Recent developments suggest that, after nearly ten years, the Kremlin still is unable to respond to attacks by separatists bent on an independent Chechnya.
First, Chechen rebels staged a raid in neighboring Ingushetia on June 21. Several hundred rebels, joined by Ingush gunmen, essentially seized power in this Russian republic for several hours, killing 62 Ingush policemen and officials (Ekho Moskvy, July 6). According to Russian Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, 28 civilians died in the crossfire. The raid demonstrated two things. First, despite claims that the rebels had been “thinned out” by Russian troops over the years, the rebels’ manpower has in fact not been depleted. Second, the rebel attacks are becoming more strategically planned and complex.
In another ominous development, the political leader of the Chechen rebels, Aslan Maskhadov, told Reuters that he now considers Russian civilians to be a legitimate target for the Chechen rebels. Furthermore, Maskhadov declared that the indiscriminate killing of civilians is now an acceptable strategy (Chechenpress.com, June 18). “If the Chechens had aviation and missiles, then missile and bomb strikes onto Russian cities would be legitimate,” he reportedly said.
This development may indicate that the ethno-separatist wing of the Chechen resistance, once perceived as scrupulously discerning in its choice of warfare, is on the verge of joining the Islamists fighting in Chechnya, who have repeatedly demonstrated propensities for indiscriminate killings.
It has already become routine that after every major terrorist attack, Shamil Basaev, the most prominent Chechen warlord and leader of the Islamist wing of the resistance, claims responsibility. Maskhadov would then duly denounce terrorism and offer condolences to the families of the civilian victims. This sequence of events even happened when President Akhmad Kadyrov, Moscow’s strongman in the republic, was killed by a blast at a Grozny stadium on May 9, 2004. Maskhadov offered no such condolences after the Ingushetia raid.
One of the few remaining barriers preventing the Chechen rebels from escalating their terrorist warfare against Russia appears to be crumbling. Maskhadov, who had symbolized the legitimacy of the cause of Chechen independence and retained the sympathies of many influential politicians in Western Europe, has now openly admitted that his adherence to principles no longer produces results.
Noting that terrorist elements had infiltrated the Chechen independence cause, undermining the West’s trust in Maskhadov, the rebel leader told Reuters bitterly that Western governments need to reassess their policies, after allowing what he called a “purposeful genocide” of the Chechens and falling for the Kremlin’s claims about “thousands of Chechens in Afghanistan and Iraq, who fight fiercely against the [anti-terrorist] coalition troops.”
Indeed, in the weeks following the raid in Ingushetia the number of the rebel attacks on Russian forces and pro-Moscow Chechen policemen and presidential guards has dramatically increased, dozens of police and presidential guards have been killed. In one of the latest moves, the rebels attempted to blast a motorcade of the interim head of the republic, Sergei Abramov, in Grozny on July 13, killing his bodyguard, (RIA Novosti, July 13).
Meanwhile, the Kremlin seems to have little to offset the growing capabilities and determination of the rebels. When it took Russian and Ingush officials several hours to gather a taskforce to turn back the rebels, it demonstrated the abysmal lack of preparation within Russian intelligence forces, the failure of interagency communication, and the absence of contingency planning by the Russian military and security community operating in the Northern Caucasus.
Apart from the publicized cases of abduction, torture, and execution of Chechen civilians suspected of having ties to the rebels, the Russian military has not demonstrated any effective short-term anti-terrorist strategy in Chechnya. Instead, Moscow focuses its effort on creating a loyal republican administration that is expected eventually to take over the struggle with the separatists and religious extremists in Chechnya. After Kadyrov’s death, for which Basaev has claimed responsibility in a statement posted on the rebel website Kavkazcenter.com (May 17), the Kremlin has placed its bet on Kadyrov’s Interior Minister, Alu Alkhanov. Alkhanov will face off against six other candidates for the top post in the republic in the presidential elections set for August 29 (RIA Novosti, July 22).
Maskhadov and Basayev, who has already issued death warrants against any future Moscow-backed leader of the republic, are in a formidable position to exploit the one-track Kremlin approach to pacifying Chechnya by destroying its major policy tool: Chechnya’s successive caretakers. Given the rebels’ persistence in stalking Kadyrov, it is easy to predict that the rebels will not allow the Kremlin to move forward in stabilizing the situation in the republic.
To succeed in Chechnya, the Kremlin needs to deal with the real leaders in Chechnya and not simply to try to sideline them by creating parallel power structures in the republic. But with the war in Chechnya dragging through its tenth year, there is little hope that Russia’s strategy will change fast enough to match the rapidly escalating capabilities and determination of the anti-Russian resistance in the Northern Caucasus.