The Big Question: Why does the conflict between Russia and Chechnya show no sign of ending?

Why are we asking this now?

On Monday, 39 people died after two female suicide bombers, believed to be from Russia's troubled North Caucasus, blew themselves up on the Moscow underground. Russian intelligence believes that other suicide bombers, members of the same group, are out there, waiting to launch equally bloody and symbolic attacks on prestigious sites close to the Kremlin. Their leader, Doku Umarov, claimed responsibility.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, a spate of car bombings in Dagestan, near Chechnya, in the North Caucasus, killed at least 14 people, mainly police officers, and the Chechen Islamists who promptly claimed responsibility for these attacks are assumed to be closely linked to the Moscow bombers, if only because their attacks appear closely co-ordinated in timing. Among the atrocities linked to Chechnya are the Beslan school siege of 2004 and the Moscow theatre siege of 2002.

Was anyone expecting this?

If the Kremlin's security services were, the public was not. Russians have been fed a line that the Kremlin's macho tactics in crushing separatist movements in the North Caucasus, especially in Chechnya, have paid off and that the region has more or less settled down under the local rule of Kremlin appointees.

Is there an al-Qa'ida connection?

If there is one, it is not a key part of the jigsaw. The public in the West is so preoccupied by Osama bin Laden and his cohorts that people often forget the existence of equally militant but quite unrelated Muslim movements in other parts of the world that have nothing to do with the Middle East and which share with al-Qa'ida only a general feeling of resentment to what they see as Western, or European, imperialism. The militants from Chechnya and other neighbouring parts of the North Caucasus, such as Dagestan, have their own specific, historic grudges against Russia, even if the language that they use against the Kremlin can echo the Islamist lexicon that al-Qa'ida deploys against the United States and its allies.

Why might Chechens want to blow up Moscow?

The Chechens are not just another of Russia's grumbling subject nationalities. Tiny though their homeland is, the decision of the local leaders to demand all-out independence in the 1990s triggered the Russian military's worst conflict since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. A ferocious and protracted war ensued, pitting a mountain guerilla force against a huge but lumbering and ill-disciplined Russian army. For the Kremlin, total victory became essential: it was to be the proof that post-communist Russia remained a great power, following the recent loss of eastern Europe. Were Chechnya to go, the fear was Russia itself might then unravel and Moscow be reduced to a city-state. But Russia's then leader, Boris Yeltsin, had no idea what forces he was unleashing.

The drawn-out nature of the war inflicted horrendous damage on Chechen society. Their capital, Grozny, was almost flattened before the Russian flag was raised over the city in February 2000. Society had fragmented in the meantime as mafia-like warlords took control. Meanwhile, Chechnya's suffering became a lightning rod for Wahhabi militants and other Islamist groups in the Arab world and who became increasingly drawn in. Their radical religious rhetoric began to find a receptive audience in the traumatised, half-destroyed country as a result of which the separatist movement has since taken on an increasingly religious dimension.

Russia also suffered from the war, not only in terms of the number of soldiers' coffins. The war encouraged and revivified all the forces opposed to Russia's brief flirtation with liberal democracy. There was a return to heavy-handed media censorship and the persecution of supposedly unpatriotic elements worsened. The power of the military and security apparatus grew. Russia emerged a less democratic country. Meanwhile, it has become clear that Russia's victory had a pyrrhic character, and that while Chechnya was bound and gagged for a while, its desire for revenge has remained.

Is this a blow to the Kremlin?

The Russian leadership is furious, and not simply because the attacks in Moscow are clearly intended to show nothing is beyond the militants' reach, not even the Kremlin. The present Prime Minister, Putin, rose to power on the back of the Chechen war, which catapulted him from the little-known head of the security services to Yeltsin's anointed successor. His initial appeal rested on being the man who gave the Chechens a bloody nose and thereby informed not only the tribal world of the North Caucasus but the rest of the world that Russia wasn't going to give up a centimetre of territory. His continuing authority, even now Dmitry Medvedev is President (Putin's old job), is linked to his having not only delivered Russia a degree of prosperity but also the "order" to which many Russians instinctively rally, which underpins the popular cult of tough tsars like Ivan the Terrible, not to mention Stalin (incidentally the creator of the Moscow underground). Putin knows he must convince Russians that he can handle any recrudescence of the threat from Chechnya and the other disaffected parts of the North Caucasus.

What does he do now?

That's the hard part. It was one thing to conquer Grozny in 2000 and install your own chieftain in power over a shell-shocked society. It's less clear what to do when the threat is more diffuse and not geographically containable. Like all capitals of large empires, Moscow is a multi-national city, and no amount of mob hostility to dark-skinned people using the underground or milling around in crowded markets is going to rid the city of a large non-Russian population.

Security has been stepped up in such places – but it is far from certain that the terrorists, if they intend a third strike, will go for such obvious sites. As the bomb attacks in Dagestan show, they can play cat-and-mouse, switching back and forth from Moscow to targets thousands of miles away. Were they to strike again, the location might be completely different. Putin must be hoping he has enough double agents and defectors at his disposal to infiltrate the terrorists. But again, the success of that strategy presumes the existence of a single operations centre, which is unlikely. This isn't the IRA, or Putin's own KGB, but a dispersed movement. The various militants may be united by a vague Islamic ideology but beyond that they are also rivals for power.

Does the West have anything to fear?

This is Russia's mess, not ours – a legacy of the Tsars' expansionists wars with the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century and of Russia's failure since then to fully co-opt or assimilate the tribal society that they conquered. The Chechen militants do not look kindly on the Western powers, which turned a blind eye to the Russian army's well-reported gross violations of civil rights in the conflict. Chechen fighters pop up as members of various Islamic terrorist groups around the world. But these men are essentially pirates and freelancers. The Chechens are not interested in taking on the world; rather, they want to settle scores with their Russian foes.

Is this conflict all about faith?

Yes...

* The militants claim Islam is one of their chief sources of inspiration



* Their paymasters include extreme Wahhabists more commonly associated with the Middle East



* Rightly or wrong, they see Russia as a 'Christian' foe

No...

* Historically Chechen Muslims have been a secular people



* To sceptics and opponents, their new-found Islamism appears to be slightly opportunistic



* Despite what many observers say, their real aim is simply independence

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own