Vladimir Putin’s Awkward, Hypocritical Relationship With Separatists

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. CREDIT: AP IMAGES
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. CREDIT: AP IMAGES

Russia just passed a new law promising increased penalties, including heavy fines or up to four years in prison, for making public calls for separatism — the ultimate irony for a country that is actively fueling a separatist movement just over the border in Ukraine.

Over the years, President Vladimir Putin has made it his trademark in speeches and even New York Times op-eds to call out the U.S. on flouting the principles of international law when they don’t align with national interests. Just a brief glance at the history of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, or more recently the invasion of Iraq on false pretenses of having weapons of mass destruction, make his biting allegations of hypocrisy hard to ignore.

But Putin’s government has its own record of flaunting tenets of international law, like rights to self-determination and sovereignty, when they run contrary to Russian interests. As Russia continues to pump guns and fighters into a conflict that is destabilizing not only Ukraine, but now all of Europe as well, Putin’s government hardly has the ability to claim the moral high ground. Here’s a brief look at the way Russia has treated separatists within its own borders:

The North Caucus and Chechnya

More than any other area, Russia’s territories in the North Caucus have struggled for autonomy and paid a heavy price for defying Moscow. The predominately Muslim region, which spans between the Black and Caspian Seas, was colonized by imperial Russia in the 19th century and has been fighting for independence pretty much ever since. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Chechen leader Dzokhar Dudayev declared the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria an independent state. Then-President Boris Yeltsin moved to take back the territory for Russia in late 1994, launching the First Chechen War. After one and a half year of bloody conflict, a ceasefire between the federal government in Moscow and Chechen leaders in Groznyy offered the hope of a negotiated peace. But Putin, not content to watch Chechens export their calls for autonomy to neighboring Russian territories and infuriated by expansionist moves from militants like Shamil Basayev into neighboring Dagestan, launched a scorched earth campaign against Chechnya shortly after he took office in 1999. The operation quickly spiraled into a brutal 10-year long war to bring Chechnya back under Russian control that cost countless civilian lives and left the population deeply alienated from Moscow.


In the end, Putin installed a puppet ruler, Akhmad Kadyrov, and heavily subsidized his Chechen supporters in return for their complicity in ruthlessly hunting down remaining separatists. Years of bloodshed and repression turned the separatist movement from a relatively secular one based on Chechen nationalism into a more and more radical movement of Islamic extremism. Dokka Umarov, a separatist leader and veteran of both Chechen wars, formed the Caucasus Emirate, a conglomeration of various rebel groups who seek to establish a new state composed of the Muslim areas currently within Russia, in 2007. The Islamic extremist group has continued to carry out terrorist attacks in the region and across Russia ever since — whether their leader is alive or dead. As a result of the radicalization of separatists in the North Caucus, Chechen terrorists like the notorious top ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani are now making the repercussions of Russia’s internal conflicts felt on a global scale.

Muslim Tatars

500 miles east of Moscow, another predominately Muslim region of Russia has long hosted a strong separatist movement. Tatarstan is a multiethnic state known for tolerance and religious pluralism. It is also home to Russia’s ethnic Tatars, a Turkic-speaking indigenous group. As the Soviet Union began to crumble, Tatars formed the Azatlyk nationalist movement in 1989 to unite Turkic ethnic groups living in Russia and to push for their own state. Despite a 1991 referendum in which a majority of Tatarstan voted for independence, Russia has repeatedly denied the region autonomy. Since Putin first took office, Moscow has chipped away at the Tatar language’s status as an official language in the region and decreed that the political leader of Tatarstan must be appointed and removed only with Moscow’s approval.

Even less eager to live under Putin’s rule are Tatars in Crimea. After Stalin recaptured Crimea from the Nazis at the end of World War II, he scapegoated the peninsula’s indigenous Tatar community, deporting the entire group to central Russia where 40 percent died. After Crimea became part of independent Ukraine, Tatars with ancestral ties to the area flocked back to the area. But after Russia annexed Crimea in March, Crimean Tatars once again started to see their rights evaporate. Two of their top political leaders have been blocked from returning to the peninsula and the Tatars who voted in the March referendum on independence had their ID papers confiscated.

“[We] condemn Russia’s ongoing double-standard policy in international and home affairs,” said separatist group the All-Tatar Civic Center in a statement released in March. “It supports any pro-Moscow national movements in former Soviet republics with all [possible] means… while on its own territory conducts a policy of brutal Christianization and Russification of enslaved peoples, with those who oppose such policy being unjustly prosecuted.”


The Far Eastern Federal District In Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District on the Pacific coast, 6.2 million people live along the border with China, seven time zones away from Moscow. But while economic activity booms just over the border, tight economic controls levied by Moscow have mired 20 percent of the region’s population in poverty. One of the few sources of economic support for many living in the region’s largest city of Primorye is trade with neighboring China. After Putin stepped up restrictions on cross-border trade, the region’s poor residents held peaceful protests in 2008. While most of the protestors weren’t even interested in formal autonomy, Putin interpreted the demonstrations as separatist in nature and unleashed Moscow’s OMON riot police units on the city. Since then, persecution against members of the region’s main political organization, the Fellowship of Proactive Citizens of Russia, has also increased.


Russia’s praise for separatists outside their borders and harsh condemnation of those within is obviously pretty ironic. But beyond making for hypocritical policy, the contradictory standards Russia applies to separatists may also threaten the nation’s stability. Alexei Makarkin, a deputy head of the Moscow-based think tank Center for Political Technologies, warned in March that embracing double standards at home and abroad when it comes to separatists would inevitably undermine Russia’s domestic unity. “Now separatist movements fear the central authorities, who can easily destroy them, but many of them will definitely think, ‘Why can’t we have such a referendum?’” he said. “The Kremlin has no other answer besides, ‘You cannot because it is prohibited.’”