The Non-Hybrid War

October 9, 2015
The town of Nizhneye Kazanishche in the Bunaysk Region of Dagestan. Photo by Shakhban

Sociologist Denis Sokolov, an anthropologist and senior researcher for the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, has traveled to the Russian Caucasus and the Donbass to interview warlords to find out what factors sustain them. He finds not so much confirmation of the poverty theory of the “root causes of terrorism” but absence of the rule of law, with arbitrary land and resource grabs by the post-Soviet elites that force people to migrate – including to fight for ISIS in Syria.

Vedomosti, a Russian business daily owned in part by Dow Jones, the Financial Times and the Russian businessman Demyan Kudryavtsev, has continued to report critically on the Kremlin’s wars in Ukraine and Syria. In this piece titled “The Non-Hybrid War,” Sokolov describes his fears that the war in Syria – which has drawn volunteer fighters both on the side of ISIS and on the side of President Bashar al-Assad – may lead to a spread of the conflict inside Russia.

The Interpreter’s
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick has provided a full translation, with some clarifications in brackets.

By Denis Sokolov

Ever since political rivalry in Russia was successfully squeezed out by the battle with terrorism, the construction of an image of the enemy has return as the foundation of domestic politics. The simulacrum of terrorism has become an instrument of suppression of dissent and protection of the interests of the post-Soviet nomenklatura in the North Caucasus just as the simulacra of modernization, the struggle against corruption and for innovation throughout Russia — as instruments of grabbing funds from the state budget. It is just that terrorism has already killed several thousand people, and now, with the combination of falling oil prices, the conflict with Ukraine and the Kremlin’s expanse of military ambitions in the Middle East, it could lead to a conflict inside Russia.

That is because the war in Syria and Iraq is no longer a hybrid war, in which the “polite little green men” come out so nicely, and it is not blackmail of “our Western partners” who are prepared even to move their red lines just so long as there is no war. Among the nearly half million militants in the region, many are fighting in a real, unrestrained war and they don’t watch NTV. This war will redefine the conflicts inside Russia, adding to the already existing schism between the vatniki [literally “cotton jackets” or supporters of the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine] and the ukropy [literally “dill-weeds” or Ukrainians] a divide between supporters and opponents of ISIS, banned in Russia; supporters and opponents of Bashar al-Assad; and will transform the Shiite-Sunni discourse inside Russia [where Sunnis predominate]. Russian forces may switch from dealing with “homegrown” terrorism through “special operations” to the same format as Syria — all-out war.

Limited and Unlimited Violence

When people talk about the reasons for armed violence — which is too often summarily labeled as “terrorism” — the supposed liberal experts most often invoke socio-economic factors like corruption, the absence of social mobility, and the suppression of human rights. The so-called statists love intrigues involving foreign intelligence and ideological factors — Islam as a religion of social protest, and radical political Islam as a religion of extremism. But these are rather responses to the question of how terrorism is constructed — in a virtual space created by experts, propaganda and analytical reports and anti-extremism laws — whereas real life happens during purges, arrests, terrorist attacks, trials and special operations.

But why is it construed in just this way, at just this time? An article titled “Islam as a Political Factor“(Vedomosti, July 19, 2015) noted that terrorism is an instrument to block political and economic rivalry by elites who have turned the state into their own business. Such regimes have two domestic centers of supporters.

The first center is the support of the majority, which is secured by money for social programs and good propaganda. This is the media and leaders of public opinion including the clergy.

The second center is the loyalty of the siloviki [police, army and intelligence], which is secured by money and the ability to repress dissent. The interests of the siloviki overlap with the interests of the religious bureaucracy. The former obtain a monopoly on force under the banners of “warriors of light” and without legal restrictions, the latter have a monopoly on truth.

Without unrestricted violence, without managed terrorism, the “warriors of light” find it hard to justify their abuses. Therefore, with the presence of any rents — oil money, for example — the relations between such regimes and terrorism often forms as a symbiosis.

But that’s when terrorism is homegrown. When does it turn to war? When everything changes — the terror, the schism, and the opposition can change from the managed simulacra of a terrifying dragon into a civil war. How can this happen? Approximately as it did in the first quarter of the 20th century, when the revolutionaries’ terrorist organizations, which were quite well controlled by the Okhranka or tsarist secret police, in the context of World War I and the support of Germany plunged Russia into chaos.

Or as in the southeast of Ukraine in 2014-2015, when the “Russian Spring” was unleashed, if not for enacting the Crimean scenario, then for the sake of bargaining with Kiev on federalization. It turned into a bloody war in which more than 10,000 people were killed and several million people found themselves in a humanitarian disaster zone.

Jihad By the Numbers

For the field commanders of war and sabotage, this is a mission, a business, and a way of life. And justice is not a goal, but a slogan. In Syria, in the North Caucasus, among the volunteer detachments of the Ukraine and among the militia of the Donbass, “people of war” are as similar to one another as brothers. But how different their stories have turned out.

As soon as a field commander, the leader of a diversionary and terrorist group of a terrorist organization creates a detachment, group or terrorist network, the problems of supply, payment and recruiting come to the forefront. Economically, a volunteer or a jihadist is a cheap hire, but he still has to be paid cash. Furthermore, various armed formations are created in different institutional circumstances.

Ibragim Gadzhidadayev, the leader of the Gimri diversionary and terrorist group, killed in Dagestan in 2013, was part of the political system of Dagestan, and depended more on access to the republic’s market of force (payment for the security of electrical power stations, large-scale racketeering organizations in Makhachkala) than on the support of the population. Therefore he subordinated himself to the laws of this market. Like many Islamic armed formations of 2000-2014, Ibragim Gadzhidadayev’s group in Dagestan institutionally occupied the position of an organized crime entity. And the authority of Gimri’s Ibragim differed little from the authority of a mafia godfather. It was built on brutality, business acumen and financial resources. Shariat in such a situation is important as a positive law, and not as an ideology.

