On November 3, Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov announced during a meeting in Grozny that the number of terrorist acts had decreased so far this year by 36 percent across Chechnya and by 43 percent in Grozny, compared with same period last year. Kavkaz.strana.ru quoted Alkhanov as saying that 93 militants had been killed and 218 arrested this year. Another 102 “gang members” gave up. On October 20, Rossiiskaya gazeta quoted Lieutenant-General Vyacheslav Dodonov, commander of the Joint Group of Forces in the North Caucasus, as saying that federal forces managed to reduce the activity of gunmen during the first part of 2004. Alkhanov, however, admitted during the Grozny meeting that “illegal armed formations” had become very active on the eve of the holidays in November – The Day of Unity and Accord, Militia Day, and Uraza-Bairam, marking the end of Ramadan. “In this connection, the Chechen police will be on high alert from November 6 to November 17,” Alkhanov said.
Indeed, the casualty figures among the Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen police forces this year refute Gen. Dodonov’s claim that the rebel forces’ activity has been reduced. According to Oleg Khotin, head of the joint provisional Interior Ministry force in Chechnya, 532 Russian policemen were killed in action during the first nine months of this year, Lenta.ru reported on October 22. (414 died during the same period last year.) And Akhmed Dakaev, the Chechen police force’s chief of staff, admitted that 117 Chechen policemen have also died this year. It is interesting to note that other Russian law-enforcement agencies have not made their annual casualty tallies public for quite a long time; nevertheless, none of them have dared to announce that there were no losses at all. Over just two days in October (October 18-20), the Russian Defense Ministry’s official casualty figures were four dead and four wounded.
The figures for federal losses prove that the war in Chechnya is still going on. Furthermore, the federal troops’ command fears rebel raids in various parts of the North Caucasus. On October 28, Kavkaz.strana.ru quoted a statement by Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Shepel that rebel leaders Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basaev “are preparing new acts of terror in Nazran, Vladikavkaz and Grozny to destabilize the situation in the North Caucasus.”
There is evidence, however, that the federal forces are preparing not just for terrorist attacks but also for military operations by the insurgents, such as assaults on major towns and Russian army unit locations. As usual, the focus is on Grozny. According to the Information Center of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a human rights organization and one of the few independent sources of data on the situation in Chechnya nowadays, Russian army troops on November 2 moved into the villages of Gikalo, Prygorodny and Chechen-Aul. These villages are on the southeastern outskirts of Grozny and surrounded by forests where militants could easily hide. They are located on the shortest route to Grozny from the mountainous area of Chechnya. This is one possible way for large rebel groups to enter the city. According to the Society’s sources, the Russian units that moved into the settlements started to excavate trenches and fortify their positions (see the Society’s press release #1009 of November 4 and #1010 of November 5).
Considering that small and mobile sabotage groups of insurgents have been operating in Grozny during all five years of the second war, it is unlikely that serious measures have been taken against them. Now, however, there is no doubt that federal troops are strengthening their defense line to protect Grozny against a massive rebel assault similar to the one launched in August 1996. The result of that operation, dubbed “Jihad,” was that three major Chechen towns – Grozny, Argun and Gudermes – fell back under the rebels’ full control and a peace treaty was signed in the Dagestani town of Khasavyurt. It seems that despite countless statements about the “complete destruction of major illegal armed formations,” Russian generals still assume that the insurgents have the capability of repeating “Jihad.” It should be noted that the defense line now being strengthened around Grozny was already seriously fortified back in 2002, when the chief of staff of the North Caucasus Military District, Vladimir Bulgakov, arrived in Grozny specifically to improve the city’s defense system (see Newsru.com, April 28, 2002).
The system built by the general was based mostly on checkpoints and minefields around Grozny. From hills in the north to Chernorechye suburb in the south, the line of checkpoints stretches through Staraya Sunzha, Berdykel, Gikalo, Prygorodny, Chechen-Aul and other settlements. The regime for civilians in these areas is very tough: only farmers who work in the fields around the villages can enter the areas near the checkpoints. The list of farmers is subject to approval by the Russian commandant of the Grozny Rural Region (Groznensky Selsky Raion) and given to soldiers manning the checkpoints. Chechen civilians not on the list simply cannot pass through the checkpoints (see Grani.ru, May 25). Such harsh measures, however, seem to be insufficient to prevent a possible attack on Grozny, so the generals are deploying extra units to the area.
But concentrating more troops near settlements southeast of Grozny is not the only action to defend the city. On November 8, Russian army and Chechen police units reinforced checkpoints in the main entrances to the city and on the crossroads inside the Chechen capital, Strana.ru reported. Servicemen are stopping and searching all cars and checking their drivers’ IDs. Federal troops are also trying to take control of those Chechen villages in the valleys where guerrillas can secretly concentrate their forces. Grani.ru reported on October 16 that large-scale mopping-up operations were being conducted in the villages of Novye Atagi and Stary Atagi in the central part of Chechnya. Similar zachistki operations were carried out at the end of October in villages located along another possible route to Grozny, including Samashki, Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk in western Chechnya. At the same time, Russian army reconnaissance units are combing foothill forests almost every day searching for rebel bases. Sometimes there are direct skirmishes between federal troops and militants. Radio Liberty reported that the latest serious fighting occurred on November 3 near the village of Alkhazurovo, in which four servicemen were killed and three wounded.
The federal command is trying to prevent possible attacks not only in the western and central parts of Chechnya, but also in the east and in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. Almost every day, Russian troops shell and bomb forests near the village of Serzhen-Yurt, the place which militants located in the mountainous Vedeno district use to enter the republic’s plains (see Russian-Chechen Friendship Society press release #1011, November 5). And in Ingushetia, federal mobile posts have been set up along the Ingushetian part of the Rostov-Baku highway to protect valley settlements from raids by local mudjahideen, whose bases are located in the mountainous parts of the republic.
It looks as if the Kremlin and the Russian army command expect not only a possible repetition of the August 1996 operation, but a much larger offensive in Chechnya and other North Caucasus regions. The federal troops’ preparations show that the resistance units under Aslan Maskhadov’s command may be much stronger then anybody suspects.