Domodevo and the Chechen Conflict

27 January 2011

Representatives of the Chechen Muslim community

While no group has yet claimed responsibility, the Domodevo bombing earlier this week appears to demonstrate the continued ability of Chechen separatists to strike terror deep in the heart of Russia. Largely overlooked by commentators, however, is the resource driving the 16-year old conflict: oil.

By John CK Daly for ISN Insights

The explosion that tore through Moscow’s Domodedovo airport‘s international arrivals hall and killed 35 people and injured more than 150 was the suspected work of a suicide bomber. No individual or group has claimed responsibility for the act, which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev labeled a terrorist attack, vowing to find those responsible. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vowed “retribution” for those responsible and US President Barack Obama also condemned the “outrageous act of terrorism.”

Domodedovo is a highly symbolic target, as it handles more passengers and cargo than any other airport in Russia – more than 22 million passengers annually. Domodedovo hosts 77 airlines, many of them international.

The attacks are a direct assault on the ‘tough guy’ image that Putin, a former KGB operative, has carefully nurtured. And the grim death toll is widely expected to contribute yet another statistic to the Kremlin’s ongoing war with Chechen separatists that erupted in December 1994. While no one has yet formally claimed responsibility for the attack, Russian authorities have linked the assault with the North Caucasus.

Driving the savagery of the last 16 years is a resource that few commentators note – oil. Putin’s first job when appointed prime minister on 9 August 1999 by President Boris Yeltsin was to build an oil pipeline bypassing Chechyna, as Transneft, Russia’s pipeline monopoly, controlled the Baku-Novorossiisk line, the sole export route for Azerbaijani “early” oil exports, which crossed 95 miles of Chechen territory. Following Putin’s appointment, Yeltsin held a council of war over Dagestan and Putin made a rash promise that he could end a crisis caused by the incursion of 2,000 rebels from Chechnya into Dagestan in “a week and a half or two weeks.”

Work began on the bypass line on 26 October 1999. The conflict combined with other issues reduced Azeri exports via Baku-Novorossiisk in early 2000 to an average of only 10,000 barrels per day (bpd). In April 2000 construction finished on the $140 million, 204-mile Baku-Novorossiisk bypass via Dagestan to Tikhoretsk, with a potential capacity of 120,000 bpd.

Opening a can of worms

Putin has made it a centerpiece of his policy to resolve Chechnya once and for all, but the issues go back to the December 1991 collapse of the USSR. When the first Chechen war erupted in 1994, many foreign observers were baffled as to why Moscow, which had peacefully let the Soviet Union implode, was so determined to hang on to Chechnya, a small poor mountainous region in the Caucasus measuring only 30 by 70 miles.

Oil greased the equation from the outset. The post-Soviet development of the Caspian’s vast reserves of oil and natural gas quickly became Russia’s fixation, with an ever increasing importance as the rest of the post-Soviet economy withered. Energy was the one export that the Russian Federation could still produce that was guaranteed an international market, and its importance has only risen with time.

In May 2007 the US Energy Information Administration projected that by 2015, Caspian basin energy production could reach 4.3 million bpd in addition to the region’s proven reserves of 17-49 billion barrels. Russia was determined to hang on to as much of this largesse as possible. An independent Chechnya could not only lead to a loss of revenue from the republic’s modest oil production and ruin plans to extract transit fees for Azeri “early oil,” but could result in a potentially significant loss of Caspian reserves once the sea’s waters and seabed were divided.

The demise of the USSR opened up a can of worms over the Caspian’s legal status, previously regulated under the USSR-Persia Treaty of 26 February 1921 and the 25 March 1940 USSR-Iran Treaty. In place of the USSR and Iran there were now five Caspian littoral states – Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan and wrangling began immediately over the Caspian’s division.

Two opposing positions quickly developed – Russia insisted that the Caspian’s waters and seabed should be divided according to coastal length, while Iran held out for an equitable 20 percent division for each of the five littoral states. Under the Russian formula, Azerbaijan, with 259.1 miles of coastline, would receive 15.2 percent of the Caspian’s waters and seabed, Iran with 319.1 miles of coast – 18.7 percent. Kazakhstan, with 526.4 miles of coastline, would receive the largest share, 30.8 percent of the Caspian, leaving Russia with its 315 miles of shore at 18.5 percent of the Caspian, and Turkmenistan’s 285.4 miles of coast giving it a 16.8 percent share. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan soon supported the Kremlin’s stance, while Turkmenistan under its mercurial, megalomaniacal leader Sapamurat Niyazov wavered between Moscow and Tehran.

