The North Caucasus: The Caspian Neighbors to the North and their Complicated Role in Russia’s War
Author: Josephine Freund
Oct 20, 2022
When discussing Russia’s War in Ukraine, it is easy to oversimplify the picture of who is involved. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, 11 countries were able to declare their independence successfully and obtain statehood. However, just because these countries could obtain sovereignty successfully does not mean that Russia as a modern empire ceased.
Russia consists of multiple federal regions: kraya, okrugi, oblastiy, and 21 non-Slavic autonomous republics. The autonomous republics all have their own constitutions, capitals, and national languages. The North Caucasus is made up of two kraya and seven autonomous republics. The region has always been strategically important to Russia because it shares land borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan to the south, and especially because it has the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea to its west and the Caspian Sea to its east.
Russia’s relationship with the peoples of the North Caucasus has always been vulnerable and, at some points, explosive. In particular, the Republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria have had significant independence and secessionist movements from Russia throughout their histories, with the bloody Chechen-Russian Wars in recent historical memory.
The apparent turning point with the seeming compliance of the North Caucasus was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilization” announcement on September 21. This announcement inevitably disproportionately affected regions such as the North Caucasus and the Russian Far East. Before this mobilization decree, men of the North Caucasus region already made up a large number of troops drafted into the war on Ukraine; this phenomenon has been deemed a “shadow mobilization.” Russia’s mobilization of troops from the North Caucasus has been eerily forceful, with videos of conscription vans driving through Derbent, Dagestan, ordering all able-bodied men to report to the conscription office. The mobilization efforts in this region have also been hasty, with little to no training reported, rendering recruited North Caucasian men as “cannon fodder.”
Eventually, discontent mounted into volatile protests, which is highly notable considering Russia’s previous troubled history of maintaining control of the region. In Dagestan, Russia saw the most protests against the mobilization orders and conducted the most arrests. Hundreds protested in the Dagestani cities of Makhachkala and Khasavyurt, and Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria. Reluctant and, at times, staunch support for the Kremlin from the North Caucasus was seemingly shattered by Putin’s mobilization. There were also protests in Grozny, Chechnya. The Kremlin miscalculated the wake-up call this would be for non-ethnic Russians about their status in the Russian Federation.
While Dagestan natives took to protesting, Russian forces, sometimes in civilian clothing, responded by firing live ammunition over the protesters, thus angering Dagestanis even more. Daring protests such as those in Dagestan point to the larger question of what this could mean for the region's future. Protests from ethnic Kumyks, the most populous Turkic ethnicity in Russia, symbolize a more significant threat to Russia in terms of losing its grip on the North Caucasus. Should a Kumyk rebellion seek to align more with other Turkic countries, this too could threaten Russia’s control.
The North Caucasus is strategically important to Russia because of its geographic proximity to Azerbaijan, Georgia, Türkiye, and Iran, as well as for its access to the Azov, Black, and Caspian Seas. Furthermore, the region is crucial for Russia’s energy supply. Dagestan and Chechnya, in particular, have significant oil reserves, and Dagestan is a transit stop on the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline. Any hint of a secessionist movement in this region of the North Caucasus points to a significant derailing of Russia’s energy prowess. This threat to Russia’s energy sector would allow Azerbaijan to “avoid Russian influence on its energy policies towards Europe’s supply.”
One major factor inhibiting a successful North-Caucasian separatist movement would be the lack of unity within the region. While many in the region share the same Muslim faith and many of the same cultural values, the North Caucasus houses high linguistic and ethnic diversity. Furthermore, certain North Caucasian peoples share decades-long tensions based on past and ongoing inter-ethnic conflicts, like currently between neighboring Chechen and Ingush peoples. Another example is the disparities in mobilization: mobilizing more ethnic Kumyks than Avars stirs tension between the two peoples.
Another roadblock to successful rebellion against Russia is the disillusionment with the possibility of stirring national movements flourishing due to decades (in some instances, centuries) of Russian aggression against North Caucasian ethnic sovereignty movements. Certain Islamic extremist movements have thrived in the region, primarily due to local disillusionment and lack of opportunity. This has also been a significant roadblock in ensuring any successful nation-building movement in the North Caucasus in the past few decades.
Further limiting the possible success of any unified North Caucasian rebellion movement against the Kremlin would be certain regional leaders, whose power is vested so deeply in Kremlin endorsement that they cannot allow any significant movement to develop. For example, President of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, can rule over Chechnya however he sees fit, provided his symbiotic relationship with Putin is maintained.
Nevertheless, the current protests coming from the North Caucasus are significant. The mobilization orders awakened a part of Russian society that has been disenchanted for a long while due to traumatic histories: North Caucasian separatist movements. It will be necessary for the world not to underestimate the will and possibility of this region. It has the potential to transform the Kremlin’s political and economic machinations. Not to mention, it is inextricably tied to the Caspian region through geographic and historical ties.