Here’s the Real Reason Russia Is in Iraq
Policy + Politics

Here’s the Real Reason Russia Is in Iraq


Many in the international policy community assume that Russia expedited the delivery of warplanes to Iraq to embarrass the United States because the delivery of F-16s to Baghdad was delayed. However, a closer examination of recent Russian history shows that Russia has taken the threat of the Islamic extremism, both within and outside its own borders, very seriously. 

Within his own country, Russian President Vladimir Putin has faced attacks that might not have been on the scale of 9/11 in their size, but compare in their brutality. 

Related: Iraq Is Latest Battle in U.S.-Russia Proxy Cold War 

Those responsible for these attacks are Chechen separatists in Russia’s southeastern Caucasus region. Russian security forces have been waging a quiet war against Sunni Muslims in the area, who in turn have been waging a campaign of violence within Russia for nearly two decades. 

Chechen separatists began seriously quarreling with Russian security forces in the mid-1990s. The northern Caucasus accept being part of the Russian federation, while southern Caucus countries – mainly Chechnya and Dagestan – are fighting for freedom. The extremists formally announced themselves to the nation in 1999, when they detonated a series of five bombs across apartments in Moscow, killing 300. This led to the Second Chechen War, a conflict that lasted nearly ten years with both sides incurring heavy losses.

The 1999 apartment bombings have always been shrouded in mystery. Many scholars and opposition politicians claim the attack was staged by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which used them as an excuse to consolidate Putin’s power while giving him reason to send troops to Russia’s restive Caucasus. Others maintain that the attacks were legitimate, and Putin properly used his authority to address the Chechen threat.

Whatever the case, the 1999 bombings and the start of the war marked a period of escalation between Muslim terrorists and Russian authorities. Chechens would strike again in 2002, taking a Moscow theater and its 850 patrons hostage. A failed Russian raid left all of the 40 Chechen terrorists dead, along with 130 theatergoers.

Related: Lawmakers on ISIS: Be Very Afraid

But perhaps the group’s most brazen act of terror came in 2004, when Chechen Muslim separatists took a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, claiming 1,100 people as hostages, including 777 children. In the end, 334 people - the majority of them students - were left dead.

The massacre allowed Putin to consolidate power in the Kremlin, while undertaking a series of sweeping reforms that made the Russian president stronger. Opponents of the Kremlin maintain that elements of the Beslan narrative did not line up, and were simply a perfect reason for Putin to consolidate power. 

Chechen terrorists have been deemed responsible for other attacks across the Russian federation. Most recently, they made new threats during the Sochi Olympics when Western authorities suggested that athletes might not be safe. 

The games went off without incident. But it did highlight what Putin considered to be a double-standard with how the West and Russia deals with extremisms; Putin has long contended that the United States does not take the threat from Chechen Muslims seriously, and does not do all it can to cooperate with Moscow to confront the threat. 

He expressed these sentiments in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, allegedly perpetrated by two young men under the influence of a radical strand of Dagestani Muslim separatists. 

Related: The Map That Shows How to Save Iraq 

“I was always appalled when our western partners and the western media called the terrorist, who did bloody crimes in our country, ‘insurgents,' and almost never ‘terrorists,’” Putin said in April 2013. “They [the terrorists] were receiving help, informational, financial and political support. Sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. And we were saying that we must do the job and not be content with declarations proclaiming terrorism a common threat. Those two have proved our position all too well." 

According to Robert Freedman, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on Russia, the creation of a Sunni caliphate and what that could pose to Russia is a large part of the reason that Putin’s warplanes are already in Iraq. 

“A Sunni caliphate worries Russia,” Freedman told The Fiscal Times. “It would be very attractive to Sunnis in the Caucuses.” 

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