Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 236

Russian forces are reportedly engaged in heavy fighting with Chechen forces both in Djohar, the capital of the breakaway republic, and in its southern mountainous regions. Russian officials yesterday announced that federal forces had taken control of the civilian airport just outside the city, while 500 rebel fighters were reportedly battling Russian troops today in the southern town of Serzhen-Yurt. Two other southern towns–Shatoi and Vedeno–were reportedly subjected to heavy bombing from the ground and the air yesterday (AP, Reuters, Russian agencies, December 21). Russian military officials predicted that they would take the Chechen capital by the end of the week, but would do so by means of a “special operation,” not a frontal assault. They said the special operation would be carried out by Russian special forces and pro-Russian Chechen fighters under the command of Bislan Gantemirov, the former mayor of Grozny–the Chechen capital’s Russian name (Radio Ekho Moskvy, December 21). Last week, correspondents for Western news agencies reported that more than 100 Russian soldiers were killed when a federal armored column that entered the capital was attacked by Chechen forces. The Russian military denied both that such an incursion took place or that its forces sustained heavy losses.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, announced on December 17 that Russian paratroopers had carried out a special operation to cut off roads connecting Chechnya’s mountains and Georgia, meaning that the Chechen fighters were essentially surrounded. Putin predicted this could change the course of the military campaign in the republic (ORT, December 17).

The road connecting the republic to Georgia was built after the end of the 1994-1996 Chechen war. The Chechen authorities attached great significance to it because it was the only road connecting the republic to non-Russian territory. The Chechen press, in fact, referred to the road as the “road of life”–like the “road of life” which, during the blockade of Leningrad during the Second World War was that city’s last link to territory not occupied by the Nazis. The Chechen road, however, never really became operational, because the Georgian side never built its section: The road dead-ended near the Chechen-Georgian border. Putin thus appears to have greatly exaggerated the significance of last week’s special operation, which is unlikely to change cardinally the military situation, given that a multitude of mountain paths between Chechnya and Georgia remain outside the control of federal forces. Putin’s demarche about the operation appears to have been aimed at Russia’s voters on the eve of the State Duma election–as, apparently, was the statement by General Gennady Troshin, commander of the eastern group of forces in the breakaway republic, who insisted that “Chechnya is completely ours” while adding the caveat that some mountain areas were still controlled by rebel fighters (Russian agencies, December 19).

Meanwhile, a BBC correspondent in Chechnya quoted local residents in the village of Alkhan-Yurt, located just outside the capital, as saying that Russian troops had murdered forty-one villagers in a rampage of looting and killing earlier this month. The U.S. based group Human Rights Watch quoted refugees from the village as saying that after the massacre, Russian soldiers had forced them to burn bodies as a way of hiding the evidence (BBC, December 20). A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman called the massacre allegation “nonsense and an information provocation” (Russian agencies, December 20).