During the early years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union made a great push to reach out to the developing world, and particularly to the Middle East and Asia. It established particularly close ties with Nasser’s Egypt and later with Syria, but didn’t do so well with others; the Chinese leadership in particular doubted whether the USSR really empathised with the Global South and its anti-colonial struggle. Russia, it argued, was essentially a former colonial power, or at the very least a white European country incapable of understanding the developing world’s problems.
Moscow duly tried to prove the opposite by cultivating its own “eastern” identity. It sent its “easterners” on conspicuous missions abroad: Armenians and Azerbaijanis worked in solidarity committees and friendship societies, while Uzbeks and Tajiks served as ambassadors in the Middle East or played a key role as soldiers during the invasion of Afghanistan.
These plans to win over Middle Eastern and Asian allies were rendered moot when the USSR crumbled. But today, Russia’s push to claim an eastern identity seems to be underway once again – and nowhere more so than in Syria.
As media attention has shifted to efforts to oust the so-called Islamic State from its Syrian stronghold, Raqqa, the Syrian regime is struggling to govern the areas of Syria it has recaptured with the help of Russia and other backers. Particularly troublesome is Aleppo, the country’s largest city and former business hub, which was brought back under Damascus’s full control in December 2016. Enter Russia, whose help has already turned the tide in the Syrian regimes’s favour.
Russian military police are now helping to beef up security in Aleppo and other areas. They are drawn in part from the Russian Northern Caucasus, in particular from the predominantly Muslim republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia. In December 2016, a Chechen battalion was dispatched to Aleppo, returning from its tour in March 2017; in February 2017, Ingushetia sent a group of soldiers to provide security to Russian military facilities. Finally, in April, another detachment of Chechen troops boarded a plane to Syria, deemed to stay there until August.
To listen to the state-backed media, this would seem like proof that Russia’s “eastern” identity is as self-assured as ever. Outlets such as RT stress that these military policemen are particularly welcomed in Syria, where they are supposedly greeted as fellow Sunni Muslims, while Russian experts claim that they can more easily empathise and communicate with the local community.
While there might be some truth to these claims, there are rather “harder” interests behind Russia’s Syrian strategy – both on the side of the federal government in Moscow and on the side of the Caucasian republics involved.
Quid pro quo
The Syrian conflict is not overly popular in Russia. Ever since Russian troops directly intervened, media coverage at home has been huge, with every effort made to portray the intervention as a humanitarian and anti-terrorist mission. But at best, the Russian public is largely uninterested – and apathy could quickly sour into outright opposition if a significant number of Russian lives were lost on the ground.
Sending military forces from the peripheral republics minimises this risk. Most Russians see the republics and their populations as a huge social, political, and economic burden; if Chechen or Ingush lives were lost, this would hardly have an effect on public opinion in Moscow or St. Petersburg.
The republics also have something special to offer: experienced troops who have operated before in theatres characterised by terrorist threats and are particularly well prepared for the Syrian arena. On top of this, as political scientist Aleksey Makarkin told Russian business channel RBK, both Chechnya and Ingushetia are desperate to attract and keep Russia’s attention. Being among the poorest republics, they badly need central government support, especially since the Kremlin has increasingly diverted funds to Crimea.
But there’s something else going on, too – and Chechnya in particular has specific interests in mind.
Playing it safe
As Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported, it seems the Chechen government’s military strategy includes an element of retribution: the soldiers it’s sending to the Middle East to join the pro-regime effort are drawn from families who have already seen a member leave to fight on the other side.
One military commander seemed to back this up in an ambiguous TV interview: while highlighting the all-Russian and multi-faith identity of his troops, he also stressed that they were sent to Syria to redeem the Chechens’ reputation.
In effect, the republic has its own small foreign policy, and so long as it sticks mostly to Moscow’s line, both parties have something to gain: Russia can use Chechnya’s semi-independent operations to open a second diplomatic channel to the wider Middle East, while Chechnya can strengthen its position vis-a-vis the central government and Middle Eastern countries, and improve its status among disdainful Russians. In one recent PR stunt, Chechen diplomacy helped to free a Russian girl held by Turkish authorities after she attempted to cross into Syria.
Whether all this will pay off for Russia, its republics, and Syria remains to be seen. While Russian military police might have strengthened security for now, Aleppo is still under the sway of various militias and paramilitaries, who’ve filled the void left by regular armed forces when they moved on to Syria’s other front lines. The Damascus government is stepping up its efforts to crack down on these groups, but they remain a problem.
The Russian discourse around these police missions bears a remarkable resemblance to the Soviet Union’s approach to the Middle East, including its exploitation of Soviet Muslims to pursue its goals there. As in the past, rather than an exuberant embrace of an eastern identity, this is a political manoeuvre.
In contrast to Soviet times, however, the republics are pursuing their own agendas much more openly, especially Chechnya, which genuinely fosters a Muslim identity under the leadership of Ramzan Kadyrov. Still, for Russia as a whole and for Chechnya in particular, what looks like a geopolitical play for other countries’ sympathies or mere identity politics is in fact a matter of dicey domestic considerations.