Yesterday, May 17, Russia’s official news agency, Interfax, reported that a convoy of Russian troops had been ambushed near the Chechen village of Nikikhat. Official casualty figures listed five dead and six wounded. The news resembled reports that regularly came from Chechnya during the first several years of the second military campaign in the republic, but such reports have been noticeably absent in recent years.
One major difference between the first (1994-96) and the second (1999-) Chechen wars was the coverage by the Russian and international media. During the First Chechen War, journalists had free access to the region, and the media published reports from both the Russian military command and the Chechen rebels. The Russian generals often would insist that the war was over, but each time independent media sources, including Russian ones, disproved such claims.
The Second Chechen War is characterized by the information blockade set up around the separatist republic. No free press was allowed into Chechnya, and the centrally controlled press department of the security services became almost the sole source of information concerning hostilities in the region. As time went by, official military reports became shorter and shorter; eventually they were replaced by optimistic statements from pro-Russian Chechen leaders asserting that the situation in Chechnya had normalized.
Nevertheless, the guerilla war in Chechnya continued, hidden from the outside world. For example, on February 8, 2006, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, the leader of the Chechen separatists, issued a decree that was posted on the Kavkaz Center website (Kavkaz Center, February 12). In the decree he ordered the rebel field commanders “to recruit volunteers and equip them with weapons and ammunition as required by the approved plan for the spring and summer military campaign.” Following the decree, insurgent envoys surfaced in Chechen settlements to recruit new fighters. This process became so overt that Chechnya’s pro-Russian leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, went on local television with a vow to kill rebel envoys who tried to compel young Chechens to join the guerillas (Vainakh TV, February 23). But rather than discouraging the rebels, attacks increased following Kadyrov’s threat.
Chechen insurgents have staged attacks with increasing frequency since early March. First, insurgents clashed with Russian special forces in mountain districts such as Vedeno or Itum-Kale, then Grozny, the Chechen capital, was mentioned with increasing frequency in rebel reports, usually regarding night-time surgical strikes against checkpoints and army patrols in the city.
Throughout March Russian authorities remained silent regarding these attacks. But as the frequency of rebel attacks increased in April, they could no longer be ignored. The authorities found themselves in a difficult position; on the one hand, they had to continue their policy of trying to prove that the war in Chechnya is over, but, on the other hand, they realized that they should react somehow to the Russian army’s rising casualties from rebel activities. Security officials had typically tried to explain their heavy casualties away by citing bad luck or traffic accidents.
When rebel websites reported ambushes and bombings of the Russian columns in the mountains, officials responded with other versions of events. On April 24, RIA-Novosti reported that in Itum-Kale district the driver of an APC had lost control of the vehicle and had fallen into a gorge, killing two officers died and injuring two others. Six days later, on April 30, Interfax reported that a truck had fallen into the Argun River in the mountainous Shatoy district. On May 3, the Russian military command reported another accident in the Vedeno district, saying that an infantry combat vehicle had exploded due to faulty engine wiring (Ekho Moskvy, May 3). On May 10, Interfax reported an APC had fallen into a gorge in Nozhai-Urt district near the village of Ersenoy.
There are no mountains or gorges in Grozny, so the authorities had to find other reasons why federal forces continue to die in the city. On May 1, Interfax reported that a stray bullet from a wedding celebration had injured a bystander, while another report the next day said that a Russian policeman had been wounded in Grozny by a “random bullet.” On May 8, Interfax noted that an officer had been injured when an unidentified explosive device detonated during a sweep around the city’s police headquarters.
According to the rebel sources, insurgent attacks reached a new peak during the first week of May, with 98 Russian servicemen killed or wounded during that time throughout Chechen territory (Daymokh, May 10). The attacks became bolder and more lethal and more raids occurred during daylight. Ultimately, the authorities realized that they could not hide such information from the public any longer. On May 12, RIA-Novosti reported that two soldiers had been killed and three injured when a military jeep was ambushed in Grozny, and the next day Radio Liberty reported another ambush in the Chechen capital, this time leaving one soldier dead and four wounded.
After such reports the generals in Chechnya openly voiced their concerns. “An analysis of the situation has shown that the bandit formations are preparing acts of sabotage this spring and summer,” General Grigory Fomenko, the military commandant of the republic, said on May 13. He had to admit, “Bandit activity increased during the last week” (RIA-Novosti, May 13).
Despite immense efforts on the part of the Russian authorities to hide the war in Chechnya, the rebels are undaunted and are starting their spring and summer offensive. The increasing guerilla operations in the region are tearing down information barriers, even without the presence of independent media in the region.