Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 26

The leadership of the federal forces in Chechnya has officially announced that the Chechen capital of Djohar is in Russian hands, and that the Chechen rebel forces have been largely driven out of the breakaway republic’s lowlands (NTV, February 6).

This federal declaration of victory is the capstone to a three-week operation in the Chechen capital. In December 1999, federal forces blockaded the city and the rebel fighters–who numbered up to 4,000–in it. Russian troops did not attempt to decisively storm the capital, but put constant pressure on the rebels instead. This created the illusion that they–the federal side–did not have sufficient forces to take the capital quickly. Meanwhile, rebel reinforcements were entering Djohar up until the middle of January, and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov wanted to hold the city until at least February 23, the anniversary of Josef Stalin’s mass deportation of the Chechen population.

The federal pressure on the rebels in the capital, in terms of bombardment, was deliberately incremental, applied according to a plan developed in the federal headquarters at the beginning of January. This strategy left the rebels with the possibility of leaving the capital in three directions, including the southeast, along the Sunzha River and the railroad line. At the same time, the Federal Security Service and several other Russian special services carried out a joint operation aimed at convincing the rebels that an escape route from the capital lay open for them. According to General Vladimir Shamanov, a federal commander in Chechnya, the Russians pretended to agree, in exchange for a US$100,000 bribe, to create a southeasterly corridor for a Chechen rebel escape.

The Chechens reportedly took the bait, and, on the evening of February 1, up to 3,000 fighters left the city by a flat, treeless route along the Sunzha riverbed, through the Zavod region of the capital and the villages of Alkhan-Kala, Yermolovsky, Lermontov-Yurt and Zakan-Yurt. The Chechen goal was to reach the forest near the town of Samashki, from which they planned to move through the town of Assinovskaya and Bamut into Ingushetia or the mountains of southeast Chechnya. Federal forces, however, had set up mine fields and firing positions along the route. The Chechens sustained their first serious casualties in those minefields, casualties which essentially decapitated their command structure: The retreating column was led by top field commanders, including Lecha Dudaev, Khunkarpasha Israpilov, Turpal Atgeriev and Aslambek Ismailov, all four of whom were killed, and Shamil Basaev and Akhmed Zakaev, both of whom were wounded.

Yesterday, NTV television broadcast footage shot by Reuters television which showed Chechen doctors trying to save Shamil Basaev’s life. It was clear from the footage that Basaev was severely injured: One of his feet had been amputated and he had multiple shrapnel wounds. No question that he will be sidelined for at least several months. According to the Russian military command, 1,500 rebel fighters have either been killed or taken prisoner. The operation also prevented the rebels from concentrating all their forces in the mountains. Other rebel formations have been hemmed in the Argun and Vedeno ravines and thus deprived of hope for reinforcements. They have now opened negotiations either to surrender or to exit through the Botlikhsk and Tsyumadinsk regions of Dagestan into Georgia and Azerbaijan.

The rebel defeat in the lowlands pretty much marks the end of the military phase of the Chechen operation. The 6,000 to 7,000 rebels who have concentrated in the mountains, however, represent a very serious force. Even if they are defeated, it will not mean peace in Chechnya. A guerrilla war is now inevitable. How effectively this can be countered will depend on the internal troops and Interior Ministry organs, along with the twelve Federal Security Service departments now being set up on Chechen territory (NTV, February 6).