On Feb. 17, Russian media reported that 13 Russian servicemen were killed and 20 were wounded during five days of fighting in Chechnya's Nozhai-Yurt district and Dagestan's Kazbek district, in the republics' forested border area. The Russians were fighting three groups -- reportedly numbering in the dozens -- of Caucasus Emirate (CE) fighters. The attacks led to joint Russian, Chechen and Dagestani anti-militant operations.
Dagestan, the center of gravity for Caucasus militancy since early- to mid-2010, will need to be the focus of anti-militant efforts. However, the presence and possible use of Chechen forces in Dagestan could create a backlash because of the republics' historical enmity.
The fighting began Feb. 13 when an armed group and a village police patrol clashed in the forest near the village of Vedeno, Chechnya, near the Dagestani border. The next day, Russian Interior Ministry troops and Chechen forces cordoned the area and launched a search. Fighting continued Feb. 15-16 in the same area, and most of the nine killed and six injured Russian servicemen on those days were "elite special forces" personnel, according to Interfax. A clash also took place in Mutsalaul, Dagestan, where two militants were reportedly killed. In clashes on Feb. 17, two more Russian servicemen were killed and one was injured. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov claimed Feb. 17 that 20 militants were killed.
The violence is unusual, both because of the high number of Russian losses and because the casualties were not caused by a well-placed improvised explosive device but by continuous fighting. Although it could be attributed to heavy snow and the mountainous forest-covered terrain, the length of the anti-militant operation -- as well as its cross-border nature -- could indicate increased capabilities among the CE fighters despite the group's steady loss of leadership, including the Feb. 10 death of Dagestan "Governor" and "Emir" of the CE Dagestani Front, Ibragimkhalil Daudov, or "Emir Saleh."
The CE -- a loosely organized trans-regional insurgent group -- launched more than 60 percent of its attacks and other violence in 2011 in Dagestan. The group likely considers Dagestan an attractive venue because the same anti-militant measures Russia took in Chechnya have not been effective in Dagestan.
Toward the end of the Second Chechen War, Russia formed brigades of pro-Moscow Chechen fighters to combat the separatist militants. The Kremlin now depends greatly on these Chechen Brigades, comprised of approximately 40,000 soldiers, to keep the Chechen insurgency in check. The Kremlin tried to do the same in Dagestan, but since Dagestan is not as ethnically homogeneous as Chechnya, the Dagestani Brigades are not as strong or as effective as their Chechen counterparts.
Without a strong regional force in Dagestan, Russia has been using the Chechen Brigades -- a very risky strategy, given the historical tensions between Chechnya and Dagestan. Dagestanis consider Chechens problematic, as the Second Chechen War began in 1999 began when the Islamic International Brigade launched an invasion of Dagestan from Chechnya. Although the Chechen Brigades are Kremlin-orchestrated, insurgents (and even fighters in the Dagestani Brigades) do not welcome the idea of Chechen-led operations occurring in Dagestan.
Over the past year, counterinsurgency efforts in the Caucasus have been relatively successful -- casualties dropped from 1,710 in 2010 to 1,378 in 2011, according to the Kavkaz Uzel website. However, Chechen participation in the fight against militants in Dagestan could spark a different kind of conflict in the restive republic.
This article reprinted by permission of Stratfor.