From Military Butcher to Political Loser: A Portrait of General Shamanov

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 14

The Oval Office meeting between President George W. Bush and Vladimir Shamanov on March 26 has provoked a serious scandal in the United States. The scandal has once again focused the public’s attention on the Russian general. So, who is Mr. Shamanov and why do many believe that the American president should not have met with him? Vladimir Shamanov was born in 1957. He began his career in the Russian army as a paratrooper officer. In 1986, Shamanov became a battalion commander in the Soviet Union’s elite Pskov Paratrooper Division. In 1993 and 1994, Shamanov served in the 104th paratrooper division stationed in the city of Ulyanovsk.

The Russian army invaded Chechnya in 1994, but after the failure of the assault on the Chechen capital of Grozny on December 31 of that year, it became clear to the Russian military commanders that additional troops were needed to suppress the Chechen resistance. Shamanov’s 104th division was sent to Chechnya together with many other Russian units to strengthen the forces already in the region. In February 1995, Vladimir Shamanov, who by that time had become a deputy commander of the division, played a very active role in the seizure of the Chechen capital. The top commanders noticed that Shamanov could be useful in Chechnya because he had the two most important characteristics that a Russian general needed in order to fight in the region. As Gennady Troshev, another Russian general who fought in Chechnya, put it in his book, “My War,” Vladimir Shamanov “was too hot-tempered and direct in his relations with the Chechen population,” preferring “to choose the shortest way to victory,” which “resulted in numerous casualties among Russian soldiers.” In other words, while fighting in Chechnya, Shamanov did not care about the lives of local civilians or of his own soldiers and officers.

This, however, enabled the general to have a successful career in the Chechen war. In June 1995, Shamanov managed to seize the village of Chiri-Yurt, leaving hundreds of his men dead. After that, Shamanov became a deputy commander of the Russian military group in Chechnya. The following year – 1996 – when the Russian army in Chechnya found itself in a deep quagmire of guerrilla warfare, Shamanov was particularly in demand due to his extremist ideas that all the Chechens, armed or unarmed, should be killed. From April to July 1996, Shamanov was the acting commander of the Russian military group in Chechnya. On July 3, 1996, Russian military units under Shamanov’s command entered the villages of Gekhi and Mekhketi. The villages were completely destroyed and dozens of civilians were killed. Vyacheslav Izmailov, now a famous Russian journalist, was an officer of the 205th Motorized Rifle Brigade at that time. He brought two Russian journalists to these villages for them to see how the area looked after the assault. According to Izmailov, Shamanov threatened to kill him for this action and even ordered an officer from a reconnaissance unit to do it. Izmailov left Chechnya, thereby escaping imminent death.

Despite Shamanov’s brutality, he continued to be regarded by the Russian authorities as one of the most successful generals in Chechnya. In the summer of 1996, Shamanov managed to seize Bamut, a village in Chechnya’s mountains, which no one had been able to accomplish in the past. Hundreds of Russian soldiers were killed during the assault, the village was completely destroyed, but Shamanov became a hero in the eyes of Russian patriots.

Vladimir Shamanov was a key player in the second Russian military campaign in the North Caucasus from the very beginning in August 1999. He headed an assault on the mountain villages in Dagestan that had been occupied by the rebels. In 1999, Shamanov’s tactics in both Chechnya and Dagestan remained unchanged. Unable to conduct a skillful military operation, he ordered that the villages first be bombarded from the air and by artillery, and then ordered his soldiers to go into the villages and kill anyone who was still alive. Thanks to such methods, several Dagestani villages were completely destroyed in August and September 1999. As for Chechnya, Shamanov was even more brutal. In October 1999, when the Russian army invaded the republic, Vladimir Shamanov headed the Western Group and was responsible for occupying areas of the republic west of Grozny. He was supposed to enter the Chechen capital through its western outskirts.

