Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 17

Heavy fighting is also continuing in Chechnya’s mountainous regions. On January 23, the Russian forces carried out some 100 combat missions. Meanwhile General Viktor Kazantsev, the commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, claimed that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov was wounded and is located in the Argun gorge, where heavy fighting is underway. “The active phase [of the battle] in the mountains is going on [now],” Kazantsev said. “Three of the main mountainous regions have essentially been liberated. Two more remain, and they will also be liberated in the near future.” He claimed that Russian troops have blocked the routes the rebels could use to escape across the mountains into Georgia. This last claim, however, should be viewed with skepticism, given that the Russian military has more than once claimed that it had sealed off the Chechen-Georgian border. The Kremlin itself apparently doubts that these measures will be effective. This would explain the meeting in Tbilisi between Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo and his Georgian counterpart, Kakha Targamadze. The two officials signed a memorandum on January 23 on cooperation in the fight against terrorism and extremism. According to Rushailo, the two Interior ministries will carry out a joint operation, designated “Zaslon,” (Covering Force) on the Chechen portion of the border between the two countries, with the goal of intercepting contraband weapons and Chechen rebel reinforcements. Rushailo also met with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to discuss the situation in the North Caucasus (NTV, Radio Liberty, January 23).

Despite the upbeat pronouncements from Russian military officials, Acting President Vladimir Putin is refusing to say when the military operation in Chechnya will be over. Putin believes it would be a mistake to name a date-certain and that the key consideration is to avoid casualties among Russian servicemen. Putin also said that Lord Russell-Johnston, the head of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), who visited Chechnya last week, changed his view of what has been going on in the breakaway republic and backed away from the idea of suspending Russia from PACE. It is worth noting that Putin made this statement on the eve of the opening of PACE’s session, at which the Chechen conflict and the plight of refugees from the region will be one of the main subjects. Putin claimed that while there are politicians in the West who want to condemn the Kremlin for its actions in Chechnya and who are pursuing geopolitical interests, there are those who simply do not know what is going on in the region. The acting president said that it is necessary to explain to the Western public that the operation is not aimed at crushing Chechen independence but at rooting out terrorism. Putin, however, seemed to contradict himself in the same interview, saying that at the end of the war, the Kremlin will keep its troops in the republic and establish Russian law enforcement units there (RTR, January 23).