New Tactics of the Chechen Separatists

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 17

Despite the claims made by high-ranking Russian military and local authorities, the Chechen resistance has not yet been broken. With the arrival of spring, Chechen fighters have again stepped up their activity.

The start of the spring-summer period was marked by new armed clashes in the mountainous part of the republic and in a number of adjacent regions. Despite a complete information blockade and the Russian media’s careful glossing over of the information about the ongoing hostilities in the Chechen Republic, some information does become public from time to time some. On April 16, in Chechnya’s southern Vedeno district, not far from the mountain village of Dargo, fighters blew up an armored vehicle with federal Interior Ministry servicemen on board, after which they opened up with intense fire from automatic rifles on the surviving servicemen. According to official Russian reports, the attack killed two servicemen and seriously wounded three others. The rebel fighters escaped into woods. Two days earlier, a shootout between a group of fighters and law enforcement personnel took place on the outskirts of the village of Dattih in the southwestern Sunzha district.

Reports of detained fighters and their accomplices and the discovery of caches of weapons and ammunition appear practically every day. And this is happening six years after the start of the so called “counter-terrorist” operation and against the backdrop of constant claims by the military and local representatives of “power” structures that they have “full control” over the situation.

At the beginning of March of this year, a large force from the security services and Chechen Interior Ministry were sent to a number of the republic’s mountainous districts. Chechnya’s pro-Moscow leadership announced that a large-scale special operation was underway to capture the leaders of the separatists—Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, Shamil Basaev, Dokku Umarov and others. The total number of the people involved in the operation exceeded 3,000 men.

It transpired later, however, that the operations pursued somewhat different objectives and tasks: in early March, scores of employees of the Republic’s Anti-Terrorist Center, or ATC (formerly the security service of Chechnya’s president, who are known in the republic as “kadyrovtsy”), switched to the side of the separatists. Interior Ministry and ATC forces were dispatched to the mountains to capture the turncoats.

A 40-year-old resident of the Vedeno district, Sultan Khadzhiev, said that a sub-unit of the ATC deployed in his district had defected to the rebels in early March. “As far as I know, a commander of the group with a nickname ‘Mullah’ was one of the confidants of Ramzan Kadyrov and was detained on suspicion of helping the militants. After that, all of his subordinates went to the mountains.”

According to Khadzhiev, kadyrovtsy executed “Mullah” and transferred his body to his relatives for burial, after which a large number of police and kadyrovtsy were moved into the district. “They searched the outskirts of residential areas and mountainous forest areas trying to find the defectors,” Khadzhiev said.

The fact that relatives of Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, or residents of his native village of Hosi-Yurt (Tsentoroi) in the Kurchaloi district, are appointed to all the high positions in Chechnya’s power structures points to the rather serious problems that the republic’s current leadership is experiencing. A month ago, a certain Zaurbek, who hails from the same village as Kadyrov, and who until recently worked in the security service of the previous Chechen prime minister, Sergei Abramov, was appointed to the post of police chief of Grozny’s Leninsky district—the central district of the Chechen capital. Furthermore, according to the Chechen Interior Ministry, the newly-appointed police chief, who does not have any specialized education, was given the rank of police lieutenant.

In early April, the chief of police of Chechnya’s Shatoi district was removed from his post and, through Ramzan Kadyrov’s intercession, a former employee of the republic’s OMON special police force was appointed to this position. Kadyrov openly accused the district administration and representatives of force structures deployed in the district – including Russians—of failing to take any measures to fight the separatists and actually taking a position of neutrality. The new Shatoi district police chief began his work by firing some of his employees. His first attempt to distinguish himself in his new position resulted in a full fiasco.

“The new head of the police recently appointed by Ramzan [Kadyrov] decided to distinguish himself,” said Alkhazur, a resident of the Shatoi district village of Pamyatoi. “He sent a group of his subordinates to ambush fighters of Doku Umarov. [Umarov hails from the village of Kharsenoi in the Shatoi district and there is information that the fighters subordinated to him are located in this district.] However, [rebel ] fighters surrounded [the ambushers], fired on them, took four prisoners and easily to away.”

According to local residents, the new administration of the Shatoi district police department has since announced that it intends to take radical measures against the rebel fighters operating in the district. The rebels were given an ultimatum to lay down their weapons and turn themselves in before April 15 or their relatives would be taken as hostages. There have been no reports of rebel fighters in the Shatoi district turning themselves in, but it is absolutely clear that if local employees of “force” structures try to employ hostage-taking on a wide scale even in one district of the republic, then the rebels will not sit on their hands and will take reciprocal measures.

In addition, the separatists are unlikely to limit their activities to Chechnya. Serious changes have been made in the leadership of the Chechen armed resistance since the death of Aslan Maskhadov in March 2005. With the change in leadership, the priorities of the armed struggle have also shifted. Now the leaders of the insurgents speak more and more about their intention to move military actions to other regions of the North Caucasus.

