Morale: Who Do You Trust


October 24, 2022: There was a violent incident between new Russian recruits on October. Men recently mobilized were on a firing range when two Moslem recruits opened fire on the Slavic (ethnic Russians) recruits and killed eleven and wounded fifteen before they were killed. The two shooters were Moslem and sought to avoid hitting other Moslem troops. About ten percent of the men “mobilized” for army service during late September were Moslem. Currently about 20 percent of the Russian population consists of ethnic minorities, most of them Moslem. These “Russians” do not want to die for Russia or even live in Russia. Many Moslems were conquered and incorporated in the Russian empire over the last few centuries. Most of them formed their own nations when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. There was still a significant minority of Moslems remaining and most would prefer to be anywhere but Russia. During World War II the percentage of Moslems in combat units was low early in the war because Russia did not trust large groups of armed Moslems. In the closing months of the war, most Moslem, and often non-Slavic, troops were found in combat units. Slavic troops had made up most of the combat troops until then but by the end of 1944 the army had to replace losses with Moslem troops. The loyalty of these non-Slav troops was assured by the fact the Russians were winning and about to enter Germany, where all the troops were allowed to loot and rape civilians when they weren’t killing the few remaining German troops. After 1945 the Russian army returned to its policy of keeping most non-Slav men out of combat units. There were plenty of support units where Moslem recruits could safely (for Slavic troops) serve out their conscription service. This discrimination against non-Slav soldiers continued after the Soviet Union dissolve but there were some changes.

In 2014 Russia changed its mind about keeping young men from the Caucasus out of the military. In a surprise move the Russian army announced that it would allow young men from the Caucasus to volunteer for military service and be conscripted as well. This had been promised at the end of 2012 but nothing happened, until the end of March announcement. Why the change?

The Caucasus is one of the few places in Russia where a lot of the young men want to join the military. That’s because while conscription is generally unpopular in Russia, there are some areas where mandatory military service is seen as an opportunity, not something to be avoided. Yet young men in Chechnya have not been subject to conscription since 1992, even though the Chechens generally did quite well in the military. The Russian Army no longer wanted them after 1991 because that’s when Chechnya went into rebellion and the attitudes of young Chechen men changed. Chechen recruits had always been a lot of trouble for their commanders and in the early 1990s that got worse as many began to claim they were devout Moslems and demanded that the army provide them with special (halal) food, prayer rooms in the barracks, and extra time off for prayer. The usual punishments (beatings or even imprisonment) did not faze the Chechens. If beaten by NCOs or other soldiers, they would get organized to eventually inflict retribution. If sent to prison the misbehaving recruits would join groups of Chechen prisoners who tended to rule the prisons they were in and were often feared by the guards.

After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the Russian military simply stopped trying to draft Chechens or accept them as volunteers. Those who wanted to serve had to take up legal residency in some other part of Russia and be able to get a good conduct reference from local police before the recruiters would accept them. After 2010 the provincial government in Chechnya instituted their own conscription (which is technically illegal) where those young Chechens who wanted to serve could do so in two special military units that only operated in Chechnya. Less than two hundred men were involved initially and local army commanders were willing to cooperate (or too scared to refuse). The national government tried to reinstate conscription for Chechnya in 2001, but that effort ended after the few recruits taken proved to be as troublesome as ever and were released from the military. The provincial battalions proved to be a success and that played a part in allowing Chechens back into the regular army.

There are similar, but less severe, problems with two neighbors of Chechnya (Dagestan and Ingushetia), so starting in 2009 fewer and fewer people were drafted there either. Most of the people in these two areas are not ethnic Chechens but they have some of the same bad attitude and behavior problems. Most other ethnic groups in the Caucasus (Ossetians, Adygeans, Kabardians, Cherkess, Balkars, and Karachays) continue to be conscripted or allowed to volunteer for military service. Now everyone is, except for those with criminal records or connections with known Islamic terrorists. Dagestan and Ingushetia pointed out that there were many loyal and effective Moslems in the local security forces and this helped get the military ban rescinded.

The army has long had reasons for not wanting recruits from some parts of the Caucasus. Even before 1991, the Russian dominated army warned company (units of about a hundred troops) commanders to not allow more than ten Chechens in their unit. Experience had shown that ten or more Chechens (or other men from the Caucasus) would form a very tight, tough, and disciplined clique that would prey on the other troops in the company and cause all manner of discipline and crime problems. If you found yourself with more than ten Chechens it was best to try and transfer some of them out. That is no longer a major problem, but company commanders are still warned to be wary of troops from the Caucasus.

While the Chechens were the worst in this respect, the other Caucasus nationalities came close. But these days, the young men want to join the army and get a few years military experience, so they can qualify to become a "contract" soldier. These troops are paid a lot more and are considered "professional troops." Commanders actually prefer contract soldiers from the Caucasus, although many will admit that it's still not wise to have more than ten of them in an infantry company.