The second campaign in Chechnya did not start smoothly for Shamanov. As soon as his units entered Chechnya, they faced fierce resistance from militants near the village of Goragorsky. As a result of this resistance, Shamanov was stuck in northeast Chechnya for more than a month. With great difficulty and at the price of enormous losses, the Western Group moved to the outskirts of Grozny only by the end of November.

Shamanov was much more successful in fighting unarmed Chechen civilians. On September 29, 1999, he closed off all of Chechnya’s borders in order to prevent refugees from leaving the region. The general ordered the bombing of a motorcade of refugees who were trying to leave the republic for Ingushetia. Those refugees who managed to reach the Ingush border were stopped at a checkpoint. Shamanov personally met them – a crowd mostly composed of women and children – and told them that they were all terrorists and that he would not allow them to leave Chechnya. Only the intercession of then-Ingush president, Ruslan Aushev, who insisted that they be allowed to enter Ingushetia, saved the refugees.

Early in December 1999, the Russian army tried to seize Grozny but without real success. General Gennady Troshev wrote in his book that Shamanov moved very slowly and had endless quarrels about it with Viktor Kazantsev, the commander of the Russian military group in Chechnya at that time. Enraged by his failures, Shamanov ordered the seizure of the village of Alkhan-Yurt, ostensibly “to isolate rebels in the Chechen capital,” as he explained later. After heavy bombardment of the village, Shamanov’s units entered it but found no armed men, only civilians. What followed was one of the most brutal massacres in the second Chechen war: Russian soldiers robbed, killed and raped local civilians for more than a week.

After the massacre in Alkhan-Yurt, there were attempts to remove Shamanov from his post as the commander of the Western Group. Early in January 2000, the general was appointed as the commander of the 58th Army (the driving force of the Russian military in the North Caucasus), but in fact, he remained in Chechnya and continued to attack Grozny. According to Human Rights Watch, between December 1999 and January 2000, soldiers from Shamanov’s units killed at least fifty civilians, mostly old men and women, in Grozny’s Staropromyslovsky district.

However, such crimes did not help Shamanov or other Russian generals to complete their mission in Grozny – the destruction of the militants who were defending the city. Early in February 2000, more than 3,000 Chechen fighters managed to break the siege of the city and retreated to the mountains to prepare for guerrilla war. The rebels lost many men during the breakout, but most of them successfully reached the mountains. The rebels went to the mountainous part of Chechnya through Alkhan-Kala and Katyr-Yurt, settlements that had been declared “free” by Shamanov. Unable to catch the retreating insurgents, Shamanov and General Yakov Nedobitko, who is now the commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, ordered that those settlements be bombed in order to punish the locals who had helped the rebels.

In fact, the retreat of the rebels to the mountains meant the failure of the Russian plan to end the war quickly by destroying all militant forces in Grozny. Still, the general remained proud of his approach to counter-insurgency, telling the newspaper Novaya gazeta in an interview published on June 19, 2000, that he viewed his image as a “cruel general” as a compliment and that he believed the wives and children of rebel fighters to also be “bandits” who needed to be destroyed. At the same time, he denied the accusations of human rights abuses in Chechnya that were leveled against him. As the Washington Post reported on March 29, he told a reporter for the newspaper in 2004 that the allegations were “fairy tales” and suggested that human rights groups had planted the bodies in Alkhan-Yurt and fabricated a slaughter to impugn Russian troops. “When people try to raise funds and to draw attention to their groups, they use anything,” he said.

Shamanov received a “Hero of Russia” medal for fighting in Chechnya in 1999 and 2000 but in reality, he did not win a single battle during the second campaign. He resigned from the army and in December 2000 was elected as governor of the Ulyanovsk region. After less then a year, it became clear that he did not have the ability to govern the province. He resigned in 2003 and received a meaningless position in the Russian government – assistant to the Prime Minister on military issues. Later on, he became the chairman of Russia’s Interagency Commission for Prisoners of War, Internees, and Missing in Action and co-chairman of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs.