Last March Nikolai Patrushev, the Chief of the Federal Security Service (FSB) visited the Chechen capital of Grozny, where he declared that al-Qaeda is still active in the North Caucasus. Patrushev named Dokka Umarov, the Chechen rebel leader, as the head of the Caucasian al-Qaeda. If one removes the propagandistic rhetoric from Patrushev’s speech about al-Qaeda, the message of the FSB chief becomes crystal clear: the insurgency is still able to resist and we should work harder against it. In Grozny, Patrushev met with officers of the Chechen branch of the FSB, the FSB Directorate for the Chechen Republic, and demanded from them “advance information on the intentions and plans of anti-Russian forces and terrorist structures aimed at destabilizing the situation in the region” (ITAR-TASS, March 15). To stress the importance of the task, Nikolai Patrushev made it clear at the meeting that this was not his personal demand, but the demand of the Commander-in-Chief, Russian President Vladimir Putin. “The Russian FSB reports directly to the Russian president and, proceeding from this, prime importance must be given to timely, complete and veracious information that contains conclusions predicting what is likely to happen and is required by the leadership of the country in order to take effective management decisions in the security field,” he said. Patrushev later admitted that the “total eradication of hotbeds of terrorism in the Chechen Republic has not been possible.”
During the opening ceremony of a new FSB building that took place in the Chechen capital on the same day, Nikolai Patrushev repeated that “in spite of the positive results of counterterrorist operations, hotbeds of terrorism in the republic have not been fully eradicated” and this is “yet to be accomplished.” Finally, the chief specified what the Russian authorities fear the most: that the insurgency will step up the war in the North Caucasus on the eve of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in 2007-2008. Patrushev declared, during the ceremony, that “the level of terrorist threat remains fairly high, especially during significant sociopolitical events” (ITAR-TASS, March 15).
Following Patrushev’s visit to Chechnya, it became evident that the positive mood of the Russian officials regarding the region began to change. The attention, however, has been switched again to security issues. On March 26, President Putin met the Russian Defense and Interior Ministers in the Kremlin. At that meeting, Putin demanded that the Defense Minister complete the formation of two motorized rifle mountain brigades in the North Caucasus by December 1, 2007. At the same time, the Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev told the President that a training center to train soldiers to fight in the Chechen Mountains had been created in Kabardino-Balkaria. Nurgaliev promised Putin he would have 400 to 600 men prepared for the commandant’s offices located in Chechen mountain districts by the end of the month (newsru.com, March 26).
The following day, March 27, Nikolai Rogozhkin, the commander of the Russian Interior forces, declared that the situation in Chechnya had recently become more difficult and called for more active measures to be taken to stop the militants (Chechnya Weekly, April 12).
Starting in early April, a wave of security sweeps and arrests struck Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia. According to the Chechen Human Rights Information Center, on April 3 Russian troops surrounded and swept the village of Yandi-Kotar in Achkhoi-Martan district. During this “mopping-up” operation the soldiers blocked all entrances to the village, busted all houses and checked the ID’s of the residents. At the same time, young men were detained for interrogations in the villages of Alkhan-Kala, Tangi-Chu, Roshni-Yurt, Chiri-Yurt, Zamai-Yurt, Stary Atagi and Samashki. It should be noted that all these settlements are located on the possible route used by the rebels to get from the mountains to Grozny. If the insurgents plan to unleash a guerilla war or attack the city, they will have to go through one of these villages. This could be one of the possible explanations for the special attention that security officials are giving these settlements.
Ingushetia also faced an unprecedented wave of security sweeps. On April 3, a large motorcade of special-task police units moved into the republic from North Ossetia. They swept Nasyr-Kort, on the outskirts of Nazran, the biggest Ingush city and a former regional capital. Then several young men and women were detained in Karabulak, Maglobek and other local towns and villages.
Late in April, Russian troops started to conduct large-scale “mopping-up” operations both in Ingushetia and Chechnya – operations similar to those taken in the first years of the second Chechen military campaign. On April 23, the troops completely surrounded the village of Shalazhi in Chechnya and the village of Voznesenskaya in Ingushetia. The soldiers dug trenchs and set up APC’s near the main entrances. On April 24, according to Ingushetia.ru web-site, Russian artillery shelled wooded areas near the Ingush villages of Ali-Yurt and Surkhakhi. Then, in early May, these settlements were blocked by the army troops for a security sweep that lasted several days.
Simultaneously, the Russian army’s reconnaissance units started to comb the outskirts of Grozny in Chechnya. According to Chechen human rights activists, on May 6 the troops blocked the city’s Staropromyslovsky district. Dozens of young men were detained and filmed on a video camera. On May 7, a large-scale “mopping-up” operation was held in Kotar-Yurt, which lies on the shortest path to Grozny from the mountains.
Nevertheless, security sweeps are just the tip of an iceberg. The Russian troops have yet to stop combing the woods and mountains and laying in ambush near villages in the Chechen foothills. The critical degree that the situation in Chechnya has reached is evidenced by the fact that policemen have banned the locals in the city of Argun for parking their cars on the streets.
In April, according to ITAR-TASS, air forces of the North Caucasian Military District conducted anti-terrorist exercises to practice bombing rebel camps and coordinating their actions with the ground troops. Increasingly, it seems that Russian authorities and the military command want to be ready for anything that could happen in the Russian South this year. As the summer fighting season approaches, more sweeps and anti-terrorist drills are imminent.