During the third week of June, Doku Umarov gave an interview in Chechnya to Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky, a transcript of which was published by the separatist Chechenpress and Kavkazcenter websites on July 15. Among other things, the Chechen rebel field commander, who was recently named the rebel movement’s vice-president (see Chechnya Weekly, June 22), expressed his disapproval of terrorist attacks like the Beslan operation and his adherence to traditional as opposed to radical Islam.
Asked whether he would concede that there is a significant portion of the Chechen population that “cannot conceive of life outside of Russia,” Umarov replied that if you took away the “terror” and “fear” instilled by the Russian army, not even one percent of the Chechen population would say they could not conceive of Chechnya independent of Russia. “Earlier, in the epoch of the Soviet Union, when there was one country, maybe,” he said. “But now, after six years, I think that there are not any such people.” They simply state this out of fear, Umarov said.
At the same time, Umarov did not contradict Babitsky’s statement that it was not possible for the rebels to win the conflict militarily. Instead, he seemed to place hopes in a change of administration in Moscow. “In any case, we are people of faith,” he said. “A person without faith is not a complete person. We are on the path of Allah; it is a sacred path for us. We are this way obligated to do jihad. Today, a superpower that the entire world must reckon with cannot win militarily; this should also be analyzed. But until there is a change of government [and] reasonable people come to power, you can’t count on an end to the war. There is also not a hopeless situation. Things are not as bad for us as some people think. Because it would be bad if it were the year 2000 and the start of Putin’s administration. And I believe that the era is changing, that all governments change and that his epoch will end [and] reasonable people will come to power. Such an administration, such an empire sooner or later must come to an end. And today …to live with these people is practically impossible. It is impossible for any self-respecting person.”
Umarov dismissed the idea that the rebels today consist only of adherents of radical Islam as “work of the FSB” and a lie of “Kadyrov’s clan.” “A Muslim, any Muslim, any person, must live according to some laws. And if a Muslim lives according to the Sharia, if that Sharia forbids him from carousing or smoking or doing something, [then] I think this is not bad. But I, for example, joined the war as a patriot. Before the war I was in Moscow, and when the occupation began, I understood that war was already inevitable, [and] I arrived [in Chechnya] as a patriot. Maybe at that time I didn’t know how to pray; I don’t remember. To claim today that I’m a Wahhabi or that I’m a person of radical Islam is laughable. I have an entire front; I pass along the front and don’t see that they’re trying to present Wahhabism, terrorism to the whole world.”
Babitsky noted to Umarov that Shamil Basaev had planned and carried out several terrorist attacks and justified them on the grounds that “Allah grants the right to take from an adversary what has been taken from you.” Umarov responded: “In any case, today we do not have such a right. If we use such methods, then, I think, there will be no way back to a humane cast of mind.” Asked whether the terrorist attacks in Beslan and Moscow have been recognized as morally legitimate for “all fighting Chechens,” Umarov answered: “No, these operations have not passed any legitimization in the eyes of the resistance. We were simply horrified by what they did in Beslan.”
On the other hand, Babitsky asked Umarov about accusations that he was involved in kidnappings-for-ransom during the period between Chechnya’s two wars. Umarov said that as the secretary of the separatist Security Council, then president Aslan Maskhadov sent him around Chechnya to stem opposition from warlords like Arbi Baraev, who was involved in the hostage-for-ransom business, and “because of these contacts I began to be accused of it.” Umarov said he told Maskhadov that if he is found guilty of hostage-taking in court, “I shall not lift a finger to protect myself…Show me at least one fact.” He then added: “But look today, those people who especially succeeded in slave trading, where are these people now?” Umarov referred to Movladi Baisarov, the head of an armed unit loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov who has been widely accused of kidnappings, and to Sulim Yamadaev, head of the GRU-connected Vostok battalion. Still, Babitsky noted that Umarov’s answer did not “dispel doubts” about his own role in kidnappings and that Umarov will have to answer to “more detailed” accusations in the future.
Umarov also conceded that the Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen forces had been able to eliminate a significant portion of the rebels’ original command structure. “That’s life,” he said. “Maybe I won’t be around tomorrow. That’s life; we’re not immortal, we’re not gods. Life goes on. We, the old, must give up our places; how many young people are waiting on line to take these places. There’s no such thing as war without losses. Maskhadov and others have left on the path to Allah. Maskhadov’s place has been taken by [Abdul-Khalim] Saidulaev, 38-years-old, young, full of energy, smart. Tomorrow someone from among these young people can take my place; he’ll be even better than me…[There have been] big losses. Basically, I did not consider them to be so appreciable before Mashadov’s death; simply Mashadov’s death was a great loss. And so in general each commander that dies, in his place immediately – maybe I’m not fair to the dead, but younger, more energetic people take their places and the loss is forgotten rather quickly. You don’t forget, of course, your brothers, your friends, but their places are taken by more forceful, energetic people.” According to Umarov, all of his close relatives, including his wife and six-month-old child, his brother, his father-in-law and his wife’s brother, have been kidnapped.
On the other hand, Umarov insisted his forces have inflicted heavy losses on federal forces, and cited an incident in which, he claimed, rebels killed 38 members of a 39-man GRU unit in a battle that took place in the Itum-Kale district.
Of equal interest in the Umarov interview were Andrei Babitsky’s own observations. “I was really amazed at how freely the Chechen guerrillas move in the woods, not looking around, not observing any apparent precautionary measures,” he said. “When I was here two years ago, the atmosphere was completely different. The Chechens expected an attack every second, spent entire days preparing for it. There were entrenchments, guards protecting the camp round the clock in any weather. Nothing of the kind happens now. The mood of the camp is more reminiscent of a rest quarters for hunters. Only the remote rumble of a spy plane reminds one of war. ‘Today we move rather freely,’ Umarov says. There often arises a situation in which two groups, Chechen and Russian, run into each other in the woods and part without engaging. Nobody needs superfluous victims.”
Still, Babitsky also noted that the rebels still find it necessary to take some precautions. “For example, the Chechens do not use mobile [telephone] communications in the mountains at all or use it [only] in extreme cases even though each has a receiver,” he wrote. “Coming upon a forest, they shake the battery out of it, since, according to their assertions, even a switched-off phone equipped with a battery can be tapped and its bearings taken. And the bearings define the point from which a call has been made within a radius of 20 meters and in literally ten minutes an artillery strike can be made on it. Russian artillery units are situated in the republic so that they can cover any position with fire from four different disposition locations. ‘These days in Chechnya there is a full moon,’ some Chechens told me. ‘At such a time we move at night in the woods in small groups, inasmuch as the Russian military forces have various devices with which they can easily trace our movements.'”