Army of the Revolution

The volunteer battalions in Ukraine such as Dnepr-1, Donbass, and Right Sector are simultaneously both an armed advance guard of supporters of the “revolution of dignity” above all against the current bureaucratic government; an army fighting against Putin’s empire; and the private armies of oligarchs such as Ihor Kolomoiskiy. Given the weakness of the government, they are turning into warlords. The annexation of Crimea to Russia, the war in the South East and the volunteer movement [supporting the Ukrainian armed forces] have tilted the scales toward the formation of a type of army that is new for the post-Soviet space. It is an army backed by entrepreneurs, farmers and ordinary citizens, aside from the government, which is still owned by oligarchs and bureaucrats. And it is supported even by immigrants — Ukrainians in New York who left the country long ago and don’t intend to return to their homeland are collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to support the army of Ukraine. Every volunteer battalion has its own page on social media networks and its support groups whose members several times a week delivery gear and provisions right to where the units are deployed. They are practically behind every single fighter. Such an army might simultaneously delegate commanders into politics and intervene in economic conflicts, perhaps becoming a political stabilizer of sorts and a “guarantor of the Constitution,” but may also come to the capital to stage a coup.

Battalions as a Business

Arseny Pavlov (“Motorola”), commander of the Sparta Battalion of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” [DNR] could have been on either side of the conflict — it’s a matter of chance. But he became a comrade-at-arms of [DNR Commander] Strelkov (Igor Girkin), the enemy of the Ukrainian volunteer battalions and the first field commander in the Donbass who attached a camera to his helmet. Volunteer support for the militia in the Donbass was never definitive. Centralized deliveries had far greater significance for maintaining the [Russian-backed separatist] divisions. There was even armed rivalry for making these deliveries, and also controlled channels of contraband for coal, scrap metal, fuel, wholesale and retail trade, utility fees, and income from pawn shops and financial operations.

The warlords (owners of armies, prisons and the right to kill) in the Donbass include not only commanders like Aleksandr Khodakovsky of the Vostok Brigade or Givi (Mikhail Tolstykh) [of the Somali Brigade] but also the quasi-governmental organizations like the DNR’s Ministry of State Security, the National Guard and the Oplot [Bulwark] Brigade of [DNR prime minister] Aleksandr Zakharchenko himself, or the divisions of Aleksandr Timofeyev (whose call sign is “Tashkent” and serves as minister of taxes and tariffs). To recap, first, the active part of the population (entrepreneurs, specialists, many students and teachers) have left — they do not support the militia and don’t influence them. Second, the sources of resources lead to inevitable criminalization of both the administration and the military. Third, the ideological supporters of Novorossiya — those who could have become the engine for both collection of cash and organization of support for the militia have been pushed out beyond the bounds of the political space both in the Donbass and in the Russian regions. Dealers and gangsters rule the roost. The efforts of Russian advisors to stimulate the construction of a state, for example, in the DNR, so far has been unsuccessful. On the contrary, some of the [Moscow] “curators” [managers] wound up drawn into the battle for resources in the Donbass.

The power of the warlords of the Donbass is nevertheless curtailed — first, by their own fellow warlords and second by the need to get military, organizational and financial support from Russia itself. Therefore, not a single commander or militarized bureaucrat will feel himself to be the god that Colonel Kurtz did in Apocalypse Now. War is a business for them, not a religion. Therefore, no one will encroach on the property of the family of [deposed president] Viktor Yanukovych or the partners of [Ukrainian oligarch] Rinat Akhmetov.


There’s a Russian saying that “when we hit bottom, we’ll strike from below.” This applies to ISIS, which is banned in Russia, and in general the mosaic of Islamist, moderate, Kurd and other fighters in Syria. “Homegrown” terrorism and armed business turns into a real civil war when the animal tamer runs out of sugar to feed the tamed beast. And it doesn’t matter who created what. After gaining the opportunity to trade in petroleum, ISIS sucks in all the greater migration flows from the Muslim regions like a funnel. Russian Muslims are increasingly going directly from Moscow, St. Petersburg, the Khanti-Mansiysk and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Regions, from regions where the future jihadist fighters or their parents migrated in search of jobs or schooling or fled from the persecution of law-enforcers.

About 6,000 people have left the Dagestani village of Nizhneye Kazanishche in which about 14,000 people are registered. According to residents, the outflow increased after the district administration began seizing land parcels in 2004 that had been once provided for farms and turned them into rental properties including for development. Court cases regarding these lands dragged on. From this village, about 30 to 40 people (according to different sources) went to fight in Syria. The majority of them left directly from Khanti-Mansiysk or Yamalo-Nenets (to which up to 5,000 people from Nizhneye Kazanishche migrate for seasonal work or permanent residence, or from St. Petersburg, where several hundred people from this village work as loaders at the port.

More than 100 people have left to fight for ISIS from Tyumen Region, according to various sources. Approximately as many volunteers have come from this region to fight as volunteers in the Donbass. It is hoped that this is not a scheme for a future resistance.

Russia’s war in Syria against the opponents of Bashar al-Assad — even if it is merely a symbolic action — brings back into Russia an unlimited terror. Furthermore, unlike the war with the Caucasus Emirate, banned in Russia, events may take a turn to affect the entire territory of the country. Law-enforcers are now taunting Muslims with repression for no reason, but they will disappear from the streets when it becomes dangerous and the state budget collapses. Then it will be a case when citizens will have to rely on themselves and their self-defense units. And that means pogroms and possibly civil war.