There is no doubt that during the 43rd annual Munich Conference on Security Policy, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, a potential successor to Putin, attempted to demonstrate Russia’s resurging strength. While bragging about Russia’s rising power and its equal status with the United States, the Russian political leaders could not avoid mentioning the Chechen issue. Both Putin and Ivanov tried to look confident and persuade the audience that the situation has improved dramatically, and that Chechnya is no longer a liability for Russia.
Vladimir Putin promised in Munich that the situation in the North Caucasus would be solved by economic and political means, while Sergei Ivanov declared that Russia has already won the war on terror in the region. Ivanov emphasized that what the Russian authorities have been facing in Chechnya is international terrorism, not regional terrorism. The defense minister again voiced his favorite argument – that “mercenaries” from 50 countries had taken part in the Chechen conflict and that “hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars” had been sent to Chechnya to support the terrorists. Immediately after his speech, however, Sergei Ivanov contradicted his assertion about the involvement of international terrorists in Chechnya. Responding to a question about the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist, Ivanov said that those who march and shout, “Give freedom to Chechnya!” do so legally, but that those who carry weapons and explosives are terrorists. Thus, the minister had to recognize – perhaps unconsciously – the fact that the rebels in Chechnya are still fighting for independence and are not just killing infidels. It is easy to see the contradiction between Ivanov’s speech about foreign influence in Chechnya and his answer to the question.
In the part of his speech that mentioned Chechnya, Vladimir Putin explained that the Russian strategy in the region was to transfer “the responsibility for ensuring security almost 100 percent to the Chechen people.” In reality, this does not equate to an end of the conflict, but is simply an attempt to transform it into a civil war, with Chechens killing Chechens. That is the main aim of the Kremlin’s Chechenization policy.
In his recent interview with the newspaper Rossiiskaya gazeta, Arkady Yedelev, head of the Regional Operations Headquarters for the Anti-Terrorist Operation in the North Caucasus, explained how Putin’s formula looks in practice. Yedelev said that amnestied Chechen militants are employed in the local law-enforcement agencies. In other words, they continue to fight, but this time on the Russian side. The general said, “It is logical to give people a chance to show themselves” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, February 2). In other words, former militants who were seduced by the recent amnesty campaign should now prove their loyalty to Russia on the battlefield.
It should be noted that in Munich, neither Putin nor Ivanov provided any evidence to the audience that the Chechen war has actually ended. Sergei Ivanov only mentioned the elections in Chechnya that were organized by the Russian authorities, but he said nothing about the possible withdrawal of troops from the republic or about the end of military operations there. Nor could Putin boast about the successful implementation of the Chechenization policy. Neither Putin nor Ivanov were willing to tell such a blatant lie. They instead handed this job over to Ramzan Kadyrov. On February 11, the day after the conference in Munich, Kadyrov announced that “illegal armed formations in Chechnya have been totally destroyed and peace has come to the Chechen republic once and for all” (Kavkazky Uzel, February 11).
Kadyrov’s triumphant declarations sound ridiculous against the background of Yedelev’s interview with Rossiiskaya gazeta. Yedelev did not say that the insurgency in Chechnya has been destroyed. He said that about 46 small rebel groups, with a total of 450 militants, are now operating in the region. At the same time, the general admitted that this figure could grow if “foreign centers again provide money for sabotage activity against Russia.”
Yedelev recognized the fact that the insurgency continues to have a unified command center headed by Dokku Umarov, the famous Chechen field commander. Yedelev even named Suleiman Imurzaev, aka Khairulla, the commander of the rebel “Eastern front” in Chechnya as a possible successor to Umarov.
Yedelev, unlike Kadyrov, sees no prospects for the end of the Chechen insurgency anytime soon. Furthermore, in his interview, the Russian general prepared public opinion for a long-lasting conflict that will not end even if the top rebel leaders die. They will simply be replaced by other commanders.
There is no doubt that Vladimir Putin and Sergei Ivanov understand this reality just as clearly as Yedelev. Current Russian political leaders want the international community to forget about Chechnya because it damages the image of Russia as a reemerging superpower. However, it is obvious that regardless of what Russian officials say about Russia’s growing strength, the image of the continuing Chechen conflict will be an inescapable reality.