Earlier this year, Russia’s North Caucasus experienced severe flooding. Though the affected area was one of the most stable in the region, there was a public uproar as the locals accused the government of ineffectiveness and even of deliberately causing some of the deaths. Putin’s attempts to defend himself did very little for him. The flood and its aftermath prove how volatile the North Caucasus still is, and if Russia continues to have such natural disasters, anyone with a stake in the Caucasus must prepare for the results. The U.S. can take a few simple steps now to help protect our strategic interests and our own assets: we should appeal diplomatically for an investigation and make the benefits clear to both sides, we should offer aid to Russia to help replace the most dangerous parts of its infrastructure, and we should warn our allies in the region to replace their own.
In early July this year, Russia’s Krasnodar region was struck by devastating floods. The final death toll was 172, and more than 30,000 homes were damaged, 10,000 of them beyond repair. Most of the casualties occurred in the small town of Krymsk, where emergency systems failed to notify people of a massive incoming flash flood that took less than half an hour to submerge the town in more than twenty feet of water.
In a region already suspicious of the government, the failure of warning systems and “tsunami-like” speed of the flooding raised instant alarm bells. Theories abounded that the government had deliberately flooded Krymsk with water from a nearby dam to make sure it could not overflow into the larger city of Novorossiysk instead. Officials immediately disputed these theories, but their pre-evidentiary denials only served to fuel suspicion. The theories spread around the other regions of the North Caucasus and then to the national opposition movement.
President Putin, already facing broader internal dissent than at any time since the earliest days of his administration, went to special effort to take care of the flooding victims. He inspected the flooded area not once but twice, promised large government payouts then demanded the sum be increased, and publicly placed all the blame on local officials, even threatening to have the governor of Krasnodar removed from office. But while he did finally provide some credible evidence that the flooding was not engineered, he inadvertently raised new problems for himself. His staff conspicuously kept him away from the flood survivors, no doubt knowing that some of them might be frustrated with him but accidentally creating an aloof, hands-off persona that only further alienated them. His efforts to blame local officials also backfired in two ways: first, one of his signature achievements is the “power vertical,” which centralizes power in his office and makes it harder to detach himself from local governance failures; second, as Krasnodar governor Aleksandr Tkachev pointed out, the problems with the original payouts were largely due to the red tape caused by Putin’s own policies.
While the fallout from this particular flood is mostly past, it is important for the United States to anticipate other natural disasters in the North Caucasus, especially if President Putin continues to struggle with his electorate. Some experts have reported that the dam that officials supposedly opened did in fact sustain damage in the flooding, and that another large storm might cause another severe flood. The North Caucasus might also be struck with a different disaster, as evidenced by 2010’s severe wildfires. Given the level of anger at the government after the Krasnodar flood, it is not unreasonable to expect that a natural disaster in one of the more volatile parts of the Caucasus might lead to much greater anger or even a conflict.
The largest hazard in deciding how to approach the North Caucasus is the lack of solid data. The government’s obstinacy toward foreign political entities and occasional habit of tilting numbers in its own favor means it is often hard to obtain reliable polling anywhere in Russia, but the North Caucasus is especially opaque. That same obstinacy combined with corruption, a rural populace, and especially repressive local governments can make it nearly impossible to find trustworthy data there. Thus, although we know from social media that there was significant anger at the government after the Krasnodar floods, it is hard to say what percentage of the public is angry, let alone which demographics and regions are most involved. This is a significant problem, because if the conspiracy theorists are only a loud minority, the policy implications are dramatically different than if they are the voice of the majority.
Another important piece of missing information is where the local governments and their leaders stand with the Kremlin. Tkachev remains governor despite Putin’s threats, but without internal information it is hard to say whether the same would go for all the governors in the North Caucasus if faced with a similar disaster. This would be useful to know not only because it is an indicator of which regions are more volatile, but because knowing the extent to which Putin is prepared to fire people who disappoint him would speak volumes about how secure he thinks the region is overall.
We are also missing information on the infrastructure and disaster preparedness of the rest of the North Caucasus. While Russia’s largely ex-Soviet infrastructure is showing its age, we do not have complete information on what is functional if outdated and what is genuinely dangerous. Knowing which systems are more likely to fail in a disaster and where they are concentrated would help us anticipate what crises are likely and be ready to react accordingly.
Though the United States might not be directly involved in a new conflict in the North Caucasus, it would pose a threat to our national interests. Not only would it endanger our relationship with Russia and thereby the security of the global political system, it could prove an immediate hazard to U.S. friends and allies like Georgia. Therefore, while the problem is only a war of words, we should do what we can to defuse the anger on both sides.
Naturally, this means we should utilize diplomatic channels in Russia to speak to both the Kremlin and the North Caucasus. We should support an impartial investigation of the contested dam, whether by investigators from the US or elsewhere, since the Kremlin would benefit from proving that there is no conspiracy and North Caucasians would likely appreciate having the government give their concerns credence. If Putin’s administration does respond well to the investigation idea, we should also offer help with the worst of Russia’s infrastructure problems. This might not be as well received, given Russia’s consistent deep resentment of the obligations attached to foreign aid, but it could also greatly benefit all parties involved.
Since any conflict could potentially spill over into the surrounding area, we also have limited military obligations to our allies. Security buildup is unnecessary and could make the situation dramatically worse, but it is important to give Georgia and Azerbaijan in particular fair warning to shore up their own infrastructure and to do any needed work at our nearby bases.
Julia Noecker is an Analyst at 361Security LLC