On February 4, President Vladimir Putin visited Botlikh, a mountain town in the Caucasian republic of Dagestan where the 33rd Motorized Infantry Brigade Highland is deployed. Botlikh has a special personal symbolic meaning for Putin: his rise to power started there in August 1999 when militants led by rebel field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab occupied Botlikh District, which is located on Dagestan’s administrative border with Chechnya. In August 1999, Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, raised a glass of vodka at a military camp in the area but did not drink it, promising to do so after victory over the insurgents. This scene was broadcast by Russian central TV and Putin became a Russian hero—a savior of the motherland.
Now that Putin’s presidency is ending it is important for him to remind the public of his political achievements. During his trip to Botlikh, Putin talked a lot about the events of August 1999, especially about the Dagestani local militia’s support for the Russian troops that fought the Basaev/Khattab-led insurgents. “There were many wounded and killed among the local population,” Putin said at the meeting in Botlikh. “Please do not forget about these people and their families” (Interfax, February 4).
Apart from other aims, Putin’s visit to Botlikh was meant to highlight the success of his Caucasus policy and show that the residents of Dagestan support the federal government, just as they did in August 1999. Nevertheless, current events in Dagestan demonstrate the opposite: the area of hostilities in the republic is expanding. War reports from the region mention more and more districts of Dagestan that have never before appeared in the news as scenes of battles between the rebels and police forces.
No one can pinpoint the exact day that the insurgency unleashed the guerrilla war in the republic, but attacks against local police officers have increased significantly since 2004. Until 2007, the rebels were mainly active in the three largest cities of the republic: Makhachkala (the capital), Buinaksk, and Khasavyurt. Three rebel groups operated in these cities: Sharia (Makhachkala), Seifuallah (Buinkask) and Junduallah (Khasavyurt). The militants attacked policemen mostly in urban areas, but starting in 2007, more and more clashes occurred in the mountains and villages. In October 2007, the Kavkaz-Center rebel website posted a statement by the Dagestan rebel command, which said that a decision had been made by the Shura (Council) of the “Command of the Dagestan Front” to widen the area of “Jihad” in the republic. A month after the statement appeared on the Internet it became clear exactly which territory the rebels meant—the city of Derbent in southern Dagestan, an area that used to be quite calm. In November 2007, several attacks on police patrols took place in Derbent and Dagestansky Ogni (another city in southern Dagestan), and on December 30 rebels bombed a car in which Edik Sultanov, a local police officer who supervised criminal cases related to terrorism and religious extremism, was traveling. Thus, one can say that war has finally arrived to southern Dagestan.
The Dagestani insurgency issued a press release on February 8, 2008, stating: “In 2004 our brothers Yasin and Abu-Zagir visited Derbent on the orders of Rasul Makasharipov (the first leader of Dagestan’s rebels, who was killed in 2005) to call upon the local jamaat to join the Jihad. Amir Muslim (Makasharipov) planned to open a ‘second front’ in Derbent. All praise be to Allah, the Muslims of Derbent woke up and set off on the path of Jihad.”
When the first shots were heard in Derbent, the federal and republican security officials focused on the Derbent area. After the murder of police officer Edik Sultanov it became clear to the Federal Security Service (FSB) that the rebels had managed to form an active group in the district. Early in January this year, Russian troops and Dagestani police officers started to comb mountain areas adjacent to Derbent in search of rebel bases. On January 8, fierce fighting broke out high in the mountains of Tabasaransky District when anti-terrorist forces discovered a base of 12-15 militants. Six of the rebels were killed while others escaped. In February, the police and FSB special forces conducted several operations against militants in Derbent District and other districts of southern Dagestan. In Derbent, the police forces surrounded a private house with two gunmen inside. One of the militants was killed while the other escaped. Three rebels were killed and one was captured during several clashes near the villages of Tselugyun, Ispik and Avadan. Asali Magomedov, head of the Organized Crime Department of Derbent District, was wounded in an attack on a dugout near Tselugyun.
One can now say that virtually all of Dagestan has become a war zone. During just the first one and a half months of this year there have been reports of clashes between police troops and rebels in seven districts of Dagestan, most of which had never before been mentioned in reports about counter-insurgency operations. The most recent fighting took place in Babayurt District (the northern part of the republic), where three rebels and the head of the local FSB branch were killed and several policemen were wounded.
Despite the fact that about 20 rebels were killed in Dagestan, that number could be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of insurgent numbers. A whole network of insurgent groups is now operating in the region and, unlike in the past, when there were only three rebels groups in just three cities of Dagestan, one can say that there are rebel cells in almost every district of the republic. The strongest groups are: (1) the group led by Commander Shamil Gasanov, which operates in Makhachkala, (2) the group of Abdul Wagapov in Karabudakhentsky District, (3) the group led by Askhab Bidaev in Khasavyurt District and (4) the group led by Ismail Gadzhidadaev and Makhmud Suleimenov, which operates in Untsukulsky and Buinaksk districts.
In August 1999, Vladimir Putin had to deal with only one group of militants in just one area—Botlikh. Today, Russian authorities are facing in Dagestan an insurgent movement that is operating throughout republic. While in August 1999 the militants in Dagestan came from Chechnya, today’s Dagestani rebels are from the areas in which they are fighting—be it Makhachkala, Buinaksk or Derbent. As of today, this is the only tangible result of Vladimir Putin’s Caucasus policy in Dagestan.