Russia fights Islamists at home, backs them abroad

Analysis: Moscow’s influence abroad continues to erode, despite its attempts to ally itself with forces opposed to the West.

Putin 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Putin 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Thursday’s suicide bombing attack by Islamists in the troublesome area of southwestern Russia signals the dangers Moscow faces at home, despite its support for radical Islamic forces abroad.
Terrorist groups seek to form an Islamic state separate from Russia in the Caucasus region, which is next to Sochi, the site of the 2014 Olympics.
Chechens, a mostly Muslim ethnic group in the North Caucasus region have a degree of autonomy from Moscow after having fought a separatist military campaign for independence following the fall of the Soviet Union.
After two wars and an ongoing insurgency, including terrorist attacks such as the March 2010 bombing of a metro station in Moscow, Russia has not come close to solving its own Islamic terrorism problem.
According to the website of the Council of Foreign Relations, there exist ties between al-Qaida and some Chechen groups. One Chechen leader known as Khattab is said to have met with Osama bin Laden during their time fighting the 1979-89 Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. In addition, Chechen fighters battled against the US alongside al-Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, according to the website.
Yuri Teper, a doctoral candidate at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on nationalism and politics in modern Russia, told The Jerusalem Post that he believes that the latest blast in Dagestan has no connection to the upcoming Olympic Games, but represents the never-ending security threat in the Caucasus.
The real concern, he said, is the “growing Islamization of the population” and the “total corruption and economic failure,” which exacerbates the situation and strengthens radicalization.
The area is failing and dominated by “clans, gangs and religious rivalries that are all intertwined,” Teper said.
Perhaps most worrisome, the Salafist trend is gaining, with tacit support from the Arab Gulf. The recent assassination of Sheikh Said Afandi, a more moderate local religious leader who was blown up by a female suicide bomber in his home in August last year, illustrates this trend, according to Teper.
The Bar-Ilan scholar said that the situation is so bad that the president of Dagestan was forced to resign less than a month ago and replaced with a Kremlin associate, an “extraordinary political move” for the Putin administration, which seems to be increasingly anxious over the situation.
Daniel Course, a Phd candidate at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on Russian foreign and security policy, told the Post that Russia is also worried that Sunni Islamists in Syria could make their way through Turkey and join the unrest. Course also noted that the conflict is expanding over larger and larger amounts of territory in the Caucus region and that Russia sends inadequately trained troops to deal with the problem, some of whom were killed in the bombing.
The region borders Georgia and Azerbaijan to its south, and from there, Turkey and Iran, which can also be accessed via the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, respectively.
The most obvious example is the support for the Iran-Syria- Hezbollah axis. Historically, Iran has been fearful of Russia and a few wars between them have engrained the enmity in their minds.
Amir Taheri, an expert on Iran, wrote in The New York Post that Russia and Iran signed a security pact last month “to help prevent an Iranian version of the ‘Arab Spring.’” The pact calls for intelligence cooperation against terrorism and crime, though perhaps more importantly, it provides for Russian training and arming of Iranian security forces that would be used to put down internal unrest. Taheri stated that the agreement calls for Moscow’s help in creating a domestic police force modeled after the 500,000-member-strong Russian security forces controlled by the Interior Ministry.
Taheri also pointed out that both Tehran and Moscow are worried about internal eruptions of unrest that, in their minds, would be instigated by the West just as they thought the Arab uprisings were.
However, Course disagreed with that notion, and said there was no strategic pact – or possibility for one – between Iran and Russia. According to him, Russia offers weapons and training to whomever has money and they use this to maintain influence in the region, which has dramatically decreased since the fall of the Soviet Union.
This is why you see Hamas and others making trips to Russia, as Moscow welcomes almost any group in order to maintain its influence.
Therefore, Russia’s cooperation with Iran should be seen within this context. In addition, trade between Russia and Iran is not great and is comparable to that of Israel and Russia, even though Israel has a much smaller population and is farther away.
Course noted as well that the largest Russian military exercise in the last 10 years took place in the Caspian Sea, which separates the two countries and holds an abundance of natural gas.
Tehran and Moscow have tried numerous times to come to an agreement on the division of the sea, but “Russia stopped because Iran does not want an agreement.
They want to wait until they are strong enough to take it with force.”
Course draws a parallel to Iran’s behavior in negotiations over its nuclear weapons, where it is not interested in giving up on its atomic agenda, but rather in dragging out the talks until it has gained nuclear capability.
The other worry, he noted, is that if there will be an attack on Iran, a flood of refugees will make their way north to Azerbaijan and even into the troubled Caucusus region of Russia.
This would cause members of the Iranian security forces to also stream through with the refugees and end up in Russia’s backyard.
Moscow’s influence abroad continues to erode, despite its attempts to ally itself with forces opposed to the West and it is this game that could become costly in the long-run. The Sunni insurgents on Russian soil hold an ideological affinity with Sunni Islamists, such as those fighting the Russian-backed Syrian regime as well as al-Qaida-linked groups active throughout the region and beyond. Thus, Russia has set itself up to be opposed by the rising Sunni Islamists in the region, led by the increasingly influential Muslim Brotherhood movement and its offshoots.
An attack on the 2014 Olympics in Russia would be a great blow to Russia, and therefore, according to Teper, “it is a wonderful way for various radicals to gain prominence and attract more money from the Gulf.”