Moscow and the Islamist Challenge: Three Disturbing Developments

May 18, 2016
Screen grab from video by REN TV showing apartment building in Derbent where police chief was taken hostage by militants later shot dead by police May 16, 2016.

Kremlin Reads the West Wrong but the West is Beginning to Read Russia Right, Shevtsova Says

Staunton, May 17, 2016 – The Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine and its challenging actions toward NATO ships and plane are based on its “conclusion that the era of the West has ended” and that the world, including the West itself, accepts this and accepts the related notion that international relations is based on rules not based in liberal civilization, Liliya Shevtsova says.

The West’s failure to react forcefully, she suggests in a commentary May 17, only served to convince Vladimir Putin and those around him that they are right and the West is finished. But in fact, Western leaders “supposed that [Russia and the West] are working with the same set of understandings.”
How naïve, she suggests. Clearly, these leaders failed to understand that their tolerant and patient stance was viewed by the Russian side “as weakness and a fear of taking decisions” But things are changing, especially after the Crimean Anschluss forced the West to wake up to its mistakes and to take actions, admittedly halting but actions nonetheless.
An important sign of this trend, Shetsova suggests, is a new report called Closing NATO’s Baltic Gap, prepared by three former NATO commanders, Wesley Clark, Egon Ramms, and Richard Shirreff and the former foreign and defense minister of Estonia, Juri Luik. (The report is available online here).
Shevtsova calls attention to three of the report’s most important arguments. First, the authors say, Russia today is a “destabilizing” actor “both in the eastern and southern directions.” Second, Moscow has developed an effective system of shifting its forces rapidly from one place to another.
And third, Russia has a command structure which is capable of taking decisions much more rapidly than does NATO. Indeed, the four remind that “the NATO command structures in the northern direction were liquidated,” something they clearly believe can and must be reversed given Russian actions.
The authors paint a bleak picture of the alliance: There are fewer Americans in uniform in Europe than there are policemen in New York, Britain would find it hard to field a combat-capable brigade, and Germany’s army is not ready for any large-scale operations at all. How can such an alliance threaten Russia as the Kremlin claims.
But as a result of what the Kremlin has done and is doing, Shevtsova continues, the authors of the report who are freer to say “what they want” than those still in service are calling on the alliance to use its Warsaw Summit to develop a strategy of “tough containment” of the Russia of Vladimir Putin.
One has the impression, she says, that their views are far from marginal ones; and she points out that “if only a third of their proposals are realized,” Russia will find itself in a clash of forces with the West, a clash it cannot win because it spends less than US $88 billion per year on defense while the NATO countries spend more than a $1 trillion.
Can the Russian leadership really believe that the West won’t wake up? Shevtsova asks. And can that leadership fail to remember what happened the last time there was such a military competition with the West – “the collapse of the USSR,” admittedly she says this was a case of “the law of unintended consequences.”
What Shevtsova does not address here, however is something others fear: a Kremlin driven back to the only basis of equality it has with the West in the military area – nuclear weapons – and its use of blackmail about their possible use designed to undermine Western resolve to do anything.
If that happens, the world will have entered into an era even more dangerous than any it has been in before, one in which a single mistake could lead to a nuclear Armageddon.
Moscow’s Failure to See Ethnic Dimension of Cemetery Clash Dangerous, Malashenko Says
Staunton, May 17, 2016 –  Russian commentators and officials have downplayed or even denied the existence of an ethnic component of last weekend’s clash in a Moscow cemetery that left at least three dead, 26 hospitalized and dozens arrested, an approach that will make it even more difficult for the country to deal with its ethnic problems, according to Aleksey Malashenko.

The Moscow Carnegie specialist on ethnicity says the clashes at the cemetery involved banditry, business, and ethnicity, but ignoring the last not only makes it more likely that there will be more such conflicts in the future but also that the Russian authorities will not be able to effectively combat terrorism.
The situation arose, he says, because Chechen and Dagestani “criminal groups” demanded that the Tajiks working at the cemetery, many of whom were in Moscow illegally, pay 90 percent of their fees and wages to the Chechens and Dagestanis. Not surprisingly, the Tajiks refused, and the North Caucasians came with guns to try to enforce their will.
The Russian media have generally called the defenders of the cemetery “’Asiatics,’” without specifying their exact nationality, and they have failed to name the nationalities of the attackers from the Caucasus, thus leaving the impression that the fight was between illegal immigrants and some group of “’Russian citizens.’”
This is very strange and suggests that those on the attack may have expected an understanding attitude and even support from the cemetery managers or others further up the line or alternatively that such groups from the North Caucasus now feel beyond the reach of Russian law, the Moscow expert says.
Political figures contributed to this misunderstanding by arguing almost unanimously that “the incident at the Khovan Cemetery does not have an ethnic coloration.” That is wrong, Malashenko says, and “one must not ignore the nationality factor” in such situations or one is likely to make errors in judgment about how to control the situation.
To be sure, he continues, “in certain situations” like this one, it may not be profitably to divide up the explanation between business and simply bandit fights and inter-ethnic tension. All of this is too interconnected,” but nonetheless, ethnicity is part and parcel of such clashes and must be acknowledged.
There is also the danger, Malashenko says, that “the authorities will try to link this clash to extremism, to ISIS which is banned in Russia and so on because for them it is customary to ascribe their own mistakes to the machinations of external forces.” That may be even more likely in this case because it occurred at the same time as the clashes in Derbent.
But “one way or another, the clashes at the cemetery show that the authorities who are taken up with the struggle with terrorism are far from being completely informed abut what is happening in the immigrant milieu and thus are not capable of preventing critical situations from arising in a timely fashion.”
And that in turn, Malashenko warns, “inevitably will lead to the further growth in migrantophobia which is already high and not only in Moscow but more likely across the entire country.”

