The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Russia’s Nightmare and the Danger of Abandoning Assad

Russia has long struggled with Islamic (and other) terrorists in the Caucasus. President Vladimir Putin promised to eradicate terror networks and separatists movements as he rose to power in 1999 and 2000, and ever since then he’s been ruthless in targeting enemies of the state. The days of hostage crises and apartment block bombings are gone, but danger, still lurking in the mountains of the Caucasus, is expanding to other parts of Russia too.

LA Times:

A senior Muslim cleric was killed and another seriously injured in what appeared to be coordinated attacks Thursday in central Russia’s Tatarstan republic.

Valiulla Yakupov, the Islamic chief ideologue in the predominantly Muslim region, was shot by gunmen several times about 10 a.m. as he was leaving his home, officials said…

About 15 minutes later, a bomb went off under the car of the region’s Islamic leader, Mufti Ildus Faizov, who was injured when he was thrown out of the vehicle by the blast.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the blasts. Accusations nonetheless are being leveled at two groups: Islamic radicals, who might have been unhappy with the moderate, state-supported Islam espoused by Yakupov and Faizov; or Russian criminals with their eyes on lucrative Hajj pilgrimage contracts proffered to Russian Muslims. Perhaps both groups worked together. The authorities don’t know yet.

Still, as the smoke clears, a few things are coming to light. Someone is killing Russia’s pro-government, moderate, Muslim clerics. The LA Times continues:

“The latest attack — the way it was implemented — certainly looks as if the fire from the North Caucasus is coming up here already,” [Alexei] Malashenko [an expert on Islam at the Moscow Carnegie Center] said in an interview. “But I also have a strong fear that if the state comes out to crack down on such communities in Tatarstan in full force, it may result in a backlash of violence that should be avoided by all means.”

Also clear is that these pro-government clerics are well connected and are corruptly selling Hajj permits.

“Tatarstan Muslim leaders tightly control the holy hajj quotas issued to Tatarstan for Mecca travels, and there is so much money involved in it,” said Maxim Shevchenko, a television anchor and expert on Islam. “There are so many powerful organized crime groups in Tatarstan that I wouldn’t be surprised that some of them would want to get their cut of it too.”

This means that if the radicals arrive in force, they will have an easy time convincing people that the state sanctioned clerics are unworthy leaders — especially because dating back to the Soviet era, government approved clerics of all faiths have been willing tools of the state. That President Putin comes out of the KGB is lost on no one in Russia, and you don’t have to be a paranoid conspiracy-monger to speculate on continuing ties between the state and powerful clerics.

Part of Putin’s support for Assad comes from fear that if religious extremists win in Syria, or if chaos allows them to develop bases and networks, fighters, money and other things will start moving through the mountainous regions into Russia itself. The “Sunni surge” sweeping the Middle East threatens Russia through the Caucasus and through Central Asia.

No matter how you look at it, this situation is troubling. From Syria to the Caucasus to Tatarstan and Moscow, radical Sunnism is a force the Russian authorities cannot ignore. But it is easier to recognize the danger than to fight it effectively, and nothing the Kremlin has tried so far has had much success.

Published on July 21, 2012 2:00 pm
  • Rich K

    Considering the raging success of the earlier afghany campaign Im not surprised at this result.Thugs against thugs rarely end up more than just stalemate and a divide of the present spoils avaliable..

  • David R. Graham

    The clerics and scholars are the head of the snake.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    What comes around, goes around. The Soviet Union sponsored all kinds of terrorists and insurgents during the Cold War. Now they are on the receiving end of it.

  • Conrad Chu

    Have you considered the flip-side of the situation? Fighting international terrorism is the one thing the US, China, and Russia could get behind – particularly if it threatens to occur inside or on one’s border.

    Unlike the American way of treating terrorism as a criminal issue, Russia and China treat it as threats to their nation. For someone like Putin who wants to put back together the Soviet Union allowing terrorists to grow on his borders gives him a casus belli to invade neighboring states who can’t deal with the problem and absorb them into the new Russian State. Neither China for America can gainsay their actions in response to terrorism, but, could and would if Russia sought to expand their borders by force.

    It is a long play, but, practically speaking it is the best way Putin has for reassembling the Soviet Union while the west just watches – so let the terrorists come. They’ll face a new Russia which may have learned from past mistakes.

  • gringojay

    Heard Russia’s replacement population rate is low and skewed to favor muslim children. This means the more western identifying Russians are going to be a minority.
    Putin would have to call in Cuban soldiers in order to have enough bodies to throw against the home grown Russian islamists martyrs. Maybe the Syrian govts. do or die stance is supported for being Putin’s experimental adventure to see how best to act in a violent civil strife with islamists.
    For now he’s just considering options to deal with what comes out of those killings of moderate muslims. If Syrian chemical weapons get used on opposition strongholds to
    force the civil war to a close I think Russia will provide international cover for the action(s) – since Putin may one day wish to resort to something similar.

  • RebeccaH

    Welcome to Dar al-Harb, Russia.

  • http://thevailspot.blogspot.com Rich Vail

    I’ve always been a big fan of T. Roo’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick” school of diplomacy. It’s just too bad that we abandoned that with James Earl Carter. If you can find out where these people from…go to their whole village and massacre them ALL. Eventually, they’ll get the message. The Soviets did that in the late 1970′s in Lebanon…it’s a something we should consider now.

  • teapartydoc

    In Africa the Hajj trips were subsidized by children. The pilgrim would take one of his kids with him and the kid wouldn’t come back. Sold to an Arab.

  • Mick The Reactionary

    @gringojay:

    “Heard Russia’s replacement population rate is low and skewed to favor muslim children. This means the more western identifying Russians are going to be a minority.”

    It’s too bad the clown from whom you have -heard- that factoid did not tell you when it is going to happen. Is 2095 too early for you?

    On this blog only the master is allowed to ignore hard data and speculate wildly. Commenters could and must do better.

  • Michael Richard Flannery

    Russia’s conscript non-commissioned army is slated to be majority muslim somewhere around 2020. Is that soon enough for you?

    [pointless hostility deleted]

  • Richard Aubrey

    How soon the Third of the Three Conjectures comes along depends in part on the humanity of the nation/national leader in question.

  • Eurydice

    It sounds like something the rest of the world can’t ignore, either. If Russia and its ex-protectorates become hotbeds of extremism, how does that fit into the War On Terror? – dropping troops and lobbing drones won’t be so easy.

  • Sergey

    Most moslems in Russia and former central Asia republics of USSR are not Sunni, they are Sufi. And all official (government approved) moslem clerics are Sufi, too. Sunni Islam of Wahhabi variety is funded from abroad, mostly by KSA, and fuels terrorism everywhere, Russia included. So all underground mosques are lead by extremists trying to subvert official clergy.