Dokka Umarov and the Correlation of Forces inside the Chechen Insurgency

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 15

After the Russian leadership’s triumphal statements that the war in Chechnya is over, Russian generals have once again started to point at the security problems in the region. Nikolai Rogozhkin, the commander of the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops, was forced to admit during a March 27 press conference in Moscow that the situation in Chechnya has recently become more difficult. The general also complained that the troops had abandoned their searches because they were forbidden by law and said that 70 to 90 rebel groups were operating in the republic, with the number of militants totaling 500 to 800 men (Interfax, March 27). In other words, Rogozhkin was sending a message to the Kremlin demanding that the authorities give the army permission to act more harshly in the region. The general warned that the situation is worsening and could deteriorate even further if extra measures are not taken. First, the commander of the Interior Ministry troops wants to return to the large-scale zachistki, or security sweeps, that were carried out by the Russian army units in Chechnya between 2000 and 2003.

So what forced Rogozhkin to sound the alarm? Nothing bad can be found if one looks at the official reports from Chechnya, since the Russian authorities have almost stopped reporting any clashes or casualties sustained by the Russian army in the region. Some information about the hostilities in Chechnya’s mountains appears in the press, but it does not appear to be so negative for the Russian side and thus, it is not entirely clear why Nikolai Rogozhkin decided to ring the warning bell so loudly.

Nevertheless, if one looks at the reports from the Chechen rebels that can be found on the internet, the situation indeed looks far less optimistic. Every week, the rebels report that dozens of Russian soldiers and pro-Russian local policemen are being killed in different parts of Chechnya, mostly in the mountainous regions. Actions by the military, such as the shelling and bombing of the forested mountains, as well as the endless arrests of Chechen young men in villages, indicate that there is at least some truth to these reports. Moreover, the number of insurgents cited by the Russian generals also demonstrates that the reports on the rebel websites should not be ignored. 500-1000 gunmen cannot simply hide in the mountains without conducting military operations against the Russian forces.

On April 11, the rebel Kavkaz-Center website reported the killing of 71 pro-Russian troops in Chechnya’s southeastern Nozhai-Yurt district over the previous four days. The fierce fighting took place near the village of Gordali between April 8-10. According to the report, 71 people were killed and the bodies of 59 pro-Moscow troops were still lying on the battlefield. Local elders asked rebel leaders for permission to pick up the bodies, but it remains unclear how the rebels responded. Kavkaz-Center also reported that the insurgents had seized large amounts of arms and ammunition from the dead pro-Russian troops, including dozens of assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, sniper rifles and a large amount of ammunition.

At the same time, the authorities reported on April 9 that only two pro-Russian Chechen fighters were killed near Gordali and that two more were injured. However, it is suspicious that on the same day, the deaths of three other Chechen policemen due to non-combat accidents in different parts of the region were officially reported. Such reports are often used to hide the high number of casualties sustained by federal servicemen during clashes with the rebels.

Against the backdrop of the rise in rebel attacks, it is useful to see what is going on within the Chechen insurgency. On March 30, Kavkaz-Center published new decrees by Dokka Umarov that had been issued on March 7. According to these decrees, the Chechen separatist leader appointed a new foreign envoy and named several rebel commanders as ministers of the separatist underground government.

These decrees reveal that there are two main parties within the Chechen insurgency. One is a group of commanders and leaders who remain personally loyal to Dokka Umarov and the other is led by the former team of Shamil Basaev, the powerful Chechen warlord who was killed last year. As can be seen by these appointments, Umarov’s main goal is to find a compromise and balance between his men and the former commanders of Shamil Basaev’s group. Since the influence of Dokka Umarov is traditionally strong in southwestern Chechnya, particularly in the Shatoi district, and Basaev led rebel groups were strong in the southeast, particularly the Vedeno district, the two groups can be referred to as the Shatoi and Vedeno (wings) of the separatist movement.

Under Umarov’s decrees, field commanders from Shatoi have taken two main positions in the rebel government – finance and intelligence. Said-Emin Dadaev, who controls rebel groups in the Itum-Kale, Shatoi and Sharoi districts, has become “the financial minister,” while Tarkhan Gaziev, an old ally of Umarov and the commander of the rebel Western front, has become the head of the rebel intelligence service.

However, Umarov understands that he should not give all of the power to only people from his entourage. Last month, Umarov appointed Supyan Abdullaev as the rebel vice-president. Abdullaev is the main Chechen Salafi ideologist and was Shamil Basaev’s close ally and financial director (see profile in Chechnya Weekly, March 29). After Basaev’s death, Abdullaev became the leader of the Vedeno party. Clearly, Umarov had to coordinate all appointments with Abdullaev. Umarov’s decrees gave the position of the rebel Interior Minister to Khusein Gakaev, a field commander from the Vedeno district, while Suleiman Ilmurzaev, the commander of Eastern Front, was named first deputy prime minister in control of the insurgency’s cash flows.

As for the foreign envoys and the Sharia Court, which is a very important organ within the rebel structure, they remained under the firm control of Umarov’s men. Umarov appointed Omar Dakaev, the former chief of his administration, to be the rebels’ main envoy abroad and appointed Mansur Yelmurzaev, from the village of Samashki, to head the Sharia Court.

Traditionally, the rebel leaders make new appointments and changes in political and military structures before the arrival of summer, which is the best time for the insurgency to conduct attacks against the federal forces. As summer swiftly approaches, we will soon see how effective the rebels can become under the new leadership and how strong the union between the Shatoi and the Vedeno wings will become as the new fighting season approaches.