Is Moscow Contemplating a Military Withdrawal from the Northeastern Caucasus?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 14

In March, the Russian military command unexpectedly began redeploying troops from Chechnya to Dagestan. Russian military forces left Chechnya in the largest numbers ever since the start of the second military campaign in the republic in 1999, with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 personnel redeployed. Rashid Nurgaliev, who was then Russian Interior Minister, decided to move units of the Temporary Operative Group and other units of the Interior Ministry from Chechnya to Dagestan to establish the Interior Ministry’s Temporary Operative Group there. Police colonel Oleg Kizhaev was made commander of the newly established operative group in Dagestan. The official reason given for the redeployment was that the situation in Dagestan was becoming destabilized (www.rosbalt.ru/federal/2012/03/20/959461.html).

The Interior Ministry troops in Chechnya have primarily consisted of units that used to be part of the ministry’s 46th division, which was subsequently transformed into the 46th Separate Brigade for Operative Tasks as an integral part of the North Caucasus district of Interior Ministry troops. The brigade has 15,000 personnel, exceeding many divisions in other parts of the Russian Federation. Units of this brigade are scattered across Chechnya and are capable of operating autonomously. The units are stationed in Grozny at the Severny airport; in the villages of Naurskaya, Shelkovskaya and Chervlyonnaya; as well as in the cities of Gudermes, Urus-Martan, Vedeno and other towns in Chechnya. The Sever and Yug battalions, which are so-called “ethnic” units manned exclusively by ethnic Chechens, are also part of this brigade (http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/46_отдельная_бригада_оперативного_назначения_внутренних_войск_МВД_России). Deploying the ethnic Chechen-manned Sever and Yug battalions to Dagestan was out of the question – it would have alarmed the Dagestanis. However, it is still puzzling why the official number of Russian Interior Ministry units left in Chechnya was not sufficiently reduced, if such a significant number of their troops were being sent to Dagestan.

According to the publicly released data announced by Moscow, 20,000 Interior Troops were redeployed to Dagestan from Chechnya. Therefore, given that officially there were only 20,000 men based in Chechnya before their redeployment to Dagestan, no Interior Troops should now be left there. However, Moscow still claims that some Interior Troops remain in Chechnya. This confusing data strongly indicates that the official numbers previously given by the Kremlin for Russian military personnel stationed in Chechnya were deliberately falsified when given to the press in order to conceal the actual higher figures from before the redeployment. Such misinformation has been normal practice in Russia for a long time.

Russian police forces from all over the country that were temporarily stationed in Chechnya after the start of the second war in Chechnya were also moved to Dagestan. Normally the police from other Russian regions would be sent to the North Caucasus for a period of six months (http://lenta.ru/news/2012/04/11/transfer/).

There was a certain logic to redeploying the troops, since the situation in Dagestan is the most worrisome in the North Caucasus. However, word of another, much more peculiar and utterly unexpected troop reshuffle began emanating from Chechnya at the end of June. Reports said that regular Russian military units were being moved from Khankala to the village of Kalinovskaya in Chechnya’s Naur district. The village is 44 kilometers north of Grozny, on the left bank of the Terek River. Since the beginning of the second Russian-Chechen war, a large military base exists in the village, which was home to the 72nd motorized rifle regiment of the 58th army in the North Caucasus Military District. The regiment has 2,500-2,600 personnel, predominantly contract servicemen. The base features a training center for newly contracted personnel and an airport to receive military transport flights (http://twower.livejournal.com/652683.html).

The units that were moved from Khankala to Kalinovskaya were part of the former 42nd motorized rifle division, which was permanently stationed in Chechnya beginning in 2000. Some $200 million was spent to resettle the 42nd division in Khankala. The headquarters of the Joint Group of Forces and other military management offices were stationed in Khankala along with a communications regiment. Ten barracks were built for contract soldiers and officers, along with a school and other infrastructure. Initially, the 42nd division was the biggest military unit in the Russian armed forces, with 15,000 men. In 2009, the division was split into three motorized rifle brigades. The 18th motorized rifle brigade was stationed in Khankala, which is one kilometer outside Grozny in the direction of Dagestan. The 17th motorized rifle brigade was stationed in Shali, which is 32 kilometers south of Grozny. Shali, which is in the central part of Chechnya, was home to a tank training regiment during the Soviet period. The 8th motorized rifle brigade was deployed in the village of Borzoi, which is in southern Chechnya in the mountainous part of Shatoi district. The 8th brigade is stationed seven kilometers to the west of the town of Shatoi, which is 63 kilometers south of Grozny and 827 meters above sea level. Currently, the three brigades described have about 10,000 personnel (http://vz.ru/society/2012/6/28/585987.html).

Claims that the redeployment of the military from Khankala to Kalinovskaya was “expected” are without basis (www.rtkorr.com/news/2012/06/28/313240.new). On the contrary, the news of this move was entirely unexpected. Strategically, this reshuffle and any weakening of the military base in Khankala have virtually no justification.

In December 1996, the Russian military “expectedly” left the military base in Khankala clandestinely at night, without the Chechen authorities’ knowledge. The military base at Kalinovskaya, which is separated from the rest of the republic by the turbulent waters of the Terek River, is not the best place for the Russian military in Chechnya. The only positive aspect of this location is its proximity to the major Russian base in the North Caucasus in Mozdok, North Ossetia, which is 89 kilometers away from Kalinovskaya. While this part of Chechnya during the Soviet period was predominantly inhabited by ethnic Russians, today ethnic Chechens make up 91 percent of the total population of Naur district (http://chechnya-invest.ru/?p=1948&l=ru). The redeployed military will have to start resettling in this area literally from scratch.

The relocation of the troops to Kalinovskaya might be linked to the Kavkaz-2012 military exercises. Had that been the case, however, the military campus in Khankala would not have been transferred to civilians, which is what happened. It appears the Russian military does not regard a long-term stay in Chechnya as realistic. Otherwise, it is hard to explain its abandonment of Khankala, the second largest Russian military base in the North Caucasus after Mozdok. Another inexplicable move was the abandonment of the Russian military base in Botlikh, Dagestan in 2011. The anti-Caucasian hysteria against residents of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia that regularly takes place in Moscow with tacit approval of the government is also hard to explain without concluding that the Kremlin’s policy toward the Northeast Caucasus is undergoing a change. Instead of having an “eternal” presence in this part of the Caucasus, the Russian elites might be playing with the idea of leaving the area for good.