Author Q&A: ‘The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus’

NYT | January 20, 2012

Today, for those who follow the North Caucasus or who keep up with books on conflict, we have a treat: a guest appearance on the blog from Lt. Col. Robert W. Schaefer, a Green Beret specializing in the Russian-speaking world.

Colonel Schaefer gave himself a task when he set out to research and write his first book, a deep dive on a long-running and inadequately covered war. It was this: He wanted to lift the latest Chechen war above the common descriptions that have defined it – as Exhibit A of an upstart population seeking independence from post-Soviet Russia, or as Exhibit B of a separatist struggle made toxic by a latter-day brand of militant Islam, or as Exhibit C in a war that had smoldered into dormancy. It is not that these descriptions do not contain elements of fact; it is that they are incomplete. They misapprehend the war by looking back only a few decades. Colonel Schaefer’s book, "The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad," (Praeger, 2011) places the war within the broader cyclical history of Chechen-Russian conflict, a history that goes back 400 years. In this, his book succeeds.

And from here the arguments begin. Colonel Schaefer is a proponent, student, practitioner and disciple of Western counterinsurgency thought. What you think of his assessments and conclusions, page by page, might well depend on how much counterinsurgency juice your stomach can handle. But let’s leave aside arguments about counterinsurgency doctrine. Let’s forget for a moment the mission creep that the counterinsurgency, or COIN, camp helped to lead the conventional American military into this past decade – an outcome that has made COIN, among many grunts, at least out where the wars are, and among many citizens who foot the bill, a four-letter word. Arguments about doctrine, discussions of other wars, need not intrude for the colonel’s book to have a useful place. Why? Because his historical framing of the long, dark Russian-Chechen fight is enormously helpful in understanding the ongoing conflict in the North Caucasus, and the gnawing feeling of dread as Russia prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympics at Chechnya’s feet, at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

A subtle and earnest analyst, Colonel Schaefer has done his homework. For several years, he has kept an almost unblinking eye on his theme. One strength of this long reflection, which lends his writing credibility, is that he has avoided taking sides. Whatever label you choose for Chechnya’s underground fighters – separatists, terrorists, criminals, Islamists, opportunists, vengeance-seekers, accidental guerrillas, cornered men, some combination of the above – he has not been seduced. Nor does he embrace the Kremlin’s and Russian power ministries’ approach against their Chechen foes. (He variously respects and shakes his head at his counterparts in Russia.) Though in places he has marshaled familiar sources, he has managed to sidestep the familiar traps. His work is free of cynicism and romance. He does not need to see heroes on either side, and does not set out to argue their cases – he sees a war, and he is trying to break it into its parts, to better understand it.

The result is that he has framed the struggle not as a recent phenomenon resulting from extraordinary circumstances – the collapse of the Soviet Union coinciding with the spread of violent, intolerant religious ideology – but as the latest manifestation of an enduring fight, which will resist short-term solutions. This is a valuable insight. It makes one wish military analysts had taken on the Afghan puzzle with similar energy, say, a decade or so back. Colonel Schaefer’s insight is supported throughout the fascinating middle sections of the book, where he lays out the past methodically, spiking the read with nuggets worth saving. At one point, stepping past the factors that animate Chechen unrest, he explains why the struggle has been, again and again, a sadly doomed pursuit, no matter how many Russians are killed: the Chechens are a martial culture facing a brutal math.

"You can feel good about yourself if you are confident that as a man you can take on 10 enemy soldiers and win," he says of Chechnya’s fighters. (Anyone who has met them will recognize that many of them do think this way – for good reason.) "You can feel good about your nation if you know that every one of your clansmen can do the same; but when the enemy has the resources and the national will (which was singularly lodged in the person of the czar) to send 11 soldiers for every one of your clansmen, eventually you’ll have to run away or die fighting."

For the "czar" in the above passage, a current reader might substitute "Putin."

As Chechnya has dropped from a regular place in Western news reports – its near absence rooted in both reader fatigue with the conflict beat, as well as the suppression of journalism in Russia’s North Caucasus badlands – Colonel Schaefer’s book provides an overview that will last. He joins us today to answer a few questions, and offer his take on where he expects the fight to go as Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympics not far from the region that gave the world a chilling pattern of state-sponsored human rights abuses, and some of the worst terrorist acts of modern times.


