The North Caucasus region of Russia faces perennial instability, with violence occurring on a regular basis in places like Chechnya and Dagestan. Despite the challenges this area poses to Moscow, it is a long-standing geopolitical imperative for Russia to control the North Caucasus.
The North Caucasus consists of the republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygea. Unlike the South Caucasus states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, this area remained part of Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Geographically, the North Caucasus is part of the transcontinental Caucasus zone, sandwiched between the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east. The Russian steppe lies to the north, with the highlands of Asia Minor to the south. Internally, the region is dominated by the Greater Caucasus mountain range. The high, rugged terrain creates pockets of ethnic and linguistic groups, with over 40 such groups within Dagestan alone.
The Caucasus serves as a key defensive buffer for Russia, protecting against Islamic powers like Turkey and Iran to the south. But the region has historically been difficult for Russia to subdue. As the Russian empire expanded it began wresting control of the Northern Caucasus from the Persians and Ottomans in the 18th century. There was fierce resistance to Russian rule, which was seen by locals as another external occupier.
In the Soviet period, Josef Stalin addressed this issue by drawing administrative zones to make consolidation by any ethnic group difficult. Stalin also deported large numbers of people from the North Caucasus to Central Asia and Siberia. Reforms of the Soviet system in the 1980s allowed many of these populations to return to their homelands, but this led to nationalist stirrings similar to those spreading across many of the Soviet republics in this period. However, there was a key difference - under the Soviet constitution, republics had the right to declare independence, but autonomous regions within republics (such as Chechnya) could not.
This led to numerous conflicts in the early post-Soviet era, particularly in Chechnya. Russia fought two wars in Chechnya in the 1990s as it sought to break off and create an independent state. These wars, which began out of nationalist and separatist aspirations, eventually took on a religious element as well. Chechnya, as well as the neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, has a majority Muslim population. The wars with the Orthodox Russians led to a growing religiosity and extremism and attracted the participation of local and foreign jihadists, as well as the material and ideological support from outside powers like Saudi Arabia.
Russia quelled Chechen secessionists, mainly by exploiting internal divisions within Chechnya between nationalists and Islamists by installing nationalist clans into power. However, this did not eliminate violence within Chechnya nor its neighboring republics. Islamist groups attempted to consolidate and pool their resources, with the aim of establishing a caliphate across the North Caucasus. They began using insurgent and terrorist tactics in the region and in Russia proper.
While these separatist groups have largely been sidelined in the last decade by a Russian security crackdown on their leaders, the North Caucasus continues to see violence and attacks against Russian or local security forces on a regular basis. Islamist militancy, regional tensions and clan feuds are not easily addressed in a region difficult to control. The North Caucasus is therefore bound to continue to pose political and security challenges for Russia, just as it has throughout history.