Author Topic: WL Cable: Widening problems for Russian policy in the North Caucasus  (Read 2226 times)

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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 MOSCOW 000105
E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/11/2016

Classified By: Ambassador William J. Burns. Reason 1.4 (b, d)
¶1. (C) SUMMARY. The North Caucasus is a crucible in which
the weakness of the Russian state and its ambivalence about
how to overcome that weakness are compounded. In part thanks
to its failed policy there, the challenge for Russia in the
North Caucasus has changed over the last ten years. Just
after the Soviet collapse, advocates of separatism and
nationalism could be found throughout this diverse region,
but the only acute expression of those forces was in
Chechnya. Now, however, widespread alienation nourished by
corrupt Russian security forces and narrow local elites has
provided fertile ground for the growth of a new threat -- an
Islamist ideology with the potential to unite fractious
nationalisms throughout the entire region. Chechnya is just
one focus of these developments, though still the most
virulent. Russian analysts and some officials - including
Presidential Representative Kozak - recognize the problems of
Russian power, but Putin has aligned himself in his actions,
although not always in his rhetoric, squarely with the
security and military services that have dominated Caucasus
policy since the Soviet collapse and that stress solutions by
¶2. (C) GOR ambivalence about a Western and particularly U.S.
role in the North Caucasus should be seen in a wider foreign
policy context. The conventional wisdom among the security
and military services ("siloviki") is that the U.S. seeks to
weaken Russia, or even to cause it to fracture. They see
U.S.-financed democratization programs in the CIS as part of
an updated containment policy intended to encircle Russia
with hostile regimes. Countering that conception of U.S.
goals will be difficult, since many modes of engagement will
only stimulate reflexive defenses and prove
counter-productive. Rather, we should find common ground to
cooperate in areas where the U.S. interests and benefits are
transparent: intelligence-sharing to combat al-Qaeda-linked
groups operating in the North Caucasus; promotion of moderate
Islam; and assistance focusing on economic development. END
"Graveyard of Russian Power"
¶3. (C) Nowhere is the Russian state's weakness clearer than
in the North Caucasus. Repeatedly since 1995 the world has
seen large groups of terrorists and insurgents - armed with
weapons bought from a corrupt Russian military - penetrate
deep into core Russian territory, even into the Russian
capital, onto Russian airplanes, across Russia's provincial
and national borders, aided by the incompetence and
corruption of local security forces, and by Byzantine
government infighting. Under Putin, the Russians have
recognized that they are weak, but they have not determined
what constitutes strength - and that dilemma, too, is being
played out in the North Caucasus.
¶4. (C) Russia has relied on force and divide-and-rule
policies in the Caucasus for centuries. That region is often
compared to America's Wild West, and like the old West it has
been a place to make fortunes, often by criminal means.
After the Soviet collapse, both the force and the fortunes
remained, with many of the same figures playing roles both
north and south of the mountains - but now with new and
greater opportunities for crime and corruption. Chechnya in
particular served in the early 1990s as an entrepot for
laundering illegal exports of oil bought in Russia at ruble
prices (at that time, three percent of world market prices)
and sold in the west for dollars. The military and
"siloviki" were deeply implicated in those schemes. After
the siege of the Russian White House in October 1993, Yeltsin
tried to regain control by force, culminating in the Chechnya
war of 1994-96. Though Yeltsin walked away once Russia's
forces were defeated, that project was renewed in 1999 with
new determination, and it played a key role in building
Putin's image as a strong and resolute defender of Russia's
territorial and national integrity. With that much emotional
investment and prestige on the line and so many buried bodies
- both literally and figuratively - it is not surprising that
Putin, the siloviki and the broader political class have
resisted turning away from a reliance on force and towards a
search for compromises. That reluctance has only been
enhanced by the widespread perception that the last time
political compromise was tried, it led to unacceptable
¶5. (C) Over the years, however, the North Caucasus'
challenges to Russia have evolved. As the Soviet Union
collapsed, the main initial challenge was ethnic separatism.
Despite warnings of fragmentation without end, separatism had
natural limits. Only the Chechens - the largest and toughest
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of the North Caucasus ethnic groupings - would fight. All
the other groups were smaller and were engrossed in struggles
against one another, such as the Ingush-Ossetian conflict.