Let’s begin with a bit of background about you. Tell us something of your career, and of what brought you to being such a strong supporter of the latest Western counterinsurgency doctrine.


I’ve been a Russian-speaking Green Beret since 1988, and since then I’ve deployed to almost every conflict the U.S. has been involved in – most of them multiple times. I started off my Special Forces career as a sergeant, but later I got my commission and a degree in Russian area studies and Russian language. I’ve spent a significant amount of time working with Russian and other post-Soviet militaries (Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Georgia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, etc) and subsequently got my master’s degree from Harvard in their Russian, Eastern Europe and Central Asia program. Since then I’ve had a mix of diplomatic and operational assignments and I’m currently the chief of the Central and South Asia Branch for International Military Affairs at Army Central Command.

As for the latest doctrine, much of what we’re reading in the "new" handbook is just updated material from the old USMC Small Wars handbook, and old SF field manuals. It’s a good update, it’s nice to have the doctrine in one place and it’s great to have more academic studies included, but honestly, the basic doctrine hasn’t changed. If you were to look at the Foreign Internal Defense (FID)/COIN plans and training I developed for the Georgians back in 2002 (before the new manual came out), you’d think I used the "latest" doctrine to develop it. As such, I became a strong supporter of the "new" doctrine starting in the mid-90’s during operational deployments and all of my on-the-ground experience since then has continued to confirm its validity.


What ultimately compelled you to invest such time and energy in trying to understand, and put into context, the latest Chechen wars?


Chechnya is where my two areas of expertise – insurgency/counterinsurgency and Russia – intersect. It started in 1999, when the second Chechen war started, and I was serving with the Russian airborne forces on deployment. Many of the Russians I was serving with had been involved in the first Chechen war and they took every opportunity to tell me about that experience.

After 9/11, I was selected to be a primary planner and executor of the first mission of the "War on Terror," the Georgia Train and Equip Mission, designed to stop the Chechens from using the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia as a sanctuary. I developed all the COIN and counterterrorism training that was given to the Georgian government, developed the specialized COIN mission analysis for the mission and was responsible for much of the training given to the Georgians. Later, in graduate school, I used all of my previous experience and directed all my research towards different aspects of the conflict, covering everything from economics to tactics and much of that research is in the book.

But what motivated me to write the book were the reports in 2007 that the Chechen conflict was over. I found myself getting angry at reporters and saying things like, "There’s no way it’s over, don’t you understand the history of the region, don’t you understand insurgencies?" The answer, of course, was "no." Of course they didn’t. What was blatantly obvious to me wasn’t clear to everyone else because even the majority of U.S. military personnel and politicians didn’t understand insurgencies at the time. So I dug out my old thesis and spent two additional years of research so I could make it obvious to everyone else as well. My plan was to publish it before the insurgency became effective again so that I could say definitively that I predicted it, but that proved impossible, especially with deployments and having a family.


The footnotes mention meetings with Chechens involved in the wars. Tell us something of those meetings and how your sources helped you work.


I spoke with some of the Chechens in Europe, some in the United States, and some in the Caucasus. The most important thing that they provided me was context surrounding an event and pointing me in the right direction so I could find the same information from open sources. For this book, personal accounts were less important than showing people how to take all the puzzle pieces available to anyone through the open press and, using the COIN lens that I’ve presented, give them a chance to put the pieces together for themselves. Others have already written great accounts of what happened; my book is different in that it is the first time anyone has ever conducted an unclassified analysis of the conflict at the macro-level. This method is far more compelling than trying to present a case from personal accounts.


Some of your conclusions rest on data you have compiled in what you call the North Caucasus Incident Database. What is this database, and how did you build it?


I started the database at the end of 2007 because I didn’t trust what I was reading – and because there weren’t any other databases available at the time. The conflict was "over," remember? So I started keeping my own statistics from reliable news sources as a necessity. Very soon a picture began to emerge – it wasn’t that the Russians were lying about the fatality figures, they just weren’t telling the whole story. When one official would say something like "the number of our injuries this year has dropped compared to last year" he might be telling the truth. However, that police official would only be talking about his own group – and would leave out the information about soldiers or FSB [the successor to the KGB] agents being killed or wounded – which, when aggregated, showed an entirely different story than what was being disseminated by the Kremlin. It was very easy to see that the situation was much worse than they were telling anyone.

