In November 2001, Akhmad Kadyrov, then head of the pro-Russian administration in Chechnya, declared that “there is no more need to use aviation and artillery in the region” and that “the police should fight with the remnants of the rebels” (Newsru.com, November 12, 2001).
Five years have passed since that time. Akhmad Kadyrov had been killed, the Kremlin has declared the war over and Kadyrov’s son Ramzan, who is now the new Chechen president, promises to bring a stable peace to Chechnya.
What has not changed since 2001 is the shelling and bombardment of the Chechen mountains and forests. On November 24 of last year, representatives of the Russian military command in Chechnya met with deputies of the local pro-Russian parliament. The parliamentary deputies wanted to ask the security officials (including deputy heads of the Russian military group in Chechnya, the officials of the Chechen branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Interior Ministry officials) when they would stop the air strikes and the shelling of Chechnya’s mountainous areas. The parliamentary deputies said that in 2006, livestock, land under cultivation and private houses had been damaged in five districts of Chechnya (Shatoi, Vedeno, Nozhai-Yurt, Shali and Itum-Kale) as a result of endless artillery barrages. There were also wounded civilians. According to the Chechen Forestry Department, bombardment and shelling have caused serious damage to the mountains’ natural environment (Vesti-Severny Kavkaz, November 24, 2006).
The security officials said during the meeting that they also cared about Chechnya’s future and promised to take measures against “unsanctioned shelling,” as they called it.
Nevertheless, nothing changed after the meeting. On December 1, the Russian Air Force bombed the village of Sharon-Argun, located high in the mountains. According to Kavkazky Uzel, one private house was totally destroyed and two locals (the Gaytamirov brothers) were seriously injured. A girl, Zulpa Akhigova, experienced shell shock (Kavkazky Uzel, December 4, 2006). On December 24, artillery shelled the outskirts of the village of Avtury in Shali District (Kavkazky Uzel, December 28, 2006).
Earlier this year, as Ramzan Kadyrov was promising a bright future for the Chechens, the artillery barrages and bombardment were significantly intensified. On February 21, the Russian –Chechen Information Agency (RCIA) reported shelling of forests near the villages of Stary Atagi, Novy Atagi, Duba-Yurt, Chishki, Yulus-Kert, Agishti and Selmentauzen. These settlements are situated in Vedeno, Shali, Shatoi and Grozny districts. On February 27, Russian artillery shelled southeastern Chechnya (RCIA, February 27). On March 7, the rebel Kavkaz-Center website reported shelling in the Urus-Martan District. It should be noted that the areas and villages mentioned above are not high in the mountains, but rather in foothills and even valleys.
Last October, the commander of the Russian military group in Chechnya, Colonel-General Yevgeny Baryaev, said the shelling was needed to prevent the rebels from penetrating the population centers and to disrupt the supplying of rebel bases in the mountains (Chechnya Weekly, November 9, 2006).
Late last year, Baryaev was dismissed from his post and replaced by General Yakov Nedobitko, who had been deputy commander of the North Caucasian Military District (Vesti-Severny Kavkaz, December 12, 2006). After taking office, Nedobitko declared that significant progress had been made by the Russian military in fighting the insurgency. At the same time he ordered intensified shelling and air strikes in southern Chechnya. On January 17, Yakov Nedobitko told RIA Novosti that “special measures to neutralize the militants allow them no opportunity to conduct large-scale terrorist acts.” On February 12, Leonid Krivonos, the military commandant of the Chechen Republic, said that the military had managed to prevent the rebels from organizing in large groups and that the insurgency could no longer mount a serious resistance to the authorities. However, despite Krivonos’ optimism, it is clear that the military is increasing its shelling of the mountains as spring approaches.
It is a moot question how seriously the rebels’ network in the Chechen woods can be damaged by the shelling. Yet there is no doubt that shells and bombs are very destructive to the natural environment and make civilians suffer. Last October, residents of the village of Serzhen-Yurt in Shali District met with Viktor Fomenko, the district military commandant, and demanded that he stop the shelling immediately. “People die of heart attacks, while livestock gets killed by shrapnel,” Imran Ezhiev, a local activist, told the commandant. According to Ezhiev, 78 private houses were destroyed or damaged in 2006 due to the shelling in Serzhen-Yurt alone (Kavkazky Uzel, October 13, 2006).
Fomenko gave a strange response, saying that “the political will of the federal center is needed to stop the shelling.” Fomenko certainly did not mean that each time the military in Chechnya wants to use artillery it asks the Kremlin for permission. He probably meant something else, something more global: that the shelling is just a part of the war and that the war can be stopped only on Moscow’s orders.
The current use of artillery and aviation in Chechnya means that the situation in the region has not changed much since the beginning of the war in 1999. Five years ago, Akhmad Kadyrov already believed that the Chechen pro-Russian forces were capable of fighting the rebels without help of the Russian army, but it seems that even now the Russian generals still do not believe this enough to stop the shelling and withdraw their troops from the republic.