In May 2005, two months after Maskahdov’s death, the Chechen separatists announced that they had formed a “Caucasian Front” within the framework of “reforming the system of military-political power.” Along with the Chechen, Dagestani and Ingush “sectors,” the Stavropol, Kabardin-Balkar, Krasnodar, Karachai-Circassian, Ossetian and Adighy “jamaats” were included in it. This, in essence, means that practically all the regions of the Russia’s south will be involved in the hostilities.

The events last year in the Kabardino-Balkarian capital of Nalchik, the ceaseless sorties in Dagestan, clashes in Ingushetia and increasingly frequent clashes in Chechnya itself with the arrival of spring, are a clear indication that the statements of Russian and local authorities about the complete destruction of the Chechen separatists forces are, mildly speaking, grossly exaggerated. Moreover, at the end of last year, rebel leaders declared that they were planning to hold a large military meeting (Majlis al-Shura) this spring with the goal of finalizing the unification of all groups and units of fighters operating in the North Caucasus. Furthermore, Shamil Basaev stated that he “intends to cross Volga” in the summer of 2006.

Apart from creating the united “Caucasian Front,” the Chechen separatists have made serious changes in their own government. In early February, Sheikh Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev issued a decree removing from their positions the ministers who are currently residing abroad. The foreign and humanitarian blocks in the Ichkerian government, which had been headed by Vice Premier Akhmed Zakaev, were repealed. Zakaev was thereby automatically demoted to the position of the Minister of Culture. Health Minister Umar Khanbiev lost his post as the General Representative of the President of the ChRI abroad. His brother, former Brigadier General of Ichkeria and Minister of Defense of the ChRI, Magomed Khanbiev, is currently a deputy in Chechnya’s pro-Russian parliament. All the members of the ChRI Cabinet have been ordered to return to Chechnya and work there.

The Chechen resistance is becoming more and more radicalized. Former Soviet army officers General Djokhar Dudaev and Colonel Aslan Maskhadov, have been succeeded by people who rely more and more on the religious feelings rather than the nationalistic feelings of the population. While Dudaev and Maskhadov were seeking from Moscow recognition of the independence of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, Sadulaev and Basaev speak out more and more about the need to expel Russia from the territory of the whole North Caucasus. But regardless of goals and tasks announced by the current leaders of the separatists, the insurgents continue to enjoy the support of a significant part of the population of the Chechen Republic.

“It needs to be admitted that Chechen fighters still enjoy support from some part of the population,” said a Chechen Interior Ministry officer. “It would be stupid to deny it. And they enjoy that support not only with the youth, who have nothing to occupy themselves with in the war ravaged republic, but also with religious activists and officials. The arrest of a representative of the clergy in one of the mountainous districts is clear proof of this. That man supported Ramzan Kadyrov in words and even received a car from the latter, but then it transpired that he was actively assisting the [rebel] fighters. And a deputy Mufti of Chechnya was present in person at the funerals of one of the leaders of the [rebel] band formations, Khussein Chersiev, who was killed a couple of months ago on the territory of Ingushetia. He [the mufti[CW] was fired for that.” The Interior Ministry officer told me that many of the former rebel fighters who are today serving in the law enforcement organs and various Kadyrovite structures are secretly helping the “forest brothers”—their former comrades.

“The [rebel] fighters today are not the way they were two, three years ago,” he said. “They do not keep large forces in the mountains and do not set up large bases and camps. Now they act in small mobile groups, several people in each group. When needed, they unite into teams and then they split up again.” In addition, he said, the heads of the rebel groups are trying to plant their people inside the republic’s power structures or attract employees of these structures to their side.

Federal Deputy Prosecutor Nikolai Shepel said at the beginning of the year that rebels posed a serious potential threat on the territory of the Southern Federal District. He told Itar-Tass on January 10 that “cells of international terrorist network operate in all the regions of Russia’s south and handle millions of dollars.”

According to Shepel, terrorist groups with the same ideology and hierarchy “operate today practically in all the subjects of the Southern Federal District, including the Stavropol, Astrakhan and Volgograd districts.” This criminal organization, claims a high-ranking official, is headed by Shamil Basaev, who “has close links with emissaries of international extremist religious organizations.”

All of this suggests that the situation in both the Chechen Republic and the other regions of the North Caucasus may become seriously aggravated. The fact that Moscow continues to increase the number of Russian troops in the North Caucasus, which in turn leads to further militarization of the whole region, also provides evidence that the Kremlin is seriously concerned about the situation in the south of Russia. By the end of 2006, 72 frontier posts are planned to be built in the North Caucasus and two new special forces mountain brigades will be deployed on the territory of Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria.

It is absolutely clear the number of these forces is far more than needed to fight the groups of Chechen separatists, whose total number, according to Lieutenant-General Oleg Khotin, commander of the Provisional Operations Group of the federal Interior Ministry’s units in the North Caucasus, is only 750. The situation in the North Caucasus is more and more slipping out from under the control of Moscow and the Kremlin, which intends to maintain the appearance of stability in the way it is most used to—by means of military force.