I still have the database, but it’s not been updated since mid-2010. With the renewed violence in the region, new databases have popped up and they seem to be reliable.


A great and enduring challenge of writing on the Caucasus is guarding against the biases of sources. Propagandists populate much of the public discourse on almost all themes in the region. In places in your book you have cited unmistakably partisan sources, such as The Jamestown Foundation, which makes no secret of its opposition to the post-Soviet Russian leadership, and has presented Chechen positions and leaders in favorable light. How have you guarded against biases?


I’ve also quoted material from sources that unabashedly believe that all Chechens are terrorists. I’m not sure there is any way to completely avoid partisan sources because the conflict is so mired in hyperbole and almost everyone seems to have taken a side. However, in general, I’ve always tried to use multiple sources for particularly important points, only use well-researched studies, or ensure that I used partisan sources in ways that don’t help their cause. In the case of particularly controversial debates (the alleged FSB involvement in the Moscow apartment building bombings), I’ve gone out of my way to present just the facts and ensure that I include both sides of the issue; I also include plenty of references so readers can do their own research on the matter.

Unfortunately, I had to delete a significant number of footnotes to get the manuscript down to a manageable size. In so doing, I had to pick and choose which would stay, so I always tried to use sources that were fact-based. However, since my goal isn’t to convince the reader to take a side, I lose nothing by including all aspects of an argument. One of the most important aspects of my book is demonstrating how the events themselves are less important than how those events were later framed by all sides to shape perception, ideologies, counter-ideologies and information operations. The book is specifically about the insurgency in the North Caucasus, but it is also a book about insurgency and counterinsurgency strategies in general.


If you could propose solutions to alleviate the violence and unrest in the North Caucasus, what would they be?


The main problem is that the local population is more afraid of the security forces than they are of the insurgents and terrorists. So regardless of how well the Russians are winning on the information and ideological fronts, they will not be able to lower the level of violence until the population desires to have government security forces in the region to protect them. My biggest recommendation would be to pull all the police, border guards, soldiers, MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs] and FSB personnel in the region and re-train them on how to treat the local population. Then I would recommend that commanders be held accountable for each and every human rights abuse and civilian disappearance in their region.


Where would Ramzan Kadyrov fit in your plans?


I would give him an offer he couldn’t refuse and present him with a position in the Duma [the Russian Parliament]. Then I’d appoint someone outside of the Kadyrov family as governor for a few years until they could have free elections.


Knowing that the North Caucasus can be woefully unpredictable, we’ll dare to ask, and put you on the spot: What do you expect for the next year or two in the region?


I predict that the insurgents will increase attacks by 6-8% in 2012 and another 8-10% in the first half of 2013. Then we’ll see one of two things – either a precipitous drop or a huge spike in the number of attacks leading up to the Sochi Olympics in 2014. The level of violence in the last half of 2013 will be an indicator of the Emirate’s [the rebels] objectives for the Olympics; if they want to create a spectacular terrorist attack, then attacks in the last half of 2013 will decrease, if they want to embarrass the Russians and disrupt the Olympics ahead of time (causing events to be cancelled or athletes to avoid the games because of security threats), then I think we’ll see an increase in attacks in the Sochi area.

In Chechnya, the number of attacks will remain stable, but they’ll continue to increase in Dagestan and (slightly) in Ingushetia. Violence will continue to creep westward towards Sochi, with a significant number of attacks occurring in Kabardino-Balkaria. Sochi will be relatively quiet in 2012 as the Emirate increases attacks in other areas to draw away Russian forces and keep them occupied elsewhere. However, I anticipate some small terrorist bombings in places as far east as Cherkessk, Maikop and Krasnodar starting in mid-2012. These will be confidence targets designed to show the locals around Sochi that the Emirate can conduct successful operations anywhere and anytime they please.

2013 will be an ugly year, as the Russians will pull out all the stops and try to hunt down every possible threat and eliminate it beforehand; cases of civilian disappearances will skyrocket. Although journalists will be allowed to visit the Sochi area to report on the infrastructure development and enjoy the weather, movement outside of approved areas will be forbidden. If you’re a North Caucasian young man of dark complexion, I’d seriously think about moving to Turkey until the Olympics are over.


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