With the world focused on Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea, pundits are debating what Moscow's renewed "Cold War mentality" will mean for Russian adventurism in its near-abroad and beyond. But while Russia seeks to reassert itself as a major (albeit not super) power abroad, back at home the Kremlin faces a looming domestic crisis to which few are paying sufficient attention.
Just before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, two suicide bombings in less than 24 hours killed 34 people and injured another 50 in Volgograd, some 400 miles from Sochi. Two months earlier a bomb went off on a Moscow-bound bus, killing six. Fortunately, the Olympics passed without a significant security incident. But that should offer little comfort: Russia faces a looming crisis of Islamic discontent and growing radicalism within its borders. True, Russia's provocative actions beyond its borders demand immediate attention. But developments within the Russian Federation itself threaten to be no less destabilizing over the coming years.
One of the few people focusing on this emerging change in Russia and its implications is Ilan Berman, a rare expert in both Russia and Mideast terrorism, whose latest book Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America is a must read.
Berman identifies several important factors contributing to the transformation of Russia as well as specific policies Russia has in place that exacerbates these trends. Demographics are the greatest single factor. Currently, Muslim birthrates are higher than ethnic Slav birthrates, foreshadowing a significant change in Russia's ethnic composition, and most importantly, the ratio between these populations over the next few decades. As Berman notes, "Muslims are on track to account for a fifth of the country's population by the end of this decade, and a majority by mid-century." In some parts of Russia this is already observable on the ground. In 1991, there were only 300 mosques in the country; by 2006 there were over 8,000, half of which were built with money from abroad, in particular from Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. There are now also 50-60 Islamic religious schools, teaching as many as 50,000 students. Chinese immigrants are moving into Eastern Russia at an extremely fast pace just as ethnic Russians are leaving this resource-rich area, thus raising the possibility of a conflict with China (might China one day decide it must come to the "defense" of ethnic Chinese and Chinese speakers just across its border?). Meanwhile, 100,000-150,000 Russians emigrate annually to seek greater economic opportunities abroad. Still, it is the tension between ethnic Slavic and Muslim Russians that presents the greatest threat to Russian stability.
The terrorist attacks leading up to the Olympics were specifically timed to undermine Russia on the cusp of its Olympic moment with world attention focused on Sochi. Attacks likes these targeting civilians are abhorrent and repulsive, but Russia's history of violent suppression in Muslim-majority regions has only strengthened Islamist militant groups' resolve for violent activity. Today, Russia's foreign policy is now also exacerbating such tensions. By siding with Iran and the Assad regime in Syria, President Putin has potentially created a significant gap between Moscow and the mostly Sunni Muslim population in Russia. The Syrian crisis has been a catalyst for Islamist radicalization across the globe, attracting foreign fighters in greater numbers than Afghanistan did, and in a shorter span of time. Among the 74 different nationalities fighting the Assad regime in Syria are Sunnis from Chechnya, Dagestan, and elsewhere in Russia. Some 400 Russians are estimated to have gone to fight in Syria already, including prominent leaders of al Qaeda-affiliated groups like Umar al-Shishani and Abu Jihad al-Shiashani (Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, ISIS) and Sayfullakh Shishani (Jabhat al-Nusra). Jihadi martyr notices posted on social media suggest at least 44 have died fighting there, including 9 Dagestanis, 20 Chechens, and 15 people from elsewhere in Russia. In Moscow, as elsewhere around the world, counterterrorism officials worry that at least some of their foreign fighter nationals will return home still further radicalized and intent on committing acts of terrorism at home.
This is already happening in Russia's backyard. Foreign fighters from Russia and former Soviet republics are already playing key roles in groups like al Qaeda, and not only in Syria. In February, Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov, also known as Jafar al-Uzbeki, was designated by the US Treasury Department for assisting extremists transiting in and out of Pakistan and Afghanistan through Iran, as well as for providing funding to al-Qaeda financier Yasin al-Suri.
Throughout Russia's violent attempts to suppress the Islamist militants it has targeted Doku Umarov, who has been reported dead on multiple occasions. The latest report of his death seems to have been confirmed, with Dagestani Ali Abu Muhammad introducing himself by video as Umarov's successor. But this changing of the guard to a younger generation indicates greater trouble for Russia. According to the International Crisis Group, "Overall, Dagestan rebels have always been tougher than Chechen rebels. It will be a more battle-ready, more ruthless cell, even more integrated into the global jihad." Americans are all too aware of Dagestan's integration with global jihad. The Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev's radicalization appears to have occurred, at least in part, during his time in Dagestan during early 2012.
Berman notes that Russia's current leadership seems to believe that the country's future is one of global dominance. Moscow's decision to annex Crimea and threaten still further action in Eastern Ukraine and elsewhere can be seen in this light. But Berman offers a more than viable alternative reality, one in which it is not Russia's foreign policy that will decide its future, but its changing internal dynamics. Russia's future, he concludes, "is one of ethnic, demographic, and societal turmoil—and, quite possibly, the end of the Russia that we know." Seem farfetched? Don't answer just yet. ReadImplosion, and then decide.