage the population for their support will lose it to their opponent. Fear tactics and coercion can effectively ensure compliance, but it doesn’t engender loyalty and it doesn’t inspire young men to sacrifice on its behalf.

What will happen when Moscow is no longer able (or not longer chooses) to finance Ramzan Kadyrov’s economic and post-conflict reconstruction side of his COIN campaign?

The Chechen economy is almost entirely dependent on subsidies from Moscow, so if the money dries up, so will the jobs – and things will get progressively worse. Right now, Kadyrov is benefitting from what I refer to as “the blue-collar effect” and the people that are working as part of the reconstruction efforts are making money, and buying things with that money. And when people have something to lose (like houses, cars, their lives, their children’s future), they think twice about putting their livelihoods and their families in jeopardy to help the insurgents. They might not believe that Kadyrov is legitimate or that Moscow has their best interests at heart – and they might have some sympathies for the insurgents – but who cares? Right now, they have more important things to worry about -- like feeding their families. Take away the jobs and the money –and things will naturally get worse – especially since they already fear for their lives and the lives of their children.

What can Russia do in order to mitigate an increasingly regional insurgency? After all it is not a Chechen limited problem anymore, but a regional insurgent hydra. To what extent does Russia have today in 2012 a regional wide integrated plan coordinated by an interagency whole of government machinery able to project all the means of national power (economic, diplomatic, cultural, legal, security, and informational) in North Caucasus? 

Step number one is to acknowledge the problem. Although the Russians constantly refer to the situation in the Caucasus as a terrorism problem and employ increasing numbers of counterterrorist forces, in the end, only by recognizing that they are dealing with a regional insurgency will they be able to craft policies that will lead to long-term peace. The next thing that needs to happen is the populace needs to stop fearing the government, police and military more than it fears the insurgents and terrorists. In addition to rooting out corruption and professionalizing the lower ranks of the army and security services, this effort would be helped immeasurably if Russia were to embrace the people of the North Caucasus as full citizens. There is an increasing body of anecdotal evidence showing that many Russians don’t consider the Caucasians to be Russian (or deserve to be a part of Russia). This idea of “us” and “them” only serves to foster the insurgent ideology that because the peoples of the Caucasus never have been (and never will be) members of the Russian nation, being independent will be better for everyone. 

Moreover, from an operational standpoint, because there isn’t any trust between the people and the security services, there is very little actionable intelligence generated by the bulk of the security services. Yes, the FSB has been able to conduct some special operations and get informants into the insurgent ranks – but those types of operations aren’t sufficient to eradicate the entire organization. What the Russians really need to do is to start a virtuous cycle that results in what I describe in the book as the “security-intelligence cycle.” When people feel protected by the police and military (when they fear the insurgents more than the police), then it is in their best interests to tell the police when a stranger moves into the house up the street. And when every soldier and policeman is getting tips, then real progress can be made. This “security-intelligence cycle” is borne out by research, and should no longer be brushed aside by those who tend to regard such niceties as “not bombing your own citizens” or “safeguarding civilians” as something of an inconvenience and not contributing directly to tactical and operational objectives. In a study of fifty 20th century insurgencies around the world, the most successful COIN practice has been to emphasize intelligence gathering and the second-most has been to “focus on the population, their needs, and security.” Conversely, the top unsuccessful practice has been the “primacy of military direction of counterinsurgency” and the second least effective has been the “priority to kill-capture enemy, not on engaging population.”

Once the security piece has been initiated throughout the Caucasus, then an overall regional approach including economic, diplomatic, legal, cultural, religious, and informational efforts can start to take root. But even then, it will still take a very, very long time.  However, in the end, it’s a rather simple concept – initiate the “intelligence-security cycle” and foster the “blue-collar effect.” And when the majority of the people in the North Caucasus start wanting to live in the Russian Federation because they like it, the insurgency will simply shrivel up from lack of recruits and become a tiny faction of hardcore Islamists that can be handled by the FSB.

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.


LTC Robert W. Schaefer is a highly decorated U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret) and Eurasian Foreign Area Officer. For more than 25 years he has served in a variety of special units and he has participated in virtually every U.S. overseas operation since 1990. He has extensive experience with counterinsurgency and counter-terrorist operations around the world and has lived and worked in many countries of the former Soviet Union. He is uniquely qualified to analyze the conflict in the North Caucasus because of his first-hand experience planning and executing counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations in the Caucasus region. LTC Schaefer was the recipient of the Special Operations Command (US SOCOM) Award of Excellence in 2001. He obtained his Masters Degree in Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies from Harvard University in 2005. His latest book, “The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad” (Praeger, 2011) has won multiple awards for current events, earned a Kirkus Star, as well as rave reviews from the New York Times and The Economist.



1) To what extent was unity achieved after (as opposed to before and during) the second assault on Grozny with (for example) Ministry of Defense and Ministry of the Interior?

2) How is Russia losing? If the insurgents are not winning, have the insurgents lost? Russia has been there for awhile now.

3) What about the fact that Russia's political structure and economy have changed tremendously (arguably) over the last 18 years?

Regards, and thanks for a good article.