The war, which has divided Muslim clerics, threatens to destabilize the Caucasus and Central Asia
As Russian troops pushed in the first days of the war toward Kyiv, Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities, and Ukrainians resisted, families in the Russian North Caucasus began to bury sons killed in the fighting. At one funeral in the Kurchaloyevsky district of Chechnya, a Muslim cleric announced that the families of Abdulbek Taramov and Tamirlan Isaev would each receive 1 million rubles (about $6,400) and a cow. Just days before, on Feb. 27, an Islamic scholar based in the Chechen capital of Grozny, Salakh Mezhiev, had declared the Russian invasion a “jihad.” Chechen soldiers, he explained, were fighting “for the Koran, for God” and to save both Russia and Islam from “filth” spread by NATO.
Pro-Kremlin propagandists have cast the Russian invasion as a war for what Putin has called the “spiritual unity” of Orthodox Christian Russians and Ukrainians. Yet an overlooked aspect of this war is the fact that Muslims of diverse national and ethnic backgrounds аre playing a central role. Muslim clerics in Russia have backed Vladimir Putin’s offensive and tried to rally the support of Russia’s estimated 20 million or more Muslims (at least 14 percent of the country’s population). On the front lines, Russian Muslims find themselves pitted against fellow Muslims defending Ukraine. Chechens are fighting on both sides. More Islamic burials are anticipated in both countries in the days to come.
These deaths could have significant geopolitical implications. Ukrainians are obviously bearing the brunt of Putin’s fury, but the war threatens to ignite other kinds of conflict within Russia and, via its Muslim diaspora communities, throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Russian clerics’ support of Putin could also backfire: Their support of Putin’s venture could discredit them in the eyes of their followers, who may come to question the legitimacy of the war and its religious validation — a development that would unsettle Russian Islam.