It appears that both federal troops and Akhmad Kadyrov’s forces failed in a special, intensive push to capture Aslan Maskhadov as a trophy for Vladimir Putin’s second inauguration. If they had succeeded, Kadyrov and Putin would have been able to boast the greatest victory against the Chechen secessionist movement since the bagging of Maskhadov’s predecessor in 1996. But though they missed their May 7 deadline, they may still succeed in capturing or killing Chechnya’s underground separatist president. The neutralizing of Maskhadov, however, is no more likely to bring genuine peace to Chechnya than did the 1996 neutralizing of Dzhokhar Dudaev.
The first week of May saw repeated boasts from the pro-Moscow forces that they had Maskhadov surrounded and were closing in on him. But on May 6 the Kadyrov administration announced that they had widened the area in which the secessionist leader was being hunted: They would now be combing the Vedeno district as well as other regions in southern and eastern Chechnya. In a May 7 article for the Gzt.ru website, Vladimir Barinov interpreted this news as a de facto admission that Maskhadov and his band had slipped through the federal net.
The pro-Moscow forces now claim that Maskhadov was seriously wounded in combat – but of course this claim is impossible to verify.
In recent weeks the federal armed forces and the Kadyrovite security structures have been increasingly prone to contradict each other in their public statements about the course of the war. This is not necessarily a sign of deepening policy disagreements; rather, it may simply reflect the growing public role of Ramzan Kadyrov, who is more likely than his father Akhmad to speak impulsively and thoughtlessly. The younger Kadyrov seems to be a walking illustration of the maxim that when a politician commits a gaffe, it’s usually not because he’s lying but because he’s incautiously telling the truth.
Last week the contradictions centered on the question of negotiations between Maskhadov and the Kadyrovs. At one point the younger Kadyrov said that he himself had been conducting negotiations with Maskhadov about the latter’s possible surrender. Ramzan told the newspaper Trud in an interview published on May 6 that “His [Maskhadov’s] people had already spent some time with me in detailed conversation; I gave them two buildings to stay in. It seemed that Maskhadov’s fate was decided. But on the next day the buildings were surrounded by federal special forces. They killed two of Maskhadov’s emissaries and wounded another four. An operation which we had thoroughly planned fell apart. By whose command? Who took Maskhadov away from me? That is no idle question if you consider that we coordinate all our actions with the regional operations staff [of the federal forces]….Someone is very much opposed to getting Maskhadov to break from the other separatists.”
Spokesmen for the federal military insisted that they knew of no such incident. And the senior Kadyrov’s press secretary, Abdulbek Vakhaev, categorically denied that any negotiations between Akhmad and Maskhadov could even be possible. Even one of Ramzan’s own aides said that he considered negotiations between Maskhadov and his own boss to be “absolutely impossible.”
In the view of Gzt.ru correspondent Barinov, Maskhadov and his band have probably dispersed into small groups, some of which may now be hiding in Chechnya’s southern highlands and others across the border in Dagestan. In the highland Vedeno district, where the rebel guerrillas have prepared many hiding places, it would be especially difficult for the federals to find them.
But both Kadyrovs continued to express confidence. The elder insisted last week that “analysis of information coming via many channels confirms that he [Maskhadov] is located within the territory of Chechnya and has not been able to escape outside its borders.” A few days later, not Maskhadov but Kadyrov was dead.