31 January, 2012

Lessons from Russia

Geopolitics, February 2011, pp 58 - 61

Abstract: Historically, Caucasus has been a hot-bed of insurgencies. Russia has dealt with such rebellions in an iron-fisted manner. Can India learn from such a security-centric doctrine? Should India remodel its approach toward insurgents?

Lessons from the Caucasus
Uddipan Mukherjee

Europe’s highest mountain, the double peaked Mt Elbrus is no more a place of tranquility. Though tourists are still climbing up the terrain, still an ambience of terror persists. Earlier, in February 2011, Islamic separatists blew up a cable car pylon, making gondola cars collapse into the snow. Fortunately, nobody was hurt in that incident. In reaction, Russia barred tourists from visiting Elbrus until anti-terrorist operations were completed.

Since time immemorial, Caucasus has been a contentious geopolitical region at the border of Europe and Asia; flanked by the Black and Caspian Seas. However, the region not only houses economically important minerals and energy resources, it has also been the breeding ground of historically significant insurgencies.

North Caucasus was conquered by the erstwhile Tsarist Empire through a series of invasions from 1817 to 1864. In the process, the regions of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan were annexed into Russia. The legacies of the nineteenth century insurgent leaders; viz. Ghazi Mollah and Imam Shamil still reverberate in the forested zones and mountainous maze of Caucasus.

The present Russian provinces of Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnya continue to harbour sentiments of insurgency. In fact, in 2010, Dagestan witnessed almost half of all insurgent attacks in Russia. Its capital, Makhachkala has become a hub of insurgent activities.

With Chechnya now ruled by the iron-fisted Ramzan Kadyrov, writes Shaun Walker for The Independentchaotic Dagestan has become the heart of Russia's Islamic terrorist problem, and almost every single day of late, the authorities are engaged in shoot-outs to kill Islamic fundamentalists - believers of Salafism or Wahabism.

The attacks on the Moscow Metro in March 2010 were orchestrated by two female suicide bombers, also belonging to Dagestan. In September 2010, the Irganai hydroelectric plan was attacked. In June 2009, Dagestani Interior Minister Adilgirei Magomedtagirov was killed, allegedly by insurgents; reports Valery Dzutsev for theJamestown Foundation.

Republic of Dagestan is ruled by believers of Sufism whereas around 20 per cent of the subjects are Salafis. Such an antagonism, nevertheless, has been historical as the so-called Caucasian Emirate has struggled to counter dominance of Moscow for the last two centuries. The Russians had fought two bloody wars and the concomitant insurgencies in Chechnya from 1994 onwards, interspersed with a ceasefire.

Officially, Russian counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns in Chechnya were halted as late as in 2009. In fact, heavy-handed Russian approach in Chechnya coupled with the fertile grounds of agitation saw the insurgency spill over into the neighbouring provinces. Dagestan, however, has been dubbed as the most dangerous place in North Caucasus.

Russian Approach to Counterinsurgency

While evaluating Russia’s COIN campaigns, Thomas Ricks at the Foreign Policy magazine eulogizes the security-centric approach adopted by the Russians in Chechnya, Afghanistan and even in Ukraine and Lithuania (in the 1940s and 50s). Yuri Zhukov in The Routledge Companion to Insurgency and Counter Insurgencypoints out that since 1917, the erstwhile Soviet Union and present Russia has faced the onslaught of 24 significant insurgencies. And Zhukov further mentions that apart from the profound losses suffered in Afghanistan and the first Chechnyan War, Russia has basically been able to successfully counter armed insurgencies.

The methodology adopted by Moscow has been straightforward: massive mobilization of troops to outnumber the insurgents by sheer volume; coupled with hardhearted approach of overwhelming firepower. It was one hundred thousand troops which salvaged Russian pride in the second Chechen War.

Further, to gather human intelligence, defections in insurgent ranks were skillfully encouraged. The support of the indigenous Chechen forces was vital in curbing the insurgency, opines Sean Renaud in his MA thesis to the Massey University. He further indicates that the unity of command worked critically well for the Russian forces in Chechnya.

Moreover, airpower was used to soften targets on the ground; and to destroy and harass isolated insurgent groups.  On top of these, Russian authorities were adept in manipulating the media outlets which helped to rein in public opinion.

In Chechnya (post-2001), the Russians effectively used more flexible operational groupings in the form of small unit operations. This enhanced the efficacy of the COIN operations. In addition to these, targeted killing of key insurgent commanders hastened the clearance of the decade-long insurgency.

