Meanwhile, an event took place in Chechnya this week that attracted all the more attention because of its rarity in the 21-month “antiterrorism operation”: Russian special forces tracked down and actually killed a rebel field commander. They couldn’t have picked a worthier target: Indeed, while Arbi Baraev’s band was made up of Islamic fundamentalist radicals, it was better known for conducting a murderous hostage-for-ransom trade than for fighting the “occupiers.” Among its victims were four Western telecommunications workers kidnapped back in 1998, whom Baraev reportedly beheaded personally.
Some observers speculated that Russia’s intelligence services had known the exact whereabouts of Baraev and other warlords for more than a year. The federal forces, however, had not moved against them because powerful elements within the military-security establishment were working de facto with Chechen radicals to keep the war going–in no small part to keep alive the lucrative business opportunities that the bloodshed had opened up. Now, however–at least according to this theory–a growing number of top military officials and the Kremlin itself had decided the war’s costs outweighed its benefits and were looking for a way to begin negotiations with moderates like Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Eliminating radicals like Baraev would strengthen Maskhadov’s hand.