Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 2 Issue: 20

On May 15, after having reported to President Vladimir Putin in person and having submitted a written report to him concerning the success of the “counterterrorist operation” in Chechnya, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov, and Minister of Internal Affairs Boris Gryzlov met with the chief editors of Izvestia, Rossiiskaya gazeta, Komsomol’skaya pravda, Trud and Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The press conference with the editors of publications deemed friendly to the Kremlin lasted about two hours. The questions from the editors were generally benign and supportive. We make use of a transcript of the discussion published in the May 17 issue of Izvestia.

On January 22 of this year, Patrushev began by noting, President Putin had signed Decree No. 61, “Concerning the Measures of the Struggle with Terrorism on the Territory of the North Caucasus.” The FSB was by Putin’s decree placed in charge of the counterterrorist operation in Chechnya. “The Ministry of Defense, which had headed the initial phase of the operation,” Patrushev recalled, “had fulfilled its role. De facto there remain no large bandit formations which could offer real resistance to the federal forces.” An additional reason for putting the FSB in charge was that “the rebels have changed their tactics and directed their basic efforts toward sabotage and terrorist acts, murders, and the frightening of the peaceful populace and of representatives of the federal forces, etc.” In his January decree, Putin set a date for the submission of a report from Patrushev and the other power ministers–May 15. “We reported to him [today],” Patrushev revealed, “on the results of our work and presented proposals on how to plan and to continue the counterterrorist operation.”

Asked what he had succeeded in doing, Patrushev cited two significant accomplishments: “For us it is important first of all not to permit the return of representatives of international terrorism into the Chechen Republic and, in general, into the North Caucasus. And one can already say: This task has been resolved successfully, albeit not completely…. Another most important task was the creation of conditions for the rebirth of the [Chechen] Republic, including in the socioeconomic sphere.” The judicial system has been restored in Chechnya and “what is especially important: All the judges are from among the local inhabitants.”

Asked how he planned to “neutralize” the rebel leaders Khattab, Shamil Basaev and others, Patrushev, in comments presumably aimed at the West, asked: “Why do we speak only about neutralization? We must first of all uphold the existing laws. The tasks are to take into custody, to arrest and to hand over to a court those who commit crimes.” Subsequently during the interview, Patrushev ignored his own strictures, repeatedly employing the terms “neutralization” and “liquidation.” The main difficulty in finding Khattab and Basaev, Patrushev explained, was that in recent times they have ceased moving about the republic, and they communicate only with trusted persons. They do not talk on cell-phones or radios. When they go on Chechen television it is exclusively through “previously made videotapes.” “We are capable today of destroying Basaev and Khattab,” Patrushev stressed, “but that is fraught with large losses on our side.” For that reason, “the tactic chosen by us has been the neutralizing of [rebel] leaders of the middle level, thereby reducing our own losses to a minimum.”

Asked whether the special services “simply do not want for some reason to liquidate the leaders of the rebels,” Patrushev responded with some heat: “We want to [liquidate them], and we can. But I have already noted the completely natural desire to preserve our own people.” Recently, he confided, the federal forces had “come closest” to the Chechen Wahhabi field commander Arbi Baraev. “Unfortunately,” he noted, “in the most recent operation [Baraev] succeeded in getting away thanks to an intricate system of underground passages.” “We are going to destroy those catacombs,” Patrushev added, and “at a certain moment [Baraev] will find himself in a dead-end.” In response to another question, Patrushev estimated that the rebels still have “several tens” of major field commanders.

On the subject of Aslan Maskhadov, one questioner remarked: “You did not mention Maskhadov’s name. Isn’t he among those who are to be neutralized?” In response, Patrushev said, “We have indeed separated Maskhadov from the general list, although, unquestionably, the task has been set to take him into custody. We take into consideration the fact that, in his time, he was the president of ‘Ichkeria’.” Patrushev then noted that “another course of events in relation to [Maskhadov]” was also possible, namely he could be killed rather than arrested, “because he is surrounded by the same kind of band as the others.”

One problem that the antiterrorist campaign has been having, Patrushev confided, is the onerous restrictions imposed by Russian law: “Since January [2001] we have taken into custody more than 1,200 persons suspected of participating in the illegal armed formations. According to the law, they can be held for forty-eight hours, plus another twenty-four hours. To find sufficient evidence of their guilt in that period is complicated. We have to let many of them go.” The Operational Headquarters has therefore appealed to the Russian president and to the chairman of the State Duma asking them to adopt a series of new laws–in particular, “laws on the propagating of political extremism and on illegal migration”–which will aid them in their efforts.

Asked whether there exists a “strategic plan” for regulating the situation in Chechnya, Defense Minister Ivanov answered: “There is. A government commission has been created, the basic task of which is the carrying out [in Chechnya] of measures of a socioeconomic character. We must assist that commission.” Queried about the participation of Chechens in the forces of the MVD of the republic, Interior Minister Gryzlov reported that more than 6,000 Chechens were currently serving in the Chechen MVD. Last year, seventy-four Chechens were in Russia studying at institutions of the MVD; this year there will be an additional 120. “It is necessary,” Gryzlov summed up, “to create conditions for the participation of the inhabitants of the republic in the struggle with terrorism. And we are doing that.”

Asked about the payment of so-called “battle wages” to troops serving in Chechnya, Ivanov noted that a new system of paying those wages had been instituted on May 1. “Before the system was introduced,” he was prepared to admit, “there were infractions.”

On the continued presence of rebels in the capital of Djohar [Grozny], Ivanov remarked that the basic problem was that the rebels were shooting at the Russian troops from the ruins of buildings located in the city. “We, the military, say, ‘Give us, finally, permission to tear down those ruins, those buildings which cannot be restored’…. But we can achieve nothing.” Ivanov did not specify who it was who was preventing the military from leveling the buildings.

FSB director Patrushev underlined that “In the flat part [of Chechnya] the villages are in very decent condition. Therefore we must develop the economy in them in the first place. All conditions exist for this.” He also noted that, in the past, the rebels had benefited from the illegal trade in oil, arms and narcotics in the republic. “Of that list [today] there remains only the trade in oil.”

Defense Minister Ivanov said that the military had managed to reduce its losses under battle conditions. The chief problem today, he stipulated, is in the area of “non-battle losses,” when soldiers perish due to drunkenness, carelessness and stupidity. “That [category] amounts to 20 percent of the total losses.”

Patrushev reported that his agency has been working hard so that the special services and law enforcement organs of adjacent countries like Azerbaijan and Georgia should become Russia’s