Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 84

Ten Russian soldiers were killed April 26 when Chechen rebels attacked a search-and-rescue unit in the town of Serzhen-Yurt, at the entrance of the Vedeno Gorge in southern Chechnya. According to General Valeria Manilov, first deputy chief of the Russian armed forces’ general staff, the commander of the unit, Colonel Nikolai Shevelev, was killed in the attack. The attacking force reportedly consisted of up to fifty rebels and, according to military forces, some twenty of the attackers were killed. According to rebel sources, none of the attackers were killed (Russian agents, April 27).

With the appearance of foliage in Chechnya, the rebels have sharply stepped up their activities: Thirty-seven Russian were killed and sixty-three wounded last week alone. All of this shows that a new phase of the Chechen conflict has begun–a guerrilla war. This explains why President-elect Vladimir Putin decided April 27 to strengthen the special forces operating in Chechnya’s mountains. At the same time, Stanislav Kovun, deputy commander of the Interior Ministry’s troops, admitted in a television interview that the federal forces are powerless to stop rebel ambushes in wooded parts of Chechnya’s mountains. The armed forces’ general staff has reported that 2,181 Russian troops have been killed and 6,388 wounded during the Chechen campaign. These losses could rise dramatically now that the seasonal conditions are working to the benefit of the rebels.

Meanwhile, the rebels are apparently trying to spread the war beyond the borders of Chechnya and have been concentrating forces along the Chechen-Dagestani and the Chechen-Georgian borders. Furthermore, while Kovun asserted that Russian forces still have the borders under their control, the Monitor’s correspondent, who recently managed to visit both borders, came away convinced that such claims are not true, and that a large number of mountain paths are not controlled by the federal forces (ORT, NTV, April 27; see the Monitor, April 26).

It is possible that the trouble which the Russian forces in Chechnya have been encountering is the reason why a number of Russian newspapers have been speculating about the possibility that the Kremlin will soon hold talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. The newspaper Segodnya claimed that such contacts are already taking place and that Maskhadov might come to Moscow and “surrender” to Putin as part of an overall peace deal. There have also been reports that if Maskhadov “surrenders,” the criminal case against him–for organizing and participating in an armed rebellion–will be immediately closed and he will either be amnestied under the amnesty law passed by the State Duma or pardoned by the Russian president. Nezavisimaya gazeta, citing the “Free Chechnya” information agency, reported that full-scale negotiations with Maskhadov are now underway, and that agreement has been reached on five points. Moscow has reportedly agreed to recognize Maskhadov as Chechnya’s legitimate president, while Maskhadov has agreed that his forces will release all Russian POWs they are holding and that his fighters, with the exception of his officers, will give up their arms. According to the same reports, the two sides have also agreed that a government will be formed in Chechnya which will be made up of Maskhadov’s supporters, representatives of the Chechen diaspora in Russian and representatives of the ethnic Russian population in Chechnya (Segodnya, April 26; Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 27).

It is entirely possible that all of these reports about negotiations are false. In any case, Russian officials have denied them categorically: A source in the North Caucasus department of the Prosecutor General’s Office denied there had been any discussion about closing the criminal case against Maskhadov, while Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin’s spokesman on Chechnya, called such speculation “absolutely absurd.” Subsequently, however, Yastrzhembsky said that Maskhadov could be amnestied if he surrendered to the federal forces, but added that an amnesty in absentia was out of the question. Meanwhile, General Valery Manilov, deputy head of the armed forces’ General Staff, declared that negotiations were impossible with Maskhadov, who, in Manilov’s words, is like rebel field commanders Khattab, Shamil Basaev and Ruslan Gelaev in having committed “serious crimes” against the Chechen people. Yastrzhembsky, meanwhile, read what he claimed was an intercepted radio message from Maskhadov to his foreign minister, in which the Chechen leader supposedly indicates that his calls for negotiations is just a tactical move (Russian agencies, April 26; NTV, RTR, April 27).

The Kremlin, in the end, may not be willing to negotiate with Maskhadov, given that it would arouse intense anger from Russia’s generals and that Putin, who has not yet even been inaugurated, needs the support of the country’s military leaders.