Caucasus Theater

Nagorno-Karabakh at issue in Armenian uprising

Armenian security forces on July 31 stormed a police station that had been seized by opposition militants in the capital Yerevan, amid growing protests in the city. Authorities said some 20 militants were arrested and several injured. Gunmen calling themselves the Daredevils of Sassoun seized the police station and took hostages on July 17, and protesters subsequently took to the streets in their support. Security forces have responded with stun grenades and tear-gas leaving scores injured. Militants and protesters alike are demanding release of Jirair Sefilian, leader of the opposition Founding Parliament movement. 

Nagorno-Karabakh in Russo-Turkish game

At least 30 soldiers—possibly far more—have been killed in two days of renewed fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Azerbaijan claims it has now retaken land occupied by Armenian forces, destroying six tanks and killing more than 100 troops. Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev accused Armenia of violating international law in launching a new offensive. His government also refuted a statement by the Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that the fighting has ceased; Baku says active military operations continue. Seen as Armenia's de facto protector, Russian President Vladimir Putin nonetheless urged both sides to stop fighting and "show restraint." Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, asserted his role as Azerbaijan's protector. He told the press: "We pray our Azerbaijani brothers will prevail in these clashes with the least casualties... We will support Azerbaijan to the end."

Slain ISIS 'war minister' trained by US in Georgia?

An ISIS commander described by the Pentagon as the group's "minister of war" was announced to have been likely killed in a US air-strike in Syria on March 8. Abu Omar al-Shishani AKA "Omar the Chechen" ranked among the most-wanted militants under a US program that offered up to $5 million for information leading to his removal from the battlefield, Reuters reports. The conspiranoid website Levant Report responds to this development with the headline "ISIS Leader Omar al-Shishani Fought Under US Umbrella as Late as 2013." As is often the case with conspiranoid claims, there is a grain of truth here worthy of examination, but it hardly justifies the click-bait headline...

Russia fights ISIS militants in Dagestan?

Russia's National Anti-Terrorist Committee announced Nov. 29 that security forces in Dagestan killed three militants who had sworn allegiance to ISIS, including one who had returned from Syria earlier this year. The three, identified as members of the "Suleiman-Stal bandit group," were slain when they fired on troops sent to arrest them in the district of that name. A "security alert" was insated throughout Dagestan Republic for 48 hours. The raid may have been realted to a Nov. 7 incident in which unidentified gunmen opened fire on railway workers who were inspecting tracks near Novy Khuchet village on the outskirts of Makhachkala, killing one and wounding another. Security forces responded, and the assailants were killed when the refused to surrender. (TASS, Nov. 30; TASS, AP, Nov. 29; TASS, Nov. 7)

New war brewing between Russia and Georgia?

Georgia's Foreign Ministry on Aug. 20 protested a violation of the country's airspace by a Russian military helicopter near the border with the contested South Ossetia enclave. The incursion came as Russia is carrying out military exercises in the border zone, and is accused by Georgia of having unilaterally moved border markers last month. On July 10, Russian troops reportedly placed new demarcation signposts along the de facto boundary between Russian-controlled  South Ossetia, which was separated from Georgia in the 2008 war, and Tbilisi-controlled territory. Critically, the newly seized territory includes a kilometer-long section of the Baku-Supsa pipeline, which brings oil from Azerbaijan to BP's Supsa terminal in Georgia. Russia is among a handful of countries that have recognized the "independence" of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both of the breakaway regions rely heavily on military and financial aid from Russia, which does not allow European Union monitors to access either enclave. (InterFax, Aug. 20; RFE/RL, Aug. 19; BBC News, Aug. 10)

ISIS hand in Chechnya attack?

Gunmen attacked a police checkpoint and stormed a media building in Grozny, capital of Russia's southern republic of Chechnya, Dec. 3. At least 20 were killed in the attacks and ensuing clashes—10 militants and 10 police. Authorities said no militants escaped. Chechnya's worst fighting in months erupted a few hours before President Vladimir Putin said in a speech in Moscow he would defend Russia against what he called attempts to dismember it, accusing the West of seeking a "Yugoslav scenario," and a "policy of containment" that it has pursued "for decades if not centuries." The Chechen insurgent underground, calling itself the Caucasus Emirate, took credit for the attack in a statement on its website, Kavkaz Center, improbably claiming over 80 "puppet soliders" were killed. The statement said the assault was revenge for "oppression of Muslim women." Media accounts interpreted this as a reference to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov prohibiting local women from wearing the hijab—an accusation he has denied. The Kavkaz Center statement also refered to Grozny as "Jokhar," part of the alternative nomenclature the "Emirate" has for the Russian territory it claims. The Russian policy establishment is already hypothesizing an ISIS hand in the attack. "I suspect ties to the Islamic State, even if they have not commented on it so far," said Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center. (Reuters, BBC News, Moscow News, RFE/RL, ITAR-TASS, Dec. 4)

Olympics in Sochi; state terror in Dagestan

With the Winter Olympics underway in Sochi, Russian special forces troops killed five suspected militants and took another into custody Feb. 8 in an assault on a house in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan. The suspects were named as members of the "Buynaksk" militant group, and their leader, who was among the dead, as Alexei Pashentsev, an ethnic Russian convert to Islam. The Buynaksk network was named as tied to December's Volgograd attacks, although there was no claim that the cell targeted in the raid was directly involved. Three days earlier, a suspected mastermind of the Volgograd attacks was reported killed in a shoot-out with security forces following a raid on a house in the Dagestan town of Izberbash. However, Russian state media named the network targeted in that raid as "Kadarskaya." (CNN, Feb. 8; Vestnik Kavkaza, Feb. 5) Jan. 18 saw another raid in Makhachkala, in which seven presumed militants were killed, and links to the Volgograd attacks alleged. That time, Russia's National Anti-Terrorism Committee named the suspects as members of the Buinaksk group. (RIA-Novosti, Jan. 30; CNN, Jan. 18)

Circassians call for boycott of Sochi Olympics

A boycott of the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics has been called by leaders of the Circassians, who are demanding that the 19th-century Czarist military campaign against their people in the region be officially recognized as a genocide. A delegation of Circassians from the diaspora—including Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Germany and the US—has travelled to the North Caucasus to visit the historic sites of their ancestors' homeland before the Games and raise awareness of their campaign.