Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 85

General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the Russian armed forces’ general staff, claimed yesterday that Chechen rebel field commander Shamil Basaev, had been killed, but a short time later backed away from his claim. Kvashnin’s comments followed by just a few days the news that another leader of the radical Islamist wing of the Chechen resistance and a close ally of Basaev, the Arab-born Khattab, was poisoned to death in March. The Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed that Khattab’s death was a result of a Russian special operation. The Chechen rebels confirmed Khattab’s death but not the claim that it was the result of a Russian operation (see the Monitor, April 26, 29). Kvashnin, who made his comments yesterday during an official visit to Djohar (Grozny), the Chechen capital, claimed that Basaev had been “eliminated” but that his body had “not yet been found.” Kvashnin later admitted that the only indication he had that Basaev might be dead was the fact that the rebel field commander had not “been heard of either in action or on the radio for half a year.” Kvashnin said this time it was “possible” Basaev was dead but admitted the Russian military had “no facts to back this up.” “When we have proof, we will tell you,” the Interfax news agency quoted Kvashnin telling reporters (AFP, April 30).

The Chechen rebels dismissed Kvashnin’s comments out of hand. The Kavkaz.org website, part of the Kavkaz-Center news agency that is linked to the Chechen rebels’ radical wing, quoted “the headquarters of the Chechen command” as denying Kvashnin’s claims and saying that Basaev was “alive and well.” The website also quoted an unnamed Kavkaz-Center correspondent as saying that he had met with Basaev on April 25 and “found him in full health” (Kavkaz.org, April 30). The Chechenpress news agency, which is an official mouthpiece of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, quoted a representative of the leadership of the rebels’ armed forces as saying that Basaev was “alive and well” and carrying out the “military tasks” Maskhadov had assigned him (Chechenpress.com, April 30). Another rebel website, Chechen.org, carried a caustically sarcastic commentary on Kvashnin’s comments, suggesting that the Russian general was drunk when he made the claim about Basaev’s alleged demise (Chechen.org, April 30).

The rebels were not alone in expressing doubt over Kvashnin’s claim. General Vladimir Moltenskoi, commander of the federal forces in Chechnya, said there was no reason to assume Basaev was dead, adding that there was information that the rebel field commander may still be hiding in a rebel base located in the Vedeno gorge of Chechnya’s mountainous south. Today, an anonymous source in the command of the Russian military forces in the North Caucasus was quoted as saying that Khattab’s death had “significantly strengthened” Basaev’s position in the rebel hierarchy (Interfax, May 1). The Kremlin administration, meanwhile, refused to comment, and officials in the Chechnya branch of the FSB and the office of Chechnya’s prosecutor said they had no information confirming Basaev’s death. The Gazeta.ru website suggested that Kvashnin’s comments may have been the result of interservice rivalry, given that the FSB, which at the moment has operational control over the Chechen military campaign, has taken credit for Khattab’s assassination. Yet FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, asked whether a large-scale operation to eliminate the major rebel field commanders was underway, answered cryptically: “Work goes on, and there are results” (ORT, AFP, Gazeta.ru, April 30).

Indeed, some Russian media have suggested that Kvashnin’s claim concerning Basaev may not be entirely groundless. ORT television cited reports that Basaev was fatally wounded in federal air strikes carried out March 7-10. Gazeta.ru reported that the Russian military over April 27-29 had carried out its most intensive and accurate aerial bombardment of Chechen rebel bases in a year thanks to information obtained from Ismail Khanukaev, chief of Maskhadov’s operational staff, who was captured a week ago. The website said that three regions in Chechnya’s mountains were hit in these strikes, and Basaev may have been killed in the bombardment (ORT, Gazeta.ru, April 30).

Basaev, it should be noted, lost a foot after stepping on a mine while escaping encirclement by federal forces near the Chechen capital in early 2000. The Russian military subsequently claimed it had learned from intercepted rebel radio transmissions that Basaev had died of gangrene (see the Monitor, February 22, May 24, 2000). This, of course, was untrue.

Whatever Basaev’s fate, the propaganda war between the two sides, like the shooting war, shows no signs of letting up. The operational-coordinating department of the FSB’s North Caucasus branch yesterday quoted a former close associate and friend of Basaev as calling on the rebels to put down their weapons. The state’s RIA Novosti news agency reported that Said-Magomed Chupalaev had called on members of the “illegal armed formations” to stop resisting the federal forces, return to civilian life and direct their energies toward rebuilding Chechnya’s economy. Chupalaev, who was described as formerly heading Basaev’s staff and commanding the rebels’ “central front,” was also quoted as saying that “personal enrichment” has been the real motive of top rebel commanders and officials–including, among others, Khattab, Movladi Udugov and Akhmed Zakaev–in carrying out “terrorist activities” (NTVru.com, April 30).

At the same time, it is clear that “rebuilding Chechnya’s economy” can be every bit as lucrative as terrorism. Sergei Ryabukhin, an auditor with the Audit Chamber, the Russian state agency charged with monitoring the use of federal funds, said yesterday his office had discovered that 711 million rubles (nearly US$23 million) worth of federal funds earmarked for rebuilding Chechnya and the republic’s socioeconomic development had been misappropriated (Rosbalt, April 30).

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that control over the “antiterrorist operation” in Chechnya, which the FSB is currently running, should gradually be shifted to the Interior Ministry, adding that what he had in mind was “the creation of effective units of the Interior Ministry of the Chechen Republic itself.” At the same time, Putin stressed that his comments should not be taken as criticism of the FSB, which took over the lead role in the Chechen military campaign from the army in January 2001. Putin said the decision to put the FSB in charge of the operation had “turned out to be the right [one], and the most recent results of the work of the special services is the best proof of that” (NTVru.com, April 30). The president was apparently referring to the elimination of Khattab.