At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Michael Reynolds, a Research Fellow at Harvard University's John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, discussed the history of conflict between Russia and the peoples of the North Caucasus. He explained that there has been little research on the history of the North Caucasus, and the literature that does exist focuses heavily on the "Great Caucasian Wars" of the 19th century and the role of Islam in driving the Caucasian peoples to fight against the Russian invaders. However, in Reynolds' view, this interpretation misrepresents both the nature of the conflict between Russians and Caucasians and the complex role that Islam has played in this conflict.

Reynolds noted that the Russian army was not the first to find it difficult to defeat and control the mountaineers of the North Caucasus. Arab armies reached the region by the middle of the 7th century and were intent on gaining control of the strategic city of Derbent along the Caspian Sea, but were never successful. Similarly, the forces of the Mongol Khanates, of Tamerlane, and of the Persian and Ottoman Empires were unable to take control of the North Caucasus. According to Reynolds, ferocious and effective guerrilla warfare has characterized conflict in the North Caucasus since the pre-Islamic period.

Because ad-hoc tribal coalitions were strong enough to drive out invaders, the mountaineers never established state structures, Reynolds stated. However, he argued that the gradual spread of Islamic teachings—which incorporate the concept of state authority—provided an intellectual foundation for the establishment of a North Caucasian state and a unified resistance to Russia. Leaders such as Imams Mansur and Shamil attempted to unite the mountaineers within an Islamic state both as a religious imperative and as a means of effectively resisting Russian military might. Reynolds noted that their success was limited. He argued that the concept of individual responsibility that is central to both Islam and modern states was alien to the clan-centered culture of the mountaineers, who resisted the imposition of Islamic law.

According to Reynolds, historians tend to overemphasize the importance of anti-Russian Islamic confederations in the North Caucasus. The most successful occurred under Imam Shamil in the mid-19th century, but even Shamil failed to unify all the North Caucasian peoples against Russia. Reynolds noted that some groups cooperated with the Russian army because they opposed the imposition of Islamic laws and norms. North Caucasians also cooperated with Russians in the early 20th century, when the Union of Allied Mountaineers of the Caucasus united Muslim and non-Muslim groups in support of democratic reform in Russia.

Reynolds also maintained that the role of Sufi brotherhoods in rousing the mountaineers to war is often overemphasized. He argued that Sufism typically is a mystic variety of Islam that emphasizes personal connection to the divine over adherence to Islamic law. Both in the 19th century and the post-Soviet period, more traditional and legalistic interpretations of Islam provided the impetus to fight against Russia. However, Reynolds noted that some proponents of an Islamic state in the North Caucasus have been vocal opponents of holy war against Russia. Throughout history, Islam has been a force for both conflict and peace in the North Caucasus.