Staunton, July 24 – ISIS is “not the disorganized Ukrainian army of the time of the annexation of Crimea,” Vitaly Portnikov says. Rather, “it is a strong group of fanatics who are ready to fight with Putin using Putin’s methods and to compete with the Russian president in terms of cruelty.”
And because the Islamic State has succeeded by moving into areas where it senses weakness as it clearly does in the case of the North Caucasus, the Ukrainian analyst continues, “Russia will lose this territory” after a horrific struggle that will make the fighting in Syria and Iraq look like child’s play (grani.ru/opinion/portnikov/m.243093.html).
In a commentary today, Portnikov notes that “’the Islamic State’ has declared about the creation of its province in the Russian North Caucasus and even assigned Abu Muhammad al-Qadari as the ruler of this territory.” That has struck some as an absurdity, but “not long ago, no one could imagine” over just how much territory ISIS would spread its influence and control.
“In order to understand the secret of the success of ‘the Islamic State,” he argues, “one should direct one’s attention to the places where the group has control. These are territories where the situation is unclear, where poverty, the lack of prospects, social depression and the corruption of the authorities” are widespread.
Many in the Kremlin he says believe that the situation in the North Caucasus – “and above all Chechnya” – is really under control. Ramzan Kadyrov is “’effectively’” running it, “Kadyrov is devoted to Putin,” and “so what else is necessary?” But that is to seriously misread the situation, Portnikov says.
What is needed, he suggests, is for the residents of the North Caucasus to “feel themselves interested in Russia as [a loving] mother rather and not as an [evil] stepmother.” They need to feel that the conflicts in their republics have ended. They need to feel that they are not cut off “from the rest of Russia” by border posts and counter-terrorist operations.
But Moscow did not draw that lesson from its wars in Chechnya. Instead, it filled up the region with its special forces and assumed they could control the situation. “Putin’s Russia is not Yeltsin’s Russia; no one is going to stand on ceremony,” and the people of the region know even as they also know what a terrible position they have been left in.
Imagine, Portnikov says, how they will react to the arrival of well-organized groups of militants from the outside with slogans of a return to ‘pure Islam’ and to a normal life for all and not only for a clutch of corrupt officials who serve the Russian authorities.” Does anyone really believe that “these slogans in fact will not find supporters in the North Caucasus?”
ISIS understands this because, the Ukrainian analyst says, it has “the ability characteristic of fanatics of sensing weakness;” and in the North Caucasus, Russia’s position with the population is far weaker than many in Moscow and elsewhere imagine. Given that and given the willingness of both ISIS and Putin to employ brutal methods, the future there is likely to be ugly.