Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 44

On November 12, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov triumphantly announced that all units of the 76th Airborne Division located in Chechnya will be withdrawn from the Republic by January 2005, the website reported. However, on November 26, RIA Novosti quoted Nikolai Rogozhkin, commander of the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops, as saying that the number of the Internal troops in Chechnya would not be reduced. In addition, despite numerous statements by security officials that only the 42nd Motor Rifle Division would continue to be stationed in Chechnya “forever,” there is no specific information when the other forces of the Defense Ministry (except the 76th Airborne Division) will leave the region. There is a large so-called “Mountain Group” still active in Chechnya, which consists of the 45th Special Task Airborne Regiment and regiments of the 106th Airborne Division (based in Tula) and the 77th Special Marine brigade (based in Novorossiisk). This group fights against the most capable of the Chechen insurgent squads, led by warlord Shamil Basaev, located in the mountainous region of Vedeno.

The commander of the Mountain Group, General Arkady Bakhin, told the Defense Ministry newspaper Krasnaya zvezda on April 28 that rebels in Vedeno have such heavy weapons as mortars and guided anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, and that there is no signs that they will be destroyed soon. The “Vedeno Front” is a place where serious skirmishes happen almost every day. According to the state’s RIA Novosti and the separatists’ Kavkaz Center news agencies, a Russian reconnaissance unit clashed with militants near the Selmentauzen village on November 26 and another unit was ambushed in the woods near Eshelkhatoi on November 28, while two soldiers were killed near Vedeno on the same day. Another battle took place somewhere between the villages of Benoi and Serzhen-Yurt over the night of November 26-27. According to sources cited by the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, the federal troops used armored vehicles and shelled the mountain forests with heavy artillery and multiple-launched missiles. The forests near Tse-Vedeno and Makheti villages were shelled as well on November 13.

In the west of Chechnya’s mountainous region the situation is also far from normalized. According to the journal Ogonyok (issue #45), the 291st regiment of the 42nd Motor Rifle Division located in the Shatoi district has serious supply problems. It used to get supplied mostly by helicopter, but local insurgents have lately started firing on the supply helicopters as well as ambushing large columns moving to the area.

As for districts in the high mountains, they are under the full control of the rebels. In his recent interview with the Globe and Mail, Shamil Basaev asserted that there were no “occupiers” in the 60-kilometer-long Sharoi-Argun Gorge.

There are frontier guard units in Itum-Kale near the Georgian border, but they are unable to act effectively against the insurgents. From time to time the federal command lands airborne troops in the area, but this has thus far only resulted in heavy losses for the paratroopers. The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society reported on November 23 that about 21 Russian soldiers were killed and 22 wounded during a recent landing assault near the village of Chakh in Itum-Kale.

The inability to take control of Chechnya’s mountains has forced Russia’s generals to look for new ways to deal with the problem. After the June insurgent raid on Ingushetia, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced a plan to form special units trained and equipped to fight in the mountains. During a meeting of the North-Caucasus Military District Command in Rostov, Ivanov said that the Defense Ministry had bought 150 donkeys to be used by the military in the mountains, reported on November 13. Smaller than horses, these animals could be used to carry heavy weapons along mountain tracks. The generals believe that this should increase the combat capability of the federal mountain troops.

However, the hostilities are not limited to the mountains: the rebels are very active in the valley as well. Krasnaya zvezda reported on November 10 that during the first week of November, the rebels were very active in the Sunzha, Shali, Nadterechny, and Vedeno districts, and Grozny, the capital. It is interesting to note that the newspaper mentioned the Nadterechny district, which is traditionally the most pro-Russian area in Chechnya. Nevertheless, hostilities there are now no less intense than they are in Vedeno. This month, federal forces even used fighter-bombers to bomb the district. The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society reported on November 23 that on November 17-18, aircraft were used to bomb areas near the village of Goragorsk. This is the first time the Russian air force was used in northern Chechnya since large-scale fighting ended in March 2000.

The insurgents’ tactics in the valley generally remain the same: roadside bombs and shoot-and-run raids. For example, on November 7, an armored personnel carrier and military truck belonging to federal forces were blown up by land mines at the entrance to Grozny on a road coming from the town of Argun. Six Russian servicemen were killed, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society reported on November 19.

There is some evidence that the rebels have started to feel more and more confident outside the mountains. According to Russian-Chechen Friendship Society reports, some clashes in Grozny lasted for several hours, indicating that the insurgents can hold fixed positions in the city. On November 17-18, a group of insurgents fought federal troops for two days on the outskirts of the capital (in the 56th precinct near the remains of the TV tower). A day earlier, on November 16, aircraft had bombed the area.

Further evidence that the federal troops are losing control over the capital is the fact that the rebels have been setting up mobile checkpoints to search for policemen and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers. On November 21, two policemen were beaten and disarmed after their car was stopped for inspection at a rebel checkpoint in Grozny’s Leninsky district, RIA Novosti reported.

It is little wonder that members of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow government, as well as low- and middle-ranking Russian officers, feel insulted by statements that federal troops should be withdrawn from Chechnya. Sulim Yamadaev, who commands the elite “Vostok” battalion of the GRU (Russian military intelligence), a unit composed of Russian and Chechen servicemen, sharply criticized the idea of withdrawing the 76th Division from the region. In an interview with Moskovsky komsomolets published on November 29, Yamadaev said that if the troops were withdrawn, the rebels would seize back power, repeating their offensive of August 1996.

As the gap between political declarations and the real situation in Chechnya becomes wider, one can only imagine what goes through the mind of an officer who watches TV reports about the “restoration of peace” in the republic when fellow servicemen have just died in the latest fighting there.