Chechnya’s Rebels Step Up Attacks: An Examination of Their Tactics

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 44

The recent ambush of an OMON special police detachment by Chechen rebels in the mountainous Sharoi district and the recent flurry of alarming statements by Russian generals (Chechnya Weekly, November 9) have prompted the Russian media to focus again on the military situation in Chechnya.

On November 9, Vadim Rechkalov, a Russian journalist famous for his close ties with siloviki, published an article in Moskovsky komslomolets entitled, “This is War.” The article’s thrust was that despite the fact that there have been several elections in Chechnya, that the parliament is functioning and that the civil airport has been opened, the war in the region is continuing. Quoting General Yevgeny Baryaev, the commander of the Russian military group in Chechnya, Rechkalov wrote that the rebels could strike not only in Chechnya but also in neighboring regions like Ingushetia and Dagestan and that the insurgency had serious support from the local population. “This is war,” Reachkalov reiterated, hinting that the hostilities in the North Caucasus could escalate in the near future.

On November 10, Rossiiskaya gazeta published an article by Timofei Borisov, another Russian journalist connected with the Federal Security Service (FSB). Borisov wrote that the ambush on an OMON unit from Mordovia was a test for the young rebels. He added that according to his sources in Chechnya, there may have been more casualties among the policemen than the official number of seven, and the clash lasted for quite a long time and was not an ordinary shoot-and-run operation by Chechen guerillas. Borisov hinted that the ambush was a sort of military training exercise for younger rebels and that this attack could have been a preparation for a larger scale operation in the future.

The military leadership of the Chechen and the North Caucasian insurgency has also not given any indication that it might be preparing an unpleasant surprise for the Russian army. On October 29, the Kavkaz-Center rebel website quoted a source in the Chechen rebel command as saying that in late August, Chechen rebel leader Dokku Umarov ordered rebel commanders to change their tactics to prepare for the fall and winter campaign. The source did not provide any further details.

In early November, Abu Hafs, a Chechen field commander of Arab origin, noted in an interview with Vakit, a Turkish newspaper, that “elements of a new strategy are being practiced to perfection during various military operations. This strategy will be used soon” (Kavkaz-Center, November 10).

While it is uncertain what the new strategy may consist of, it is possible to make an educated guess at what the rebels might have in store by analyzing their recent attacks.

On the day of the ambush on the Mordovian OMON unit, Russian TV news programs offered details of a recent rebel military attack. The state-run RTR channel reported that the policemen’s motorcade had been attacked with grenade launchers and small arms fire but not with roadside bombs, as has typically been the case during the last two years of the Chechen war. The Mordovian Info-RM news agency reported two days before the ambush that a checkpoint of the Mordovian OMON had been attacked with under-barrel grenade launchers and that a Mordovian OMON soldier was killed by shrapnel from a grenade (Info-RM, November 7).

Rebel reports during the past two months seem to indicate that the insurgency has switched, almost entirely, to direct ambushes of Russian and pro-Russian Chechen forces. While the rebels had previously carried out remote-control bomb attacks, they are increasingly carrying out direct attacks using small arms and grenade launchers. For example, the rebel website Daymokh reported on October 3 that rebels had ambushed military UAZ jeeps near Grozny, the Chechen capital, and also near Argun, another Chechen city, during the first two days of October. In addition, motorcades were ambushed in the village of Germenchuk, Shali district, and near the village of Tsotsin-Yurt, in the Kurcahloi district.

At the end of October, the Chechen separatist website Daymokh reported that a Russian armored personnel carrier was attacked in Argun on October 25 and that three more ambushes occurred on October 30 near Grozny, in the village of Germenchuk and near the village of Berkat-Yurt, which is near Khankla, the main Russian military base in Chechnya.

Indirect proof that these attacks did indeed take place is the activity of the Russian artillery. On November 4, the Chechen Independent Information Center reported artillery barrages on the outskirts of Germenchuk, Shali, and Avturi – the areas where, according to rebel sources, the attacks had occurred.

The rebels have also stepped up their attacks using cars to assassinate local officials or attack local patrols. Radio Liberty reported on November 10 that rebels had used a car to attack a police patrol in Grozny. This tactic is also commonly being used in Ingushetia as well.

It is also evident that the rebels have significantly increased the frequency of their attacks on Russian commandants’ offices and garrisons, alternating their attacks on different military garrisons in proximity to each other. Even the large Russian military base at Khankala has come under attack. According to Daymokh, Chechen separatists fired grenade launchers at barracks in Khankala during the night of October 2, while a police department was attacked in the northern Chechen village of Karagalinskaya on October 6. Russian army sources have also confirmed that attacks on police and military facilities in Chechnya have increased recently (EDM, October 26).

Another current tactic of the militants is their renewed use of mobile checkpoints. The rebels used this tactic quite effectively during their June 2004 attack on Nazran in Ingushetia and most recently this past August in Grozny. According to various sources, during the past several months, the rebels have started setting up mobile checkpoints again in Grozny, near Argun, as well as in the mountains. The military purpose behind these checkpoints is to look for pro-Russian servicemen and policemen in order to intimidate or kill them. This tactic is also being used frequently in Ingushetia.

It should also be noted that this autumn, the rebels on several occasions attacked or bombed stations for cell phone communications in both Chechnya and Ingushetia. Each time, mobile communications in the republics were temporarily put out of commission.

In light of these new tactics, it appears that the rebels are possibly fine-tuning their capacity to launch attacks following the recent setbacks that have occurred in their leadership since the death of Shamil Basaev. With Umarov now taking the reins of command, it appears that the seasoned commander could be testing younger commanders in preparation of a renewed and more intensified military campaign next spring. The reappearance of mobile checkpoints and the attacks on Khankala are particularly striking from a military perspective for several reasons. First, the mobile checkpoints could be used to block Russian military movements in a major attack, just as they were used so effectively during the June 2004 attack in Ingushetia. Second, the recent series of attacks on the base at Khankala could be preparation for an effort to pin down the large Russian garrison there as part of a larger attack on Grozny (the base is located on the outskirts of Grozny). In the final analysis, while it is difficult to estimate the overall military capacity of the rebel movement these days as the separatist movement continues to regroup, its capacity to plan for future attacks should not be underestimated.