Independent observers and politicians had widely varying assessments of the significance of Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev’s death. Gazeta, on June 17, quoted Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center as saying that while Sadulaev was not a particularly significant figure, his death would seriously affect the actions of both the separatists and the federal forces. “Sadulaev has been a highly mysterious figure since the killing of Maskhadov,” Malashenko told the website. “A man who was said to have tremendous ambition and to be creating a North Caucasus front. He himself frequently said that there was some youth movement in existence that would take shape around him and would subsequently be one of the most serious factors. On the other hand, there is nothing linked to his name: He exists but there is nothing, hence opinions about him are completely polarized.” Sadulaev was “a landmark figure in one way or another but he had no exploits to his name like Basaev and the others,” Malashenko said. “There was the view that Basaev has already become part of history and now there are two men – Umarov and Sadulaev. Now it is not clear who Umarov is and how he will behave. There is already talk now of vengeance: That is also interesting, whether or not it happens. Sadulaev’s assassination is important for Ramzan Kadyrov; he can now always put this card on the table.” Malashenko, it should be noted, recently asserted that Basaev has become “a marginal figure” with “fake” goals (Chechnya Weekly, June 15).
In an item posted by Politkom.ru on June 19, Aleksei Makarkin argued that Sadulaev’s elimination was “an obvious success” for Ramzan Kadyrov and a blow to Shamil Basaev. “Sadulaev, despite the pompous title of president of Ichkeria, was a rather weak figure, fulfilling mainly representative and ideological functions, and also dependent on Shamil Basaev,” Makarkin wrote. “Like Basaev, he was an adherent of the Wahhabi current in Islam and had close links with sponsors of the separatist movement in the countries of the East. His killing leaves Basaev in a difficult situation. First of all, he has been robbed of cover in the person of a figure who did not have such an odious reputation abroad as Basaev himself, who is officially recognized as a terrorist by the Americans. Naturally, Sadulaev did not enjoy such renown in the West as Aslan Maskhadov, but in a number of cases, he could be positioned as a more ‘moderate’ actor than Basaev. Not long ago in the United States, a roundtable was held on the theme of ‘the Caucasus Front of Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev’, which was perceived extremely negatively in Russia” (Chechnya Weekly, April 20). Nevertheless, Sadulaev PR in general could hardly be considered successful because of the fact that in the West he was all the same generally perceived as a Wahabbi mullah and a Basaev functionary.”
At the same time, according to Makarkin, Sadulaev’s successor, Dokku Umarov, is one of the best-known rebel field commanders and is “considered Basaev’s rival within the Ichkerian community.” Unlike Sadulaev, Umarov “relies on his own military resources,” Makarkin wrote, which enables him to steer a course “autonomous of Basaev.” In addition, he said, Umarov is a devotee of Chechnya’s traditional Sufi Islam. “Last year he obtained the post of Ichkerian vice president only because Basaev wanted to ease the conflict within the ranks of the Ichkerians and demonstrate the unity of their forces (this was also important in order to preserve their ‘investment appeal’ in the eyes of their foreign sponsors),” Makarkin wrote. “However, relations between Basaev and Umarov did not improve as a result, especially since the post of vice president was only significant for the latter in one respect: It opened up opportunities for him to take charge of the Ichkerian community in the event of Sadulaev’s death.” Makarkin concluded that Sadulaev’s death mainly benefited Ramzan Kadyrov, because it may now intensify “the struggle for power and money” within the separatist ranks. “It will be hard for Basaev to reach an agreement with Umarov, who now may demand a real increase in his role in Ichkerian society and control of at least part of its financial flows.”
Aleksandr Cherkasov of the Memorial Human Rights Center told Kavkazky Uzel in an interview published on June 17 that he believed Sadulaev’s death would not significantly change the general situation in Chechnya or the North Caucasus.
“It is unlikely that the resistance forces remaining in Chechnya after the assassination of Sadulaev will lay down their arms, inasmuch as their real leaders have been and remain Basaev, Umarov, etc.,” Cherkasov told the website. “Will the situation in the North Caucasus change in general, considering that the underground is operating throughout that region, from Dagestan to Karachaevo-Cherkessia? No. Although Sadulaev announced that he was formally taking command of the forces outside Chechnya, it is clear that the real leadership [of these forces] was exercised by Basaev. If the situation did not radically change after the death of Maskhadov, then the death of Sadulaev will certainly change nothing. Sadulaev was killed, and it is unclear whether they wanted to take him alive. While details of the operation have not been reported, those who once again preferred to see the leader of the separatists dead rather than captured apparently feared that he would recount something unpleasant for them. Given all possible doubts about Sadulaev’s legitimacy—although for a majority of leaders of Chechnya, pro-Russian and anti-Russian, it [legitimacy] is a relative thing—it is impossible not to regret that another one of them has been killed. Dudaev, Yandarbiev, Kadyrov, Maskhadov were killed; now Sadulaev. Truth be told, one would not want this to turn into a tradition.”
According to Kavkazky Uzel, some observers have suggested that Sadulaev was killed in order to thwart the possibility of peace talks between the separatist and Russian officials, which both Akhmed Zakaev, who is now ChRI foreign minister, and Usman Ferzauli, the former ChRI foreign minister who is now Zakaev’s deputy, recently suggested were possible (Chechnya Weekly, June 1).
“Moscow has rejected negotiations in principle and consistently since 1999,” Cherkasov told Kavkazky Uzel. “And if the Kremlin didn’t negotiate with Maskhadov, who really controlled a significant part of the Chechen resistance, then why go for negotiations with a person whose influence on Chechen and other forces of the North Caucasian armed underground was, at any rate, not clear? The issue is not how good the proposals that Chechen [separatist] emissaries talked about were, but whether Moscow wants them in 2006 [the proposals]. Obviously not.” Cherkasov added that while a figure like Zakaev can be promoted to a ministerial post in the separatist government, “Basaev was, and remains, the real leader of the underground in the North Caucasus, and Sadulaev was, on the whole, a subordinate person.”
Commenting on Dokku Umarov’s elevation as ChRI president, Cherkasov said, “Nothing is known about Umarov besides the fact that he is a field commander close to Basaev who controls substantial forces of the separatists in Chechnya, at least in the mountains. There is no information that he has somehow stepped forward as a political leader. Indeed, he is one of the military leaders, and the fact that precisely such a person is now heading the separatist movement shows that no politicians remain there.”