After 200 years of relentless struggle, the people of the Caucasus are rolling the frontiers of Russia, slowly but surely, back to where they rightly belong. In the latest fighting in Dagestan, a few hundred Chechen mujahideen led by the intrepid commander Shamil Basayev - hero of the decisive battle for Johar-Gala (formerly Grozny) in August 1996 - pinned thousands of Russian troops down in Botlikh near the Dagestani border with Chechenya. Regardless of the outcome of the current fighting, it is reflective of the new reality in the Caucasus.
The new Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin (formerly Russia’s spy chief), made a sudden about-turn on August 20, after breathing fire for two weeks, and said he would try to resolve the conflict by “political means.” This is a clear admission that defeating the mountain-people of the Caucasus militarily is easier said than done. The change in public stance came in a meeting with the grand mufti of Russia, Ravil Gainutdin. Although Russian ground forces made little headway, its air-force continued to bomb border villages, killing hundreds of civilians.
The government-appointed mufti meanwhile agreed to organize a meeting between Putin and the council of muftis from Russia in the near future to”help shore up grassroots opposition” to the fighters. Putin and the grand mufti also agreed on the need to limit the spread of arms in Dagestan and to prevent the civilian population from being dragged into the war. “Russia’s Islamic leaders will support Muslims in Dagestan who are fighting against the aggressors,” Gainutdin said after his meeting in Moscow. “The people who arrived in the republic bearing arms have nothing to do with defending the principles of Islam,” he said.
The mufti, a paid government agent, does not speak for the Muslims of Russia, much less those in the Caucasus, who have a long history of resistance to Russian colonialism. Hundreds of people from Dagestan have voluntarily joined the mujahideen despite attempts by the pro-Russian Dagestani government to prevent it. Thousands of Russian forces backed by Dagestani police have failed to dislodge a few hundred mujahideen for over two weeks, despite using heavy weapons and carrying out massive bombing raids. The mujahideen have announced plans to set up of an Islamic State in the northern Caucasus - a long-cherished goal of the Caucasus people.
The change in Russian tactics has been necessitated by the rising death-toll in Dagestan, which a Russian air force spokesman said was between 500 and 700 in two weeks of fighting, according to the ITAR-TASS newsagency on August 21. Such brutality is bound to increase people’s hostility to Russia. Moscow wants to prevent Muslims in Dagestan from joining the mujahideen, fearing a repeat of the 1994-1996 Chechen war. In Chechenya, the local population fully supported the mujahideen against the Russian invaders. Moscow’s ill-motivated troops suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of a few hundred Chechen fighters. The final blow was delivered by Shamil Basayev when his fighters defeated a Russian force of 12,000 in Johar-Gala, the capital of Ichkeria (Chechenya). The Dagestani operation is also led by Basayev.
Regardless of the outcome of the current fighting, it is the long-term implications of the mujahideen’s operations that are significant. This is a war that the Russians cannot win, and the mujahideen cannot afford to lose. In a reversal of roles, the mujahideen are in the ascendance. For 200 years, the Russians were a rising power. Since their defeat in Afghanistan (1989) followed by their humiliation in Chechenya, the Russians have been on the run. Despite suffering numerous setbacks over the last 200 years, the Caucasus people have never given up their dream of achieving independence from Russia.
Ichkeria’s brilliant victory against the massive Russian forces has boosted the morale of all the Caucasus people. But landlocked Ichkeria on its own makes little sense; Dagestan, meanwhile has a very long coastline on the Caspian Sea. Ichkeria and Dagestan can make a compact unit and need each other. The present geographical configuration in the Caucasus; with people divided into various republics, is an artificial construct imposed by the Russians. The people are overwhelmingly Muslim and have struggled together for 200 years under leaders from different regions without being concerned about where they hail from.
The first uprising against the Russians was led by a Naqshabandi Shaykh, Imam Mansour Ushurma, of Chechenya. His resistance began in 1783 and he was finally surrounded and taken captive in 1791. Imprisoned in Schlusselburg, he died there in 1793.
The Russian intrusion into the Caucasus had started in 1556 when they occupied Astrakhan on the northern fringes of the Caspian Sea. The Crimean Tatars and Ottomans immediately reacted to this danger. The Dagestanis and Kabardians also felt threatened as Russians forces moved into the North Caucasus. With the help of the Ottomans, the Dagestanis finally defeated the Russians in 1604 pushing them back to Astrakhan, but this proved a temporary respite. The Russians kept pushing and made major gains in the North Caucasus until the uprising of Imam Mansour.
One of the reasons advanced for Imam Mansour’s failure was that his movement did not have deep roots among the people. Some 40 years later, another great fighter -Ghazi Muhammad - emerged. He led the resistance to Russian occupation from 1830 until his martyrdom in October 1832, when he was surrounded in the Dagestani village of Gimri. Of the 50 fighters with him, only two managed to escape alive; Imam Shamil was one of them. He took over leadership of the movement after Hamza Bek, successor to Ghazi Muhammad, was martyred in October 1934.
Imam Shamil mobilised the people of the Caucasus and his military exploits gained widespread fame. He launched a number of daring operations against the better-armed invading Russian forces. The Caucasus mujahideen’s strength lay in their familiarity with the terrain, their unmatched courage, and the support of their people. The indomitable spirit of freedom of the mountain people enabled them to withstand Russian barbarism. In several campaigns, the Russians resorted to a scorched-earth policy to deprive the mujahideen of the support of the masses. The Russians also tried this in Afghanistan, and in the more recent war on Chechenya. Again, they failed on both occasions.
Despite inflicting numerous defeats on the invading Russian army, swooping down suddenly and striking fear in their hearts, Imam Shamil and a handful of his followers were finally surrounded in the village of Gunib in Dagestan. On August 25, 1859, he was given an ultimatum by general Bariatinskii, commander of the 40,000-strong Russian army in Caucasus: surrender or he would order the execution of all male inhabitants of the region. Imam Shamil chose to spare his people and went into exile. He may have been defeated at the end of a 40-year struggle, but he left behind a legacy of struggle and sacrifice that finally bore fruit in Chechenya in 1996. The month was August again, as another Shamil led the Chechens’ final assault on Russian-occupied Grozny - the Russian name given to the Chechen capital, meaning “terrible”, because the invaders faced such stiff resistance from the people there.
The history of the Caucasus has turned full circle. The demoralised Russian army has no stomach for a fight. Many soldiers have not been paid their meagre salary for months. There is no reason for them to fight for a land that does not belong to them while the gangsters who rule Moscow continue to plunder the meagre resources of the state.
The mountain people of the Caucasus are destined to achieve full independence, insha’Allah, but they must first rid themselves of the tribal mindset and the traitors in their midst.
The spirit of Islam and jihad is very strong and as they have repeatedly shown, a handful of committed mujahideen can overpower an enemy many times greater. This is a very important lesson for the Islamic movement elsewhere.
Muslimedia: September 1-15, 1999