Throughout I will use disturbing supportive evidence that lends itself to the explicit understanding that Islamic extremism will continue to spread to this region, causing a new battleground to develop and likely bring Russia back more forcefully into the Caucasus with a renewed Slavic war against terror.
The region of the North Caucasus and the area around the Caspian Sea has always been dominated by Islam. During the time of the Soviet Union, the extremist ideology of radical Islam was not popular within the region. During the reign of the Soviet Union, and towards the end of its collapse, religion renewed itself in force with the local population. With its downfall, the Soviet Union’s inevitable economic collapse resulted in local people looking for guidance and hope buoyed by religious faith, something often seen during times of massive political upheaval.
However, even after returning to the Islamic faith, the region was not able to lift itself out of the poverty brought about by the collapse of communism. Not only was there a wide ideological void left by the absence of communist thinking, poverty was not alleviated and in many parts of the region got severely worse. This structural desperation proved a fertile ground for the growth of extremist views, as separatist Islamic sects spread into the region. These extremists countered each negative attribute brought about by communism, such as corruption and indulgence, as a point of focus with which to channel population worry and concern into greater reliance on religious faith and the wisdom of subjugation to radical ideologies based on salvation and holy approval.
The resurgence of religious views in this region was matched by a global phenomenon: the Pew Research Center published a study putting into perspective how fast the spread of Islam was/is occurring worldwide and predicted that by 2050 Islam will have spread and overtaken the majority religion of Christianity by at least 1%. The projected outcome hypothesizes that Islam will double in population, even making up at least 10% of the population in Western Europe. Taking this information into consideration, the probability of the spread of more radical Islamic sects seems to be inevitable not just for the Caucasus region but worldwide as well, as fringe elements often piggyback onto the more moderate religious spread. (Islamic Daily Observing Media)
Saudi Arabia stands out in this regard, having spent $89 billion in the past two decades alone toward propaganda with the intention of spreading Wahhabism to the region. This includes the distribution of Wahhabist textbooks to Islamic religious schools along with donations to prestigious universities in exchange for the placement of Wahhabist scholars into influential positions. The money spent by the Saudis is put into stark perspective when you consider the Soviet Union only spent $7 billion TOTAL promoting communism across seven decades. (Winsor 2007) The majority of the Saudi propaganda money spent towards spreading Wahhabist ideals has not only been used in regions that are predominantly Muslim but have also been used in countries where poverty and political instability is prevalent. Converts, with few financial holdings, are being encouraged to send their children to Saudi Arabia to be educated free of charge.
Seemingly, the North Caucasus region has had a political shift with the influx of such Wahhabist ideology as current militant groups seem bent on creating a second possible battlefield in the greater Caspian/Middle East region for global jihad. Ironically, the group benefiting the most from this emergence of Wahhabism in the Caucasus is DAESH. The possibility that the extremism of DAESH could spread throughout the Caspian Sea region makes it so that Russia would lose some of its most important trade and energy routes. However, Russia has so far been lax in taking preemptive steps to combat DAESH in the region or even in tracking Russian nationals who leave the area for the sole purpose of joining the DAESH cause in Syria and Iraq and ultimately the spread of global jihad beyond the Levant. Perhaps the crisis in Ukraine has blinded Russia to the possibility that a new DAESH war could be developing in the ashes just south of where the Chechen wars used to be. This geopolitical shortsightedness could cause grave problems for Russia’s Southern flank in the relatively near future.
Since the international community clearly does not support Russia's role and agenda in the Ukrainian crisis, it might be in the best interest of Russia to withdraw and refocus its attention to the Caucasus/Caspian region. The presence of DAESH and its slow growth in the region is a concern the international community would support Russia in fighting. It would be a unique potential opportunity for Russia to reorient its current bad standing with the West and find common ground with which all rational parties seem to agree: the spread of groups like DAESH has to be contained within the Levant currently and ultimately defeated. The international community is well aware of the actions and abilities of DAESH but has been reluctant so far to tie it explicitly to the Saudi form of Wahhabism. Regardless of the debate of whether DAESH Wahhabism is the same or a twisted subset of Saudi Wahhabism, the reality of its potential encroachment into the Caucasus/Caspian region should be a global security priority of the highest order.
The notion that the global jihad battlefield is just emerging might be playing down the true facts, which some can at least argue has already been established in the region. While it cannot be argued that it has taken root in the political power institutions of the region, the potential for just such a political development exists. Unfortunately, DAESH activity in the Levant has made the West largely miss this Caspian development, while continued crisis in Ukraine has made Russia also relatively oblivious to the threat. Hopefully in the near future, if the aforementioned crises cannot be resolved and contained, the West and Russia learn to start effectively multi-tasking their counterintelligence and anti-terror capabilities. Failure to do so could ultimately signal a failure to keep the Caspian region from becoming radicalized. A Caspian quasi-Khanate is a development that stands against all rational standards of civilization and modernity.
1. Baranec, Thomas, The Central Asian Caucasus Analyst, July 2015
2. Gambhie, Harleen, Institute for the Study of War, June 2015
3. NATO, NATO’s Relations with the Ukraine, May 2015
4. Pew Research Center, April 2015
5. Winsor Jr. , Curtin, Islamic Daily Observing Media, August 2007
6. US Department of State, Office of the Historian, October 2013