On July 15, Moskovsky Komsomolets published a revealing report about a bitter conflict between the Russian interior ministry troops stationed in Chechnya and the Chechen Sever (“North”) battalion. Russian interior ministry sources told the newspaper that on February 4, 2010 during an operation against a group of insurgents near the settlements of Alkhazurovo and Dachu-Borzoi, members of the Sever battalion fired on Russian troops. The sources also alleged that supposedly pro-Moscow Chechen Sever battalion had warned the insurgents about the arrival of Russian troops and allowed the insurgents to take away the bodies of slain comrades following the armed clash (www.mk.ru, July 15).
During that operation, Russian troops in Chechnya suffered their greatest casualties since the counterterrorism operation regime was lifted in the republic in April 2009 –five servicemen were killed and seven others wounded. The clash was initially attributed to Kadyrov’s promise to eliminate the insurgency’s leadership and was aimed at quelling the rebel movement (Kommersant, February 6).
One of the survivors of the operation elaborated in an interview with Moskovsky Komsomolets that shortly before the armed incident, the Sever battalion had clashed with a Russian unit that was known by the number 29, which was stationed at the Khankala military base outside Grozny and took part in the special operation against the rebels. The Chechens reportedly rebuked the servicemen from unit 29, who came from Bashkortostan, a Muslim region on the Volga River, for killing their own Muslim brethren in Chechnya. The source decried the inability of Russian troops to hunt the insurgents on their own, because they had to be accompanied by a local Chechen unit and threatened there would be a reckoning with the Chechen host.
The Chechen battalions Sever (“North”) and Yug (“South”) were set up in Chechnya in the summer of 2006. Their combined manpower was initially 1,200, but eventually grew to approximately 2,000. Both units are formally part of the Russian interior ministry’s troops, but the bulk of their servicemen was formerly on the rebels’ side and fought the Russian army (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 15).
Kadyrov’s spokesman, Alvi Karimov, condemned the report as an attempt to cast a shadow on the Sever battalion (Ekho Moskvy radio, July 15). However, Russian military prosecutors in the North Caucasus announced that they would check the information provided in the newspaper report (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 15).
There are several indicators that the Moskovsky Komsomolets report may have been designed as part of a Moscow plan to press Ramzan Kadyrov into a meeker position in order to restrain him. The newspaper’s anonymous interviewee noted that the incident in February was not the first of its kind. So it is not immediately clear why the Russian troops in Chechnya had tolerated such incidents prior to the latest one. The Sever battalion is manned by former rebels and is headed by Alibek Delimkhanov, the younger brother of Adam Delimkhanov, whom Kadyrov once said he would like to see as his successor. Furthermore, Moskovsky Komsomolets is widely known for providing officially approved leaks.
While it is highly unlikely that Kadyrov will be replaced as president of Chechnya anytime in the near future, the Kremlin may be unhappy with the level of his submissiveness, as he clearly stands out from among other regional leaders. Moscow’s envoy in the region, Aleksandr Khloponin, is certainly running into difficulties in establishing a patron-client type of relationship with Ramzan Kadyrov. Also, there seems to be a general trend in Russia to dethrone political heavyweights, like the heads of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and others –something that perhaps has some influence on Moscow’s policies toward Chechnya, as well.
The space for Kadyrov’s political maneuvering is fairly limited. He must have understood by now that the more thoroughly he eliminates the insurgency in Chechnya the easier and less costly it will be for Moscow to replace him. This might tempt him into continuing the fight with the insurgents in Chechnya for as long as possible. The strategy of scaring Moscow with the possibility of local violence has worked in other, far quieter republics of the North Caucasus, where the local leaders used it to enhance their positions in their talks with Moscow, so it is bound to work in Chechnya.
In an interview for the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website, Lord Frank Judd, the long time rapporteur on the events in Chechnya for European political structures, called on the Russian authorities to end the information blockade of Chechnya and start a political dialogue in order to achieve a lasting peace in the republic and throughout the North Caucasus (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 15). However, in light of the latest events in Chechnya, it is more plausible to expect that Chechnya in the near future will display the more complicated picture of Moscow, Kadyrov and the insurgency trying to use and outmaneuver each other.