Chechnya: From Nationalism to Jihad

Chechnya: From Nationalism to Jihad

Chechnya: From Nationalism to Jihad

Chechnya: From Nationalism to Jihad


The sheer scale and brutality of the hostilities between Russia and Chechnya stand out as an exception in the mostly peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union. Chechnya: From Nationalism to Jihad provides a fascinating analysis of the transformation of secular nationalist resistance in a nominally Islamic society into a struggle that is its antithesis, jihad. Hughes locates Chechen nationalism within the wider movement for national self-determination that followed the collapse of the Soviet empire. When negotiations failed in the early 1990s, political violence was instrumentalized to consolidate opposing nationalist visions of state-building in Russia and Chechnya. The resistance in Chechnya also occurred in a regional context where Russian hegemony over the Caucasus, especially the resources of the Caspian basin, was in retreat, and in an international context of rising Islamic radicalism. Alongside Bosnia, Kashmir, and other conflicts, Chechnya became embedded in Osama Bin Laden's repertoire of jihadist rhetoric against the "West." It was not simply Russia's destruction of a nationalist option for Chechnya, or "Wahabbist" infiltration from without, that created the political space for Islamism. Rather, we must look also at how the conflict was fought. The lack of proportionality and discrimination in the use of violence, particularly by Russia, accelerated and intensified the Islamic radicalization and thereby transformed the nature of the conflict.

This nuanced and balanced study provides a much-needed antidote to the mythologizing of Chechen resistance before, and its demonization after, 9/11. The conflict in Chechnya involves one of the most contentious issues in contemporary international politics--how do we differentiate between the legitimate use of violence to resist imperialism, occupation, and misgovernment, and the use of terrorism against legitimate rule? This book sets out indispensable lessons for understanding conflicts involving the volatile combination of nationalist insurgency, jihad, and terrorism, most notably for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


The wars in Chechnya of 1994–96, and 1999-present, rank alongside those fought over Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq as the most bloody and costly conflicts of the contemporary era. The destructive depth and sustained nature of the violent conflict in Chechnya over the fifteen-year period 1991–2006 make it the most protracted of all the violent post-Soviet conflicts. Much of the capital of Chechnya, Grozny, was reduced to rubble by the fighting, mainly by Russian air and land bombardments. The modern infrastructure of Chechnya—its economy, communications, health and social services, and cultural institutions—was devastated. Its society was uprooted as the conflict displaced the bulk of its people from their homes. As we shall discuss later, the human costs of the conflict are bitterly disputed. Estimates of the casualties vary widely from tens of thousands to several hundred thousand. Few Chechens escaped the trauma of suffering violence personally, whether through direct war injury or as victims of abuses by Russian forces and their local Chechen militias, and by the loss of relatives and property.

The role of territorialized ethnicity in the drive for secession allows for comparisons between Chechnya and some of the other violent post-Soviet conflicts, such as the presently frozen conflicts of Nagorno-Karabagh, Transdnistria, and Abkhazia, but one of the unique features of the conflict in Chechnya is its very location. It is the only large-scale violent conflict to have occurred within the Russian Federation since the collapse of the USSR. It is also the only case where Russia has employed military power to resist secession, and it is the sole case where secessionists militarily resisted Russia’s attempts to reimpose its sovereignty. Moreover, the violent conflict in and over Chechnya has caused significant spillover attacks in Russia itself, as well as episodic violence in the neighboring regions and republics of the Russian Federation, which increasingly threatens to cause wider political instability in the North Caucasus region.

The conflict has seen some of the world’s worst terrorist atrocities. I

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