A Bridge to the Muslim World? Chechnya’s Engagement With the Middle East in Historical Perspective7 min read
On 29 March 2019, Grozny hosted the last panels of the “Islam – Message of Mercy and Peace” conference, organised by the World Muslim League. The event brought in delegations and representatives from 43 countries, including theologians and dignitaries. At the end of the conference, the League awarded Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, the title of ‘Hero of Islam’.
This event highlighted Kadyrov’s rising profile among Middle Eastern countries. Since becoming the head of the Chechen Republic in 2007, Kadyrov has visited the Middle East at least once per year, and has met with influential figures such as deceased Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman, as well as the royal families of all Gulf monarchies. As Neil Hauer wrote for The Defense Post, Kadyrov has fostered intensive diplomatic relations with the Gulf states, including in matters as sensitive as counterterrorism and defense. It has even been said that some recent diplomatic encounters between Russia and Saudi Arabia would not have been possible without Kadyrov’s rapport with the Saudi royal family.
Grozny also has a presence in the Middle East’s conflict zones. Most well known is in Syria, where Chechen military police and special forces have been supporting Russian operations. reportedly taking an active part in combat operations alongside Russian forces. The number of Chechen servicemen in Syria is likely in the hundreds. Libya, although far away from Chechnya, also has a connection to Kadyrov as Lev Dengov, Moscow’s middleman in Libya, is close to the Chechen leader.
In general, Kadyrov’s ‘foreign policy’ in the Middle East is extensive, and has become essential for the Kremlin. As analyst Pavel Luzin argues for Riddl, Kadyrov’s assets and connections to the Middle East are impossible for Moscow to replace, and have become more and more central to the Kremlin’s engagement with that region.
While Chechnya’s activities abroad may appear as a circumstantial complement to Russia’s recent push to the Middle East, they are the current iteration of an older arrangement between Russia’s power centre, its Muslim subjects, and its diplomatic needs in the Middle East. This arrangement then combines the empowerment of certain loyal Muslim minorities with public diplomacy initiatives towards the Middle East. This historical context offers an insight into Russia’s decision to delegate a portion of its Middle Eastern diplomacy to one of its federal subjects.
Bridges to the Muslim world
The role played by Chechnya today has been played by other Russian subjects before. Russia has had a sizeable Muslim population since the annexation of the Kazan Khanate, in 1552. Since then, Russian Muslims have participated in their country’s Middle East engagement. Back in the early Tsarist era, the Volga Tatars had a prominent role in the Tsar’s diplomatic elite. Their religious affinity and language knowledge (the Tatar language belongs to the Turkish language family) contributed to Russia’s Middle East diplomacy. Also, Tsarist authorities invested in infrastructure to facilitate the Hajj. They also invested in sustaining good diplomatic relations with the Ottomans in peacetime for Tsarist authorities to protect and monitor Russian subjects during the pilgrimage. These moves complemented Tsarist Russia Middle Eastern diplomacy, which sought, among other things, to cultivate an image of Russia as a benevolent, friendly power.
This seemingly positive arrangement was accompanied by repression. Recurrent wars with the Ottomans made the empire’s Muslim subjects the object of suspicion by Tsarist authorities. Often suspicion resulted in harsher rule towards the empire’s Muslim subjects, or in outright repression. But even then the contact between the Muslims of Russia and the Middle East would not be broken. Instead, Only in the Soviet period would this religious bond be cut by Bolshevik anti-clericalism, as well as by an overall rejection of the foreign policy of the preceding Tsarist period.
Nonetheless, the Union’s Muslim minority would continue to play a distinct role in the country’s foreign policy. Soviet Azerbaijan was instrumental in Russia’s Middle Eastern engagements as early as 1920. In that year, a major congress of ‘Eastern’ peoples took place in Baku, with the participation of Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish delegations. Moreover, until 1930, Baku hosted annual trade fairs targeted to Middle Eastern countries, focusing on Iran. The centralisation of Russian politics under Stalin meant the end of that initiative, and of most contacts with Muslims abroad. After the war, economic modernisation throughout the USSR’s Muslim republics would be used by Moscow to showcase socialism’s virtues to Middle Eastern countries. Such propaganda supported Moscow’s foreign policy in the Middle Eastern battlefield of the Cold War.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by a profound reduction of Moscow’s Middle East diplomatic engagements. Its once expansive network of allies, covert operations, and trade agreements diminished substantially. Economic crisis and political chaos made it simply not possible to continue to support a large presence in the Middle East. The Soviet collapse also meant the loss of Muslim-majority constituent republics and their support, however nominal, to Moscow’s Middle East diplomacy. This downturn in Moscow’s engagement would last until the Putin administration.
Chechnya and Russia’s new Middle East foreign policy
Russia’s return to the Middle East has no precise date, as one could argue that the region became important for the Kremlin anew as early as 2001. Nevertheless, the new attention Russia gave to the Middle East coincided with the Second Chechen War (1999-2009), particularly the later years.
Russia’s war on Chechnya was a disaster for relations with the Middle East, as many there saw the conflict as a war against an embattled Muslim minority. Moreover, the Arab states were among the countries vocal about human rights abuses reportedly committed by federal forces during the war. This was especially the case during the first war (1994-1996), even to the point where the Kremlin accused Turkey of offering support to the Chechen rebels. Later in the decade, the second war saw much less criticism coming from government officials of the Arab states, each of them stressing Russia’s territorial integrity.
A factor that may have contributed to this change of opinion may have been the Kremlin’s empowerment of a pro-Moscow Chechen faction, built around former rebel Akhmad Kadyrov. He would play a role in Russia’s return to the Middle East as early as 2001. On that year, Kadyrov, then acting head of the Chechen Republic (appointed on the year 2000), made an official tour with President Putin to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. The stated mission of that tour was to garner support for Russia’s new pro-Chechnya policy. It was judged a success for the Kremlin.
From then on, Chechnya has supported Russia’s Middle East diplomatic strategy. First, by contributing to building bridges to the leadership of the Middle Eastern countries. Second, by supporting Russian public diplomacy initiatives in the region, by, for example, building mosques, engaging the region’s Chechen diaspora, and even taking part in Syria’s reconstruction. Finally, Chechnya’s role in the region’s conflicts is small, but persistent feature since Chechen troops were assigned to protect Russian engineers in Lebanon, circa 2006.
The long term
Today, this arrangement with Chechnya is not without its contradictions. The Chechen diplomatic network surrounds Kadyrov closely, benefiting Moscow mostly in an indirect way. Also, Chechnya’s expeditions to combat zones and its growing, indigenous defense capabilities must be considered in light of the fact that barely twenty years ago, Moscow waged total war on Chechnya. Finally, the degree of autonomy that Kadyrov has to pursue his ‘foreign policy’ has led to public disagreements with Moscow. Empowering Chechnya has had its advantages, but it has not come without drawbacks.
Chechnya is not the only Muslim-majority Russian region that engages other countries in the broader Middle East. For instance, both Dagestan and Tatarstan have formal representative offices in Baku. Moreover, Tatarstan has a large network of permanent representative missions in Europe and the Middle East. However, none of Russia’s other North Caucasus or trans-Volga subjects is capable of engaging with Middle East countries at the high level that Chechnya does. Because of this, it is unlikely that Kadyrov’s role as Moscow’s envoy to the Middle East will cease any time soon.