Russia May Use North Caucasians for Hybrid Warfare in Central Asian and European Conflicts

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Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 178

On September 30, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on the fall 2014 Russian military draft. The government is expected to draft 154,100 men, the same number as in the spring 2014 draft campaign. The Russian laws on the draft will be extended to newly-annexed Crimea in 2015, making residents of the peninsula effectively Russian subjects. The unusual feature of the latest military call up is that the draft is being conducted in Chechnya for the first time. Indeed, 500 young men will become Russian army conscripts this year (ITAR-TASS, September 30). 

To a large extent, the Russian army still relies on one-year compulsory service to fill its ranks, although the professional military forces have expanded significantly. About 300,000 men are drafted every year. Russian experts have voiced concern about the exclusion of North Caucasians from the draft, arguing that it could potentially lead to the region’s separation from Russia. At the same time, the Russian military was unhappy about the low discipline among North Caucasian servicemen. Many reports suggested North Caucasians were prone to hazing ethnic Russians in the military units. The presence of North Caucasians in the Russian army also raised security concerns, as militant Islamic ideology spread among the young population of this volatile region. Ethnic Chechens were practically excluded from the Russian military draft after 1992, and the rest of the North Caucasians gradually followed the suit in 2009. In 2012–2013, the practice of excluding all North Caucasians from compulsory military service spread to all republics of the North Caucasus and beyond. Wherever non-ethnic-Russian North Caucasians resided, they were excluded from military service.

The situation has changed dramatically since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, and with the fall 2014 conscription campaign, the draft was reintroduced in the North Caucasus. Russia’s Ministry of Defense plans to draft more than 5,600 men from the North Caucasus republics this fall. In addition to the 500 men from Chechnya, Dagestan is expected to supply 2,000 conscripts, Kabardino-Balkaria is to send 600 men, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Ingushetia each will provide 500 men (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 2). North Ossetia is expected to send 1,500 men to serve in the Russian armed forces (region15.ru, October 2).

The conscription targets for the volatile Northeast Caucasus republics are still relatively low. North Ossetia, for example, is a relatively stable republic with a majority non-Muslim population of about 700,000 and low birth rates, and is expected to supply about 1,500 conscripts. While Dagestan, a violent republic with a majority Muslim population, high birth rates and a population of nearly three million people, is expected to supply only 2,000 conscripts.

Still despite these relatively low numbers, the North Caucasus republics supply a large aggregate number of servicemen—about 10,000 men per year. Some Russian experts say Russia’s recent conflicts with Ukraine and Georgia demonstrated that North Caucasian soldiers are an essential supplement for the Russian army. “Russia must be ready to fight a full-scale war in two different military theaters at a minimum—in Europe and in Central Asia,” Alexander Sobyanin told the Lenta.ru website. Another expert, Yuri Shevtsov, told the website: “Islamic State [formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—ISIS] is a serious signal. The situation in countries strategically important to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union, including the border with Ukraine, the South Caucasus and several regions of Central Asia, may rapidly deteriorate. The Russian Federation needs soldiers that can fight in Asia. Chechens are exactly those.” According to Shevtsov, Chechens proved themselves completely loyal Russian citizens in the conflicts in South Ossetia and in Ukraine, so the extension of conscription to Chechnya was a logical step (lenta.ru, October 1).

It is unclear whether Chechens are particularly well suited to fight in wars in states bordering Russia or if Moscow simply needs more soldiers. According to Sobyanin, the Russian government is exploring the possibility of granting Russian citizenship to citizens of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan who are willing and capable to serve in the Russian armed forces (lenta.ru, October 1).

The Russian leadership may believe that the reputation of Chechens as fearless fighters will help the army in its planning for war in neighboring countries. The North Caucasians, including the Chechens, will also give a significant boost to the Russian military’s personnel figures. Chechens may be especially suitable for Russian military plans if Moscow continues to use the so-called tactic of “hybrid war,” which mixes guerilla tactics with conventional military warfare and an intense propaganda effort to mislead the public about the real events on the ground. The changing political landscape in and around Russia has apparently impacted the Russian leadership’s attitude toward the place of North Caucasians in the Russian army.