For decades, Russians associated Islamist terrorism with Chechen separatists and the North Caucasus. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin can trace his rise to a counter-terrorism crackdown on Chechens perhaps aided, in part, by some false flag attacks on Moscow apartment buildings in September 1999. With the 11th anniversary of the Beslan school massacre nearing, the scars of Islamist terrorism in Russia remain fresh.
Increasingly, however, Chechnya, Daghestan, and other Russian-controlled but Muslim majority areas in the North Caucasus may be the least of Moscow’s concerns.
On May 27, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) released a new video featuring Gulmurod Halimov, commander of Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry Special Forces and a recipient of counterterrorism training in the United States. In the video, Halimov condemned the secular-oriented Tajikistan government and called on Muslims across Central Asia to join with the Islamic State.
Now, Tajikistan and the other Central Asian Republics have not been part of Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, but they remain largely in the Russian orbit and Russia considers republics like Tajikistan, where it deploys troops, to be its first line of defense in the fight against radical Islam rising up along its southern flank. If key, vetted leaders like Halimov can defect then so can anyone else in the region, especially given the noxious poverty, rampant corruption and persecution.
But it’s not just Central Asia. A large number of Tatars live in the Volga Basin, having long ago been displaced there. Some remained in the Crimea, where they originated, but, by invading and annexing the Crimea, Russia absorbed the remainder. Then, there’s the Bashkirs, who live in the Urals. Over the last decade or two, there’s been a revival of religious identity among the Tatars and Bashkirs, and an increasing tendency toward radicalization among a smaller proportion.
Demography, of course, is crucial. Fertility rates in Russia are falling, and Russia’s population is in decline despite the Kremlin’s efforts to bolster Christian immigration. (One-third of the Armenian population in the Republic of Armenia, for example, has migrated to the rusting factory towns of Siberia since Armenia’s independence, largely to replace Russians who have migrated away or died. But the Russian Muslim population continues to increase. Will that mean Russia will become Muslim? No. But given the coming youth bulge, this will impact the demographics of the Russian Army. So, here’s the nightmare situation for Russia:
- Poor governance and increased radicalization make Central Asian Republics vulnerable to Islamic State recruitment. Radicalism is nothing new in the area — think the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan — but the Islamic State provides a shot of adrenaline.
- A Muslim youth bulge against the backdrop of a stagnating economy and traditional Russian discrimination against its Muslim population benefits Islamic State recruitment in the heart of Russia, and not simply along the periphery.
- At the same time, the Muslim youth bulge will disproportionately impact the demographics of the Russian army. Already, at least ten percent of Russians are Muslim. If the proportion of conscripts reaches 20 percent Muslim, how might that impact the ability of the Russian army to put down Islamist-inspired insurgencies in the North Caucasus or elsewhere?
The Islamic State knows this, of course. Russia has a soft underbelly that the Islamic State will exploit. The tragedy is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has had well over a decade and a half to address some of the factors adding fuel to the fire but instead failed to effectively reform the economy and relied only on repression. He’s transformed Russia into a pressure cooker. Pressure cookers explode; they don’t bring long-term stability. Perhaps the era of apartment building explosions is not over; it may be just beginning.