Observers, security officials, and journalists across Russia are all talking about the possibility of another big war in the North Caucasus. This conflict is already known as “the third Caucasus war,” as there have been already two military campaigns in Chechnya.
Last year, rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov said in an interview with the Kavkazcenter news agency that while the Russian authorities’ strategy was to make Chechens fight Chechens (the so-called “Chechenization policy”), the rebels plan was to escalate the war beyond Chechnya, spread it across the North Caucasus, and gain the support of the populations of other Caucasian republics.
This year Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, the new separatist leader after Aslan Maskhadov’s death in March, has taken specific steps to trigger war across the Caucasus. Specifically, Sadulaev ordered the insurgents to establish a new front in the North Caucasus. According to his decree, the insurgents’ “Caucasus Front” will consist of four republics west of Chechnya (Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia), and two provinces populated mostly by ethnic Russians: Krasnodar krai and Stavropol krai (Kavkazcenter, May 16). Three days before Sadulaev’s decree, field commander Doku Umarov had announced that the separatist forces were changing their tactics and would attack outside Chechnya (see Chechnya Weekly, May 11).
Unlike previous threats from the insurgents, this time the Kremlin did not ignore the warning. Earlier in 2005, the Kremlin had more than 300,000 troops in the Caucasus, but except for 80,000-100,000 troops located in Chechnya, all of them were scattered over a large territory, including ethnic Russian-dominated regions like Rostov oblast, Krasnodar krai, and Stavropol krai. Now forces are being concentrated in the Caucasian republics in preparation to fight the insurgency. On May 13, Nikolai Rogozhkin, commander of the Russian Interior Ministry troops, announced that MVD troops would be augmented in the cities of Elista (Kalmyikia), Cherkessk (Karachaevo-Cherkessia), Nalchik (Kabardino-Balkaria), and Sochi (Interfax, May 13).
According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, Moscow is responding to the rebels’ increasing activities by preparing countermeasures and militarizing the entire North Caucasus. “The scope and concept of the reorganization are at such a level that we can say that the federal forces have never before conducted preparations for combat operations on such a grand scale” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 13). By early 2006, brigades and battalions of MVD troops in the North Caucasus will be replaced by regiments and divisions. Instead of a battalion of 600 men, there will be a regiment of 2,000 (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 13). In addition, two mountain brigades will be established in Dagestan and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Officially these units are to protect Russia’s southern border, but in reality they will have other tasks. The mountain brigade in Karachaevo-Cherkessia will defend the Black Sea Coast from rebel attacks and the brigade in Dagestan will defend the republic, particularly areas near the Caspian Sea, from insurgents coming from Chechnya.
At the same time, the Russian army units already stationed in Caucasian republics such as Chechnya, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Ingushetia will also be reinforced. More special-task and reconnaissance groups will be sent to the mountainous areas of Chechnya (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 13).
This year the authorities also began to prepare the public for a major new war. Special attention is being paid to officers who serve in the Caucasus. According to kavkaz-strana.ru website, more and more people in the army are discussing the prospects of a new Caucasian war in near future (kavkaz-strana.ru, July 14).
In addition to MVD and army troops, this summer local police, supported by policemen from other regions of Russia, began non-stop search operations in almost all of the North Caucasus republics. The police were most active in Dagestan, where there was no respite from bombings and attacks by the insurgents. In Ingushetia, the police in the valley and army troops in the mountains have been continuously looking for places where militants could hide to prepare new operations. To prevent another raid like the one that happened in Ingushetia on June 21, 2004, army posts have been established on the routes connecting the valley and the mountains. Last year the rebels attacked Ingush towns by coming through such settlements as Yandiri, Ali-Urt, and Nesterovskaya. Army units have now blocked all routes near these villages (Russian-Chechen Friendship Society press releases 1355 and 348).
In Kabardino-Balkaria, special-task police units (OMON) conduct regular mopping-up operations in Elbrus district, the mountain part of the region. Recently, house-to-house searches also took place in the outskirts of Nalchik, the capital (Kavkazsky uzel, August 1).
Nevertheless, the rebels are also keen to keep their promise to stage attacks across the entire Caucasus region. Along with Dagestan, rebel attacks have intensified in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. In Karachaevo-Cherkessia, insurgents killed several officers from the police department’s organized crime division, and a police patrol was attacked in the town of Karachaevsk. In Kabardino-Balkaria, attacks on patrol cars killed four policemen. On August 9, the separatist Chechenpress website published a press release from the rebel command that claims that during the night of August 7-8, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev held a meeting with commanders from different Caucasian regions in a village in Chechnya. According to the statement, the men discussed improvements in communications, medical supplies, and coordination of actions. “Sadulaev heard the reports from the commanders about how to provide all squads with everything needed for effective military and sabotage operations” (Chechenpress, August 9).
With this announcement the rebels have again sent a clear message that they are going to launch a major attack in the North Caucasus, including, perhaps, taking control of the main towns and strategic roads. At the same time, the militants have no plans to relinquish the “Chechen front” either.
Negotiated settlements now seem impossible. Both sides of the conflict — the Russian authorities and the rebels alike — now rely only on sheer force to achieve their goals. The Kremlin and the separatists would rather turn the entire North Caucasus into a bloodbath rather than look for a compromise and a peaceful solution.