Chechnya’s Rebel Brigadier Generals

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 36

The recent relative calm in Chechnya has allowed for local security officials to start speaking once again about the defeat of the insurgency. On September 16, Ruslan Alkhanov, the pro-Russian Chechen Interior Minister who just two weeks ago had to disclaim rumors about a possible rebel raid on the Chechen capital Grozny, declared that the authorities have effective control over both the republican mountain districts and the Chechen plains. Alkhanov particularly stressed that the situation in Chechnya is perfect in comparison to the situation in neighboring Ingushetia. The Interior Minister then referred to the rebel brigadier generals, as the Chechen field commanders usually call themselves. “There are no more brigadier generals; all brigades have been dispelled and eliminated,” Alkhanov said. However, when a journalist reminded Alkhanov of the top rebel leader Doku Umarov and the underground rebel network operating under his control, Ruslan Alkhanov immediately lost his patience. “I do not know where Umarov hides; if he had been in Chechnya, he would have been already caught,” he said. According to Rossiskaya gazeta, following the press conference, Alkhanov lectured the press service of the Chechen Interior Ministry for letting the journalist ask a question about Umarov (Rossiskaya gazeta, September 17). Such an emotional reaction to a simple and direct question revealed Alkhanov’s possible fear that he may be wrong in claiming that the epoch of the brigadier generals in Chechnya has ended.

Brigadier generals first appeared in Chechnya during the tenure of Chechnya’s first president, Dzhokhar Dudaev, before the first Russian invasion in 1994. Preparing for war with Russia, Dudaev wanted to strengthen his armed forces by creating an effective governing structure. He established eleven main armed groups and each of them had one commander with the rank of a brigadier general. However, when the Russian forces occupied the entire Chechen territory, the Chechen armed forces split into small guerilla groups. Each field commander wanted to be called a brigadier general and the brigadier general rank gradually became equal to the status of a leader of a guerilla band. Dozens of new generals appeared in Chechnya and the rank of brigadier general became meaningless, because anyone who had twenty or more men under his command could be called a brigadier general. It became clear that the real field commanders like Shamil Basaev or Ruslan Gelaev needed to have new ranks to distinguish themselves from the other commanders. Such commanders as Gelaev or Basaev started to call themselves division generals.

In the second Chechen war, the rebels almost forgot about such ranks as brigadier or division generals and started to call themselves amirs (commanders) or supreme amirs (top commanders).

However, when Doku Umarov became the leader of the separatists last year, he revived the rank of brigadier general and also started to use such ranks as colonel. On September 30, 2006, Umarov issued a decree appointing new commanders of the rebel fronts in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus. At the same time, he granted a rank of brigadier general to four commanders: two in Chechnya (Khairulla Yelmurzaev and Takhir Gaziev), one in Dagestan (Rappani Khalilov), and one in Ingushetia (Akhmed Yevloev aka Magas). On April 7 of this year, Umarov issued a new decree establishing a Sharia Guard in Chechnya and appointed brigadier general Abdul-Khalim Menzhidov, an old Chechen commander and veteran of the first war, as the head of the Guard. After some time, Umarov also conferred the rank of brigadier general on Abubakar Yelmuradov, the commander of the North-West Front, and Abubakar Basaev, the commander of the Central Front. Just a week ago, Umarov conferred the rank of brigadier general on Aslanbek Vaduev, who became the commander of the Eastern Front in Chechnya after the death of Khairulla Yelmurzaev.

Among the commanders mentioned above, at least five are still alive: Gaziev, Vaduev, Basaev, Yelmuradov, and Menzhidov. Gaziev and Vaduev are especially active now in Chechnya. Their names appear regularly in the Russian press after each successful raid committed by their fighters.

It is not a coincidence that Alkhanov used the rank of “brigadier generals” in his speech. The revival of this rank in the rebel hierarchy could remind Chechens of the first war and their victory over the Russians. In saying that there are no more brigadier generals in Chechnya, Alkhanov would like to persuade people in Chechnya that the period of Chechen glory will never come back and that the Russians will stay in the republic forever.