Both federal and separatist accounts of the day-to-day course of combat operations in Chechnya are so self-serving that it is extremely difficult to discern the truth behind the propaganda. One can be fairly confident that each side’s admissions of its own losses in battle are accurate as minimums; estimates of the other side’s losses are best ignored. Try as they might, the federals have been unable to conceal that they are still quite remote from their stated goal of truly pacifying the republic; the rebels, unable to conceal that their ability to sustain full-scale military operations (as distinct from sniping and sabotage) is not what it was four years ago.
Despite the lack of precision, it is clear that recent weeks have seen a significant upswing in rebel attacks. This is due in part to the change of seasons; the spring and summer have always been friendly to the guerrillas, enabling them to hide more easily in Chechnya’s thick, leafy forests. (Clearcutting of the lowland forests was a key tactic of the Russian imperial forces as long ago as the early 19th century.) Another cause, of course, is the tremendous shot in the arm that the morale of the secessionists has received from the May 9 death of Akhmad Kadyrov.
Last week, Lieutenant-General Aleksandr Kolmakov said, as quoted by Grani.ru on May 27, that “units of the Chechen fighters have begun mounting active operations.” As the website’s correspondent Ivan Sventsitsky observed, Kolmakov’s words “do not fit well with the cheerful tone of official communications from Chechnya, but the general is not interested in the nuances of agitprop.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta quoted Kolmakov on the same day as acknowledging that “undoubtedly, the state of affairs has become more difficult since the death of Akhmad Kadyrov.”
A May 27 article by Irina Vlasova in Novye Izvestia used even stronger words, declaring that during the short period since Kadyrov’s death “the situation has practically gone out of control.”
It is clear that the rebels are showing new boldness and aggressiveness. For example, on the evening of May 25 the rebels ambushed a motor convoy of federal Interior Ministry troops, including five armored personnel carriers, near the town of Samashki in western Chechnya. They used the classic technique of exploding a mine underneath the lead vehicle so as to block the others—a tactic which for some time they had neglected, preferring to use mines only against isolated vehicles rather than convoys. An Interior Ministry spokesman admitted to Novye Izvestia that five of the ministry’s troops died in this battle.
In a May 27 article for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vladimir Mukhin and Andrei Riskin calculated that “during the past week almost 30 people have died, including peaceful residents; such losses are on the scale of those that were taking place two or three years ago” in Chechnya.
New details have been emerging about the May 18 disaster near the village of Ali-Yurt, in which 11 federal soldiers and police troops died after their armored personnel carrier exploded. Another two were missing, probably captured. A source in the Interior Ministry of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration told Sventsitsky of Grani.ru that the Russian APC was blown up by a 250-kilogram aviation bomb; evidently the rebels were able to convert to their own use an unexploded bomb that had been dropped from a federal airplane.
In a tantalizing indication of the Russian military’s deep distrust for its ostensible allies in Kadyrov-run Chechnya, Yelena Shesternina reported in Russky Kurier on May 27 that two days earlier troops of the Russian defense ministry had launched a major commando operation in the southern highlands without informing the pro-Moscow administration’s security agencies in advance, “so as to prevent information leaks.”
A major focus of rebel operations is Grozny itself. Prague Watchdog reported on May 27 that within the city rebel guerrillas had “opened fire at four checkpoints in the last
twenty-four hours, wounding five Russian soldiers.” According to Sventsitsky, “daily explosions have now begun in the area of Grozny along the main Rostov-Baku highway. It is along that very highway that supplies for the federal garrisons travel…Loss of control of this route would inevitably place the federal troops in a difficult position. The rebels understand this perfectly and are putting maximum effort into interfering with the movements of federal armored vehicles there.” In Sventsitsky’s judgment, Aslan Maskhadov “is now placing his stake on diversionary operations against lines of communication near the Chechen capital….It would be enough for him to be able to control road access to three major towns: Grozny, Argun and Gudermes.” The Grani.ru correspondent likened the rebels’ current tactics to those of the Afghan mujahedeen in 1988, late in the Soviet Afghan war, when “they blockaded all the roads to Kabul, thus accelerating the withdrawal of Soviet forces.”
Sventsitsky noted that the federal forces are now heavily fortifying downtown Grozny, strengthening the defenses of major administrative buildings with reinforced-concrete barriers, sandbags, barbed wire, machine-gun nests, and rooftop sniper positions. Even on the city’s outskirts, the permit system has been strengthened in certain neighborhoods with the goal of making them less vulnerable to rebel infiltrators.
Several experts told Vlasova of Novye Izvestia that another new stimulus to the rebels has been the pro-Moscow administration’s election campaign. Ramazan Abdulatipov, an ethnic Avar from Dagestan who is now a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said that the rebels are trying to “strengthen the contradictions between potential candidates.”