Each wanted Moscow on its side. Moreover, all feared an
assertive, armed, independent Chechnya more than Moscow, and
they could be divided and ruled. Now, however, jihadi
Islamism is the growing challenge. As an ideology, Islamism
has the potential to unite most of the disparate groups of
the Caucasus. Most of the recent attacks linked to Shamil
Basayev have taken place outside Chechnya, and at least one
observer (Aleksey Malashenko of Carnegie) reports that many
of Basayev's new recruits are Dagestanis. In Nalchik last
October, disaffected locals made common cause with Basayev.
¶6. (C) During his December 12 visit to Chechnya, Putin
proclaimed that Wahhabism - jihadi Islamism - was not native
to the Caucasus. He was right; it is a foreign implant.
Some part of its success can be ascribed to the worldwide
rise of jihadism. But it is Russian policy that has expanded
the potential for Wahhabism to find a haven in the North
Caucasus, by denying economic opportunities to the population
and extirpating political alternatives. Over the last few
years, Russia has repeatedly ousted local leaders with
independent bases of support - such as Aushev in Ingushetia
and Dzasokhov in North Ossetia; Kokov was forced out in
Kabardino-Balkaria, and the position of Magomedov in Dagestan
looks shaky. Each of those cases has had internal reasons,
but the pattern remains consistent. As a member of the
Presidential Administration told us, the Kremlin is ensuring
that new appointees "will not be in a position to disregard
or countermand orders coming from Moscow."
¶7. (C) Moscow's new appointees have power bases in Moscow
and are figures more in line with the "vertical of power"
that Putin has sought to develop throughout Russia. Of the
new appointees, only longtime Ossetian politician Teymuraz
Mamsurov appears to have local roots - but nominally
Christian Ossetia, for hundreds of years Russia's ally
against the Muslim peoples of the Caucasus, presents neither
a local nationalist threat nor a friendly environment for
jihadi Islamism. Other new appointees include Moscow
billionaire Arsen Kanokov in Kabardino-Balkaria and KGB
officer Murat Zyazikov in Ingushetia. Widely viewed as
corrupt and resting their power on a narrow elite backed by
Moscow's security services, all the North Caucasus rulers
have tried to wipe out threats to their power while
neglecting the economic and political development of their
¶8. (C) The new appointees have taken their cue from
Moscow's conflation of jihadi Islamism with Islam in general.
 By acting as if Islam itself were the threat, these rulers
have contributed to the radicalization of a critical mass of
the youth. Today's younger generation in the Caucasus faces
a devastating lack of legitimate employment opportunities,
and the resulting idleness and hopelessness are fertile
ground for radicalization. In multi-ethnic Dagestan, whose
stability depends on a fragile "Lebanon-model" power-sharing
arrangement among the principal ethnic groups, Moscow's
attempts to impose electoral reform in line with "the
vertical of power" threaten the delicate balances that have
kept the peace so far. The broader North Caucasus is
increasingly coming to resemble the model developed in
Chechnya over the last few years: narrow elites imposed by
Moscow rule for their own benefit over a terrorized and/or
radicalized populace.
¶9. (C) Comparisons are sometimes made between Russia's
challenge in Chechnya and the U.S. challenge in Iraq. Parts
of those tasks are similar: marginalizing the
irreconcilables, persuading their supporters to choose
neutrality, and persuading the neutral bulk of the population
to support the government through political development that
is given breathing space to grow by security measures. But
there are two insurmountable differences:
-- Whatever Americans may undertake in Iraq, we see ourselves
as an extra-regional actor there and have proclaimed that
ultimately Iraqis are responsible for Iraq's future. The
North Caucasus has been part of Russia for 150 years, and
Russia has no intention of renouncing its self-assigned
responsibility for the future of the region, or of allowing
any disentanglement of Chechnya's politics, and those of the
rest of the region, from Russia's own politics. With that
entanglement comes the vulnerability of the region to
Russia's difficulties in emerging from weakness and
-- While the U.S. has pursued a "roots-up" democratic process
of inclusion in Iraq as the way to "Iraqify" the security
struggle and put Iraqis in control of their fate, Russia has
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chosen a top-down "vertical" process to Chechenize the
security struggle and place the political project - as an
extension of the security project - in the hands of a narrow
and non-inclusive group of appointees, most notably Ramzan
Kadyrov and his ruthless thugs, who owe their position to
Moscow's politics.
