Recent headlines have introduced us to Ruzana Ibragimova, a potential terrorist from Dagestan, who, along with other militants, seeks to instill fear and embarrass President Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Olympic Games. According to Russia expert Lisa Baglione, Ph.D., chair and professor of political science at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, this violence has its roots in the two-decades-old conflict between Russia and Chechnya, which, like Dagestan, is a federal subject of Russia located in the North Caucasus.
“In 1991, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, Chechens sought their own state, but Russian officials ignored Chechnya’s assertion of its statehood,” says Baglione. “Then, late in 1994, President Yeltsin ordered the territory’s invasion with the goal of reintegrating it into Russia. Yeltsin was shocked at the Chechen determination to maintain its freedom, which was remarkable, as were the inadequacies of the Russian forces.”
After fighting for 20 months, the sides agreed to a cease-fire, Baglione notes, but during the conflict, jihadists came to Chechnya’s aid, leaving the territory awash in weapons and combatants amid a devastated economy. Violence and lawlessness prevailed, and local jihadists organized and raised money through kidnappings, extortion and other illegal activities.
“By the late 1990s, the jihadists had begun incursions into other Russian territories (like Dagestan, Ingushetia and beyond), and ultimately, in the summer of 1999, President Yeltsin, this time with his brand new prime minister — the virtually unknown Vladimir Putin — chose to prosecute another war, which was even more brutal than the first,” Baglione says. With the Russian military flattening the capital and destroying anything of value in Chechnya, Putin used this military success to vault to the height of political power.
The roots of today’s terrorists are in those two wars and the continuing violence, lawlessness and the strong sense of grievance among many in this region, Baglione notes.
“Fighters have been willing to take their conflict to the heart of Moscow, as illustrated by the attacks on the Dubrovka Theater (2002), the Moscow Metro (2010), and the horrific torching of an elementary school (2004),” says Baglione. “And while the UN says this terrorist group has ties to al Qaeda, it’s important to remember that Russian policy has been brutal and ineffective, leading to a hopelessness that helps create the suicide bombers — like Ruzana Ibragimova —whom the world now fears is targeting the Olympic Games.”