The two Chechen wars threatened to tear Moscow’s proposal apart. After the first Chechen war erupted in 1994 and began to spill over into neighboring Dagestan, a number of the more militant Chechen guerrillas like Shamil Basayev eventually declared their intention to create a unitary northern Caucasian Chechen-Dagestani Muslim state. Chechnya and Dagestan were poorer than the rest of Russia, and Dagestan, though home to a mosaic of ethnic groups, was predominantly Muslim. While the August 1996 Khasavyurt Accord led to a truce ending the first Chechen war, it would be shattered three years later.

Upping the ante

Much had changed in the interim, including US penetration of Azerbaijan’s and Kazakhstan’s energy sectors. Russia was clearly losing the battle to develop Caspian energy, and an independent Chechen-Dagestani state would make Moscow’s position untenable and hence had to be stopped at any cost. Upping the ante, in 1998 Bassayev publicly joined the Wahhabi movement even though Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, himself a Muslim, had no intention of turning his nation into a strict Islamic state.

In justifying his 1999 incursion into Dagestan Basayev said, “Our Muslim brothers from Dagestan have asked us for help, and it is our duty to help them,” adding, “Our first and foremost task here is to help protect our Muslim brothers from being exterminated by both the Russians and the puppet government of Dagestan.” Under Russia’s own definition of future division of the Caspian offshore waters and seabed, supported by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and to a lesser extent Turkmenistan, as opposed to Iran’s formulation, Dagestan, with its 249 miles of Caspian coast if measured independently of Chechnya, would have pared Russia’s shoreline nearly back to the Volga delta, leaving it a paltry 66 miles of coastline and would shrink its offshore share under Moscow’s own formula by four-fifths, from 18.5 to 3.92 percent. Hence, Russia’s determination to triumph in the Caucasus, whatever the cost.

After Basayev in 1999 launched guerilla raids into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan which Putin vowed to crush, Maskhadov was forced to finally condemn Bassayev by name but did not move to arrest or prosecute him. The raids into Dagestan were followed by a series of explosions that hit four apartment blocks in the Russian cities of Buynaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk in August 1999, killing 293 people and injuring 651, which prompted Putin’s government to invade Chechnya for a second time.

It was a war that showed no mercy. In a classic example of guerrilla asymmetric warfare, Basayev repeatedly struck deep into Russia, far from Chechnya, echoing the IRA’s campaign slogan that a bomb in London was worth 1,000 in Belfast. Among the earlier atrocities perpetuated by Basayev was the June 1995 armed takeover of a hospital in the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk, with 1,500 people held hostage, 166 of whom died when Russian troops stormed the building, and the September 2004 seizure of a school in Beslan, in the southern Russian republic of North Ossetia, where Basayev’s men took some 1,000 adults and children hostage. After Russian security forces stormed the school, more than 330 people, half of them children, died. Basayev’s fighters also took their terror campaign to Moscow; in October 2002 they took 700 people hostage in Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater. In the ensuing attack by Russian special forces, 129 hostages and 41 guerrillas were killed.

Maskhadov, the last legitimate president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, elected in an internationally monitored election in 1997, was killed on 8 March 2005, in a village just outside the capital Grozny, and Basayev was killed on 10 July 2006. Even journalists were not immune to the far-reaching conflict – Anna Politkovskaya, who fearlessly covered the Chechen conflict, was murdered outside her home in Moscow in October 2006. Russia only ended its counter-terrorism operation and pulled out the bulk of its army from Chechnya in April 2009.

In perhaps the most ominous legacy of the Chechen conflict, on 23 November 1995 Basayev directed a Russian television news crew to a 32-kilogram package of cesium – 137 buried in Izmailovskii Park in eastern Moscow, while after the 2002 Moscow theater siege, Ahmed Zakayev stated that Chechen militants would seize a nuclear facility.

It is the stuff to give security specialists nightmares worldwide. What is clear about the Domodedovo bombing is that it has bruised Russia’s reputation as a safe haven for investment, which Medvedev is no doubt hearing at the Davos economic summit.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in 15 years of conflict in Chechnya, and it would seem, judging by Domodedovo, that the bloodshed will not stop any time soon. The days of Chechen militants fighting the Russian army to a standstill in the ruins of Grozny are gone, but their ability to continue to strike terror far from their Caucasian homeland alas, is not.

Dr John CK Daly is a non-resident Fellow at Johns Hopkins Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, DC.

Read more:

Domodevo and the Chechen Conflict.


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