This admiration of the military qualities of troops from the Caucasus probably played a role in lifting the restrictions. Another reason probably has to do with the loyalty of Caucasus troops already in the military and the usefulness of local pro-Russian militias in the Caucasus. Finally, the army learned how to check character references of Caucasus recruits, and this proved effective in keeping the troublemakers out.

Another factor is the method used to pacify Chechnya in the 1990s. The Chechens tried, throughout the 1990s, to maintain their independence from Russia in the aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The Chechens could not govern themselves, and Chechnya became a hideout for numerous criminal gangs who did whatever they wanted. This involved starting a kidnapping, robbery and extortion crime wave all over southern Russia. In 1999, Russia, now led by Vladimir Putin, invaded to reassert its authority and reduce Chechen criminality in southern Russia and the Caucasus. Several years of bloody fighting followed, until a majority of the population agreed to shut down the gangsters. Since then, Chechnya has been at peace, at least by local standards. As Russia had done before, they sought out and selected a Chechen clan leader who was willing and apparently able to rule Chechnya for the Russians. The first Chechen president of the Chechen Republic (as areas where minorities predominate are called) was Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of the current president Ramzan Kadyrov. Akhmad took power in 2003, having convinced Putin that the Kadyrov clan could do the job. Akhmad was assassinated in 2004, something his son and heir Ramzan took to heart. Ramzan convinced Putin that the assassination was always a risk that came with the job in the Caucasus and that although he was young (28 when his father was killed) he could do the job. Putin installed Ramzan as president and sent more money to “rebuild Chechnya”. This involved much of the money used to keep other clans in line. Ramzan proved more adept at this then his father has ruled 2007, after spending a few years as second-in-command. Ramzan Kadyrov is very much Putin’s man and has been consistently loyal, even after Putin invaded Ukraine. Kadyrov has supplied small but very effective and loyal Chechen units to fight in Ukraine. He does thus by making sure his men are qualified and are paid more than any other Russian troops, and paid on time too. Chechens are not afraid of dying in combat and are much feared by opponents. They are not invincible and have suffered casualties. The Ukrainian respect but do not fear the Chechens. If Ukrainian troops encounter Chechens, they change their tactics. The Chechens are a nuisance but there are not enough of them to change the course of the war. This bothers Kadyrov because he knows that losing all of Ukraine would put his patron in danger of being replaced and Kadyrov could lose his job and his life if that happened.

In 2003, when Akhad Kadyrov took over running Chechnya, many of the criminals and Islamic militants fled to neighboring "republics" (as the semi-autonomous ethnic provinces in Russia are called); mainly Ingushetia to the west, and Dagestan to the east. Dagestan was able to handle the influx of Chechen gunmen, at least at first. But in Ingushetia the violence kept getting worse. Some of the violence was just criminal activity, because tiny (population half a million) Ingushetia has an unemployment rate of over 50 percent. But there are also Islamic radicals who used to operate in Chechnya. And then there are a lot of guns in the hands of the population, so it's often difficult to tell who shot who and why.

The Russian government blames a lot of the unrest on local officials who, while pro-Russian and dominated by former KGB officials, are generally inept and corrupt. As these things go, the federal government won't intervene unless the gangs based in Ingushetia began raiding southern Russia. Corruption and feuds (between clans and ethnic groups) causes a lot of the violence, which is organized and focused via gangs of Islamic radicals. Most of the 4.4 million people in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan are Moslem, and never much liked Russians. Although the Russians have reduced the violence over the last 20 years, it persists, much to the embarrassment of the national government. This volatile mixing of organized Russians and unruly Caucasus minorities has been a problem for centuries, ever since the Russian empire reached the Caucasus two centuries ago. Many of the largely Moslem Caucasian tribes saw it as their right to raid the wealthier Christian Russians. The Russians fought back, escalating to Cossacks and eventually the army and violence has persisted ever since. During World War II the Russians mistrusted the Chechens so much that they moved most of the Chechen population to Central Asia in 1944, killing many in the process. Over the next two decades those exiles were allowed back to the Caucasus but both Russians and Chechens have not forgotten.

What's surprising is that there aren't more Islamic terrorist attacks by Russian Moslems. Some 14 percent of Russians are Moslem, but only some of those in the Caucasus, where a few percent of the Russian population live, are really into Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Relations between Slav Russians and the various ancient peoples of the Caucasus, which includes Christians Georgians and Armenians, as well as Moslem Chechens and dozens of other distinct ethnic groups, have been bad for centuries. But as the Russians discovered in the 1990s, even allowing Chechens to be independent did not solve the problem. Letting the Ingush government run its own finances also proved overly optimistic.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close