¶10. (C) Many Russian analysts and officials understand these
problems. The Ambassador came away from his initial meeting
last fall with Dmitriy Kozak, Putin's Plenipotentiary
Representative to the region, with the impression that Kozak
has a clear-eyed understanding of the failures of Russian
policy. That meeting followed Kozak's report to Putin in
June 2005, warning of the dangers of clan politics in the
North Caucasus and recommending direct presidential rule (a
recommendation that quickly died). Putin Advisor Aslambek
Aslakhanov, himself a Chechen, also agrees with many of these
criticisms. But Putin's actions indicate that he remains
aligned with the "silovik" policies that have dominated
Russian policy towards the Caucasus since the collapse of the
Soviet Union. Those policies go along with a portrayal of
the issue as simple terrorism against the historical backdrop
of Russia's centuries-long struggle (often cast as its
"protection of Europe") against "Tatars" and "Muslims." As
Sergey Ivanov (now Defense Minister) proclaimed at the Munich
Security Conference as early as February 4, 2001: "Russia, a
front-line warrior fighting international terrorism in
Chechnya and Central Asia, is saving the civilized world from
the terrorist plague in the same way as it used to save
Europe from Tatar-Mongol invasion(s) in the 13th century,
paying with sufferings and privation." Putin has just
appointed Ivanov overseer of reconstruction efforts in
Challenge for the U.S.
¶11. (C) The continued predominance of the "silovik"
worldview sharply limits what the U.S. can productively do in
the North Caucasus. It casts the U.S. as a conscious and
active threat to the Russian state. American financing of
democracy movements in the CIS "paid off" with the Rose
Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
Those "color revolutions" represent a policy of
"neo-containment" aimed at surrounding Russia with "hostile
regimes" that aspire to join NATO and complete the military
encirclement of Russia. With regard to the North Caucasus,
the most fissile part of Russia, the siloviki see the U.S. as
moving beyond "neo-containment" and threatening Russia's
territorial integrity. Many in the GOR will understand (and
present to the Russian public) any U.S. engagement in the
North Caucasus in this light, and will reject any
"altruistic" explanations of our policies out of hand.
¶12. (C) U.S. policy must proceed in these circumstances
based on transparency and with initiatives where the Russians
understand the benefits to us, as well as to Russia. They
can include:
-- Enhanced intelligence-sharing on al-Qaeda-linked terrorist
networks, including facilitators and financiers. The
resources Washington can bring to bear on these issues are
more sophisticated and extensive than those Russia has at its
disposal, and in the free-flowing world of terrorist
"networks of networks," facilitators may have links to
networks in scattered parts of the world - including both the
North Caucasus and areas of more direct interest to the U.S.
-- Promotion of moderate Islam. We should work with the EU
and moderate Arab/Muslim states (such as Jordan) to draw
Russia into an effort to enable the moderate center of Islam
to hold against the extremists. As EU countries begin to
work with their own extensive Muslim populations on this
project, Russia can benefit from and potentially contribute
to their experience. Moderate Arab states can help provide
educational opportunities, and the U.S. can help with seed
money for scholarships and exchanges. Exchanges are the most
valuable tool we have at our disposal in this effort, and
should not be limited to religious issues: all exchange
opportunities, especially educational opportunities in the
U.S., can help offset the influence of radical Islamism.
-- Supporting UN and EU efforts and multi-donor assistance in
the North Caucasus. While Russian sensitivities and security
concerns will continue to limit what we can undertake
ourselves, we can mitigate those problems by working through
the UN and with the EU and other donors as well as
international and local non-governmental organizations.
During the past year, donors have increasingly engaged the
GOR in a discussion about moving from humanitarian assistance
in Chechnya and the North Caucasus to a program of
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rehabilitation and development. The goal is to create jobs
and improve education and delivery of health, while
strengthening the constituency for peace and providing the
Russians alternative models for their own efforts in the
region. The UN has called for an increase of development
assistance to USD 80 million. The U.S. has doubled its
assistance from USD 5 million in humanitarian aid to more
than USD 10 million to support immunization programs,
agriculture credit, education and community efforts. U.S.
involvement has been welcomed locally, and even (to a more
limited extent) at the Federal level. In a non-threatening
way, it can show the Russians alternative approaches to
stabilizing the region.
¶13. (C) Russia is not succeeding in the North Caucasus, and
its problems are growing wider and deeper. Over the last 15
years its efforts there have failed to stabilize the region
and have had a corrosive effect on Russian democracy. Its
policies are adaptations of the old Russian strategies of
force and divide-and-rule, compounded by nostalgia for the
imperial past, stagnation and corruption. That strategy is
likely to remain in place until a crisis forces its
replacement, but it is important to lay the groundwork for
alternative approaches. America's role will remain limited,
but we need to stay engaged in a constructive and realistic
manner that promotes our interests.