Fighting along the border between the Russian Caucasus republics of Chechnya and Dagestan continued Feb. 18-19. Pro-jihadist news website Kavkaz Center reported that the bodies of nine policemen were delivered to the morgue in Khasavyurtskiy, Dagestan, on Feb. 17. However, Russian authorities have only raised the security forces death toll to 17 from the 13 previously reported Feb. 17.
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov announced Feb. 17 that despite the heavy losses, the ongoing operation to eliminate three militant groups in the area was a success. However, Kavkaz Center reported that militants broke through a Russian encirclement Feb. 19 near the town of Endirey, Dagestan, after two days of fighting there. It is unclear if this maneuver was part of a cessation of operations or a security lapse. Difficult terrain and inclement weather certainly are factors in the operations; steep elevation grades, subfreezing temperatures and high humidity create difficult fighting conditions.
Russian media reported Feb. 17 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. But 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 began 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.
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 these unusual developments could be attributed to heavy snow and the mountainous forest-covered terrain, the length of the anti-militant operation and 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 the Dagestan "Governor" and "Emir" of the CE Dagestani Front, Ibragimkhalil Daudov, or "Emir Saleh."
The CE, a loosely organized transregional 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, which consist 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, since the Second Chechen War began in 1999 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.