The deadline Moscow set for the return of kidnapped General Gennady Shpigun expires today, and the Russian authorities have threatened a “complex” of actions against Chechnya if the general is not freed. Among these potential actions are airstrikes against alleged terrorists bases in the breakaway republic.
In response to Shpigun’s abduction on March 5, Moscow has reportedly decided to cut shipments of energy supplies to the republic, which until now have been provided free of charge, and to cease all financial operations and economic programs with Chechnya. “Kommersant daily” reported today that if this “economic blockade” does not succeed in freeing Shpigun, military operations will ensue–specifically, the bombing or rocketing of the Chechen villages Vedeno, Serlen-Yurt and Urus-Martan, where guerrilla training camps are allegedly located. In a sign that Moscow is serious about the force option, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin has promised material assistance to all Russian citizens wanting to leave Chechnya, regardless of their ethnicity. Stepashin, on the other hand, referred to Moscow’s disastrous military intervention in Chechnya which began in December 1994, and stressed that ground troops will not be sent in this time (Kommersant daily, March 9).
Moscow is also reportedly considering operations to rescue Shpigun and to deal with “Caucasian” organized crime groups throughout the Russian Federation. Law enforcement authorities–who allege that both Chechen business circles and crime organizations around Russia have been assisting terrorists in the republic–are reportedly planning large-scale sweeps in Vologrograd and St. Petersburg, which have significant Chechen populations. The newspaper quoted an unnamed Interior Ministry official as saying: “The earth will be burning under their feet” (Kommersant daily, March 9).
In Chechnya, meanwhile, the opposition Shura (Islamic council)– headed by field commander Shamil Basaev, one of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov’s main opponents–yesterday ordered its units to mobilize in preparation for war. A Shura spokesman said that reservists had been called up and issued with 2,000 rifles (Associated Press, March 8). Basaev, formerly Chechnya’s premier, warned that any military action by Moscow could lead to a repeat of the Chechen war of 1994-1996, in which Russian forces did not fare well. “The leadership of Russia did not learn its lesson from the recent past,” the rebel field commander said (Russian agencies, March 8). On March 7, Stepashin accused Basaev of complicity in Shpigun’s kidnapping, a charge Basaev has denied. No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
POLITICOS BEGIN THE DEBATE OVER WHAT TO DO REGARDING CHECHNYA.