Unlike in Past, Moscow Seeks to Block Circassians in Russian Capital from Marking Genocide Anniversary

Staunton, VA, May 17, 2016 — For decades, Circassians have marked May 21 as a day of sorrow, the anniversary of their expulsion from Russia in 1864 and an event many view as an act of genocide.  Until recently, they did so only privately but beginning in 1989, they have held public ceremonies in the North Caucasus, and three years ago, began to do so in Moscow as well.

But unlike in 2014 and 2015, this year the Moscow authorities have turned them down, refusing several requests and explaining in some that this is because of scheduling conflicts. The Circassians are uncertain whether they believe what they are being told, but they are upset and fear this points to even more neglect of their issues and more repression of their activists.
However, it is entirely possible that Moscow will regret its action because it is likely to energize Circassians. As one pointed out, when officials in the North Caucasus tried to block such demonstrations, that only led more Circassians to take part in informal ones and to demand that their issues be addressed.
That Circassian pointedly added that the Circassians have carefully played by the rules in seeking permission for ceremonies and that “prohibitions on the carrying out of such measures will have just the opposite effect,” especially given that the Russian authorities now refuse to address Circassian issues as legitimate but instead cast them as the work of foreign forces.
Moscow and the Islamist Challenge: Three Disturbing Developments
Staunton, VA, May 16, 2016 – Three developments over the last few days – a clash in Dagestan that ISIS has taken responsibility for, Russian interest in an alliance with the Afghan Taliban, and Patriarch Kirill’s statement that Orthodox Christians and Muslims must stand together against the Christian West — raise some disturbing questions.

First, just as it has become obvious that the Kremlin is using anti-extremism legislation not against extremists but rather against its political opponents, so too it has become clear that the relationship between the Russian government and Islamist extremists is very different than Moscow insists and that many in the West accept.
Exactly what happened in Derbent over the weekend remains murky. The basic facts appear to be these: A squad of police, coming to arrest a group of militants who were suspected of murder, were fired upon. Two MVD officers were killed and 17 wounded, and the militants were “destroyed.”
The Islamic State (ISIS), a group Moscow has declared illegal in the Russian Federation, subsequently claimed responsibility for the actions of the militants, the third time that group has done so in the case of clashes between militants and the Russian authorities since the start of 2016.
Are the ISIS claims true? They are certainly plausible but not necessarily true: ISIS benefits by suggesting that it and no other group is behind such actions, even if the Islamic State has nothing to do with a particular action. But there is another question: are the claims of the Russian media about what happened true either? Again, they are plausible but not certain.
There are two reasons for having doubts. On the one hand, as Reuters recently documented, Moscow has been deeply involved with ISIS, providing radicals from within its borders with passports to go to Syria and elsewhere.
And on the other, as a Turkish analyst has pointed out, “it appears that ‘the ISIS threat’ is becoming a new instrument of Russian pressure not only in the Middle East and Turkey but also on post-Soviet countries,” including not least of all Azerbaijan, to restore Moscow’s control.
Organizing an action in Derbent which is close to the Azerbaijani border and then suggesting that ISIS was behind it would serve Moscow’s interests by suggesting that only a powerful military force could suppress this movement and that the countries of the South Caucasus are incapable of organizing such a force or using it in that way.
Given what Reuters reports and Moscow’s obvious strategy, the Turkish analyst says, “no one can guarantee that the special forces of the Russian Federation will not help these same ‘radicals’ to move into Azerbaijan and not continue to run them there as well.” Azerbaijan, he says, “should be prepared” for that eventuality.

Second, a Belarusian commentary on a statement by Zamira Kabulova, Moscow’s special representative for Afghanistan, suggests that Moscow is edging toward allying with the Taliban against ISIS not only to defeat terrorism but to help Moscow project influence in Central Asia.

In an analysis of the conclusions of Yury Tsarik of the Minsk Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Questions, Kseniya Kirillova, a US-based Russian commentator, says that it appears Moscow is now ready to drop its classification of the Taliban as a terrorist organization in order to secure its cooperation.

She suggests that Tsarik is building on the conclusions offered by two of his Minsk colleagues last October and that he like they have concluded that Moscow views any cooperation with the Taliban not strictly through a counter-terrorism lens but rather geopolitically.

Having close ties with that Afghan group may do little to combat ISIS, but Moscow can use these not only against the US and China but to promote the destabilization of Central Asia in order to compel the leaders of countries there to turn to Russia out of a sense that they have no other choice.

And third – and this may be the most important if longer term development of the three – Moscow Patriarch Kirill on a visit to the North Caucasus suggested that Orthodox Christians and Muslims share “a common understanding of Divine law,” one that puts them at odds with Western Christians.

The Russian church leader, in his closest approach to the Eurasianist ideas of Aleksandr Dugin that Vladimir Putin has sometimes drawn on, said that Western Christians had an “inauthentic” understanding of their faith and thus were failing to combat evil in the world. Indeed, they sometimes were promoting it.

“Many Christians in the West are forgetting their roots, re-thinking the bases of morality, justifying sin not only in their community but supporting sinful laws which justify sin,” Kirill continued. In Russia, in contrast, “nothing of the like is taking place” because the Orthodox and Muslims are not ready to live according to laws” which violate God’s will.

That common commitment, he concluded, means that with Russians, “there is a foundation for building a common life.” On the one hand, this statement reflects the demographic realities of Russia, a country where the Muslim majority is growing rapidly even as the Orthodox Russian is declining.

 on the other hand, Kirill’s words justify a kind of cooperation with Islam based on hostility to the West as such, something that calls into question the Kremlin’s oft-spoken commitment to a joint battle against Islamist extremists and may even open the way for Russian cooperation with them.