Role of Civil Militias

Another interesting aspect of the Russian COIN in the Caucasus was to develop local militias. In a December 2010 report in Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst (CACA), Kevin Leahy informs that Dagestan’s President Magomedov had set forth a proposal to see volunteer militias, comprised of native Dagestanis, to tackle the rebellion. However, it was not novel as far as Russian COIN doctrine goes.

Similar COIN strategy, notes Leahy, had been used, post-2001, in neighboring Chechnya. The strategy in Chechnya involved four ethno-battalions, each comprised almost entirely of ethnic Chechens, undertaking COIN operations against their rebellious countrymen with assistance from the Russian military and Russian Special Forces.

In no way employing locals in the fight against ethnic insurgents could be seen as unethical and barbaric. During the Indian wars of the 19th century, writes Lt. Colonel Robert M. Cassidy of the US Army, the American army’s most skilled fighter, General George Crook “developed the tactic of inserting small teams from friendly Apache tribes into insurgent Apache groups so as to neutralize and psychologically unhinge them and to sap their will.”

As a matter of fact, the same technique was replicated by the US Army in Phillipines (1899-1902), and even in Vietnam. In Phillipines, the Americans conducted a decentralized war of small mobile units, aided by native Filipinos. 

Further, analyst Max Boot ascribes the incentives of treating captured rebels well and of running hospitals and schools by the US Army as the additional reasons for their success in Phillipines.

Interestingly, Tomas Rid in an expository article titled The Nineteenth Century Origins of COIN Doctrine in the Journal of Strategic Studies writes that in 1830s, the French conquerors of North Africa adapted an old practice of pre-Islamic Bedouin societies - the ghazya, or raid – in order to nab the local insurgents. That is, a local method was employed to defeat the locals. In marauding expeditions, clansmen seized camels, goats, and livestock from other tribes, but loss of life was rare.

The Roadblocks to COIN

According to Human Rights Watch, Russia’s COIN tactics include, among other repressive measures, targeted killings, torture, disappearances and extra-judicial executions. Naturally, such pressure from various domestic and international groups “is expected to exert normative constraints on the strategic and tactical choices of democratic governments”; as per Zhukov’s assessment. 

And Russia has been no exception in that regard. Brutalization of the population, solely focusing on the security-centric approach and relegating to dungeons, the winning hearts and minds (WHAM) concept of COIN; did turn advantageous to the Russians.

Nevertheless, rampant use of force; especially the zachistki – Russian term for security sweeps – has made the mountainous landscape of Caucasus more fertile in terms of recruitment for the guerrillas. Such sweeps more often than not coerce the disgruntled youth “to go to the forest”; i.e. join the insurgency. Times.com posits an appalling statistics of unemployment upto 90 per cent in North Caucasus – sufficient cause for the youth to be jungle-bound.

Coming back to COIN tactics, Jason Lyall, at the Harvard University, draws on a quasi-experimental research design that exploits variation in Russian COIN practices in Chechnya (2000-05). Lyall found, contrary to established claims, substantial evidence in favor of the contention that ethnicity shapes insurgent violence.

In particular, his research concluded that:

·         there is net 70 per cent decrease in the amount of insurgent violence after a Chechen sweep compared with a Russian sweep;

·         insurgents respond violently to Russian sweeps than Chechen sweeps; and

·         that these changes in insurgent behavior are attributable to information advantages held by co-ethnic militias who exploit intra-ethnic ties to destroy insurgent networks.

Such a finding again corroborates the efficacy of the civil militias in dealing with armed rebellions.

However, Renaud expresses serious doubts regarding the efficacy of security-centric COIN in larger geographical areas than Chechnya, Dagestan or Ingushetia; or for larger populations. Moreover, unless some major bottlenecks are plugged, the Russian COIN would falter in realistic situations or in foreign climes, as had happened in Afghanistan.

Even the most optimistic supporter of Russian COIN, Mark Kramer of Harvard, raises some important problems for the Russians. First, a seemingly endless, unwinnable war was captured through a massive deployment of force in Chechnya. If the number of armed assailants increase, then to keep an insurgent-troop ratio of 1:50 may not be feasible. For example, in the case of the Indian Maoists, who are able to recruit around 5,000 youth and adolescent girls from a single district in India; security-centric approach becomes unthinkable.

Second, insurgents in Caucasus aim soft targets like civilian population in Moscow and other capital cities. Moreover, the Caucasian insurgents use suicide bombers and unleash a deadly mine war. In fact, on an average, 20 mines per day come in the way of the troops. The Russian security forces suffer psychological setbacks while countering ambushes. To deal with the guerrillas in the hilly tracts, the forces demand more sophisticated equipments.

Third, Kramer argues that the root causes of insurgency in the Caucasus turn out to be inept administration and blatant corruption. Hence, a prolonged security-centric COIN will “spawn public restiveness and cynicism.”
Probably such inherent criticisms of the Russian COIN culture made Vladimir Putin announce, in early 2011, to invest $13.4 billion in 37 new projects over the next decade in the volatile North Caucasus region. Putin himself has noted, reports Mikhail Alexseev, that a lack of gainful employment (nesostoyatel’nost) has increased the pool of young people in the North Caucasus willing to join the predominantly jihadist insurgency.  

So, the WHAM component was finding its way back into the lethal Russian doctrine.

At the same time, however, the Russians have proceeded with targeted killings and incarcerations (TK-TI). And such loss of leadership has created vacancies in key top positions within the rebel organizations.

What can India learn?

Though COIN principles may not have universal applicability, still effective lessons could be derived through deductive reasoning from the Russian case study in the Caucasus and beyond. Though COIN tactics are locale specific and culture-centric; certain broad contours nevertheless could be drawn.

1.   India is mostly concerned with three major insurgencies; viz. in the North-East, Kashmir and the Maoist insurrection. The three cases have different historical, cultural and political undertones. India has dealt with these keeping in mind their regional and ethnic specificities; within the overall ambit of the legalities imposed by the judicature.

2.   India has effectively implemented the population-centric WHAM approach in the case of Kashmir. After a period of ‘meeting the gun with the gun’, the North-East now is being dealt through ‘talks’. It would be pragmatic enough if India proceeds with the WHAM-approach in dealing with the Maoist rebellion. Human intelligence could be best gathered in a WHAM-based COIN and it is the most effective parameter to nab the top leaders of the left-ultras. To decapitate the insurgency - by removing the top bosses and drying up the fertile recruitment grounds for the rebels – the WHAM-based COIN has to be followed meticulously. History has proven it in the Russian case.

3.   Russia has successfully tamed internal armed disturbances through its security-based COIN. However, the insurgencies have cropped up in an unending fashion. The insurgent leaders had been eliminated in a discreet manner. Even then, recruitment hasn’t stopped and that has forced Putin to think along other lines. India, thus, needs to avoid such strategic loopholes.

4.   India needs to focus on WHAM-based COIN coalesced with TK-TI as a viable mode of tackling insurgencies. Dynamics peculiar to a region or ideology notwithstanding, Indian COIN can rely on this approach as an overall strategic measure.

5.   Excessive use of artillery and airpower needs to be avoided in the Indian case. Presently, Indian Air Force supplements the para-military in terms of logistics in the irregular warfare against the Maoists. That seems to be fair enough. Involvement of the Army and Air Force in the war against the Maoists can only lead to further radicalization of the conflict. Moreover, in such a scenario, pressures emanating from the rights groups will likely cause a derailment of the COIN operations.

6.   A unified command structure precipitated success for Russia in Chechnya. India badly needs this as far as the Maoist insurgency straddling over several states is concerned. Constitutional obligation stands as a barrier in this regard. However, operational coherence could be achieved with a unity of purpose between the Union Home Ministry and the affected state governments.

7.   Lack of modern ammunitions and poor facilities had severely marred the efficiency of the Russian forces. Similar problem zones exist in India. It goes without saying that such logistical obstacles need to be eradicated. Anti-landmine techniques must be incorporated. Standard Operating Procedures must be followed at all levels of the command structure so as to avoid major ambushes.  

8.   Small operational mobile units; viz. of the level of platoons, must fight the ‘guerrilla like a guerrilla’. The Russians have successfully practiced that. However, in the Indian case, the para-military and the state police forces have to do the job which the Red Army had done on most occasions.

9.   Equally important is the building up of civil militias. However, legitimization of the same is required. Hence, local ethnic youths need to be provided jobs in the constabulary. It suffices three purposes. One, this reduces the ambience of unemployment. Two, it helps in gathering viable intelligence. And three, it sucks the water for the guerrilla fish as one youth with job means 4 to 5 satisfied locals.

10.                Last, but probably the key to long-term peace in India and anywhere; have to be good governance, weeding out corruption and empowering the grassroots.

“The future of war is not the son of Desert Storm, but the stepchild of Chechnya”, says General Krulak. With such rhetorical soothsaying, it means no harm to extract a page from the Russian COIN doctrine, and implement in the evolving COIN philosophy of the world’s largest democracy – before it shrieks as a failed state.


  1. I'll admit.I'm a total beginner as far as the contents of this post is concerned.But nothing like learning,right?Made for such an intriguing read.Thanks for sharing.

  2. sure,,,,always grt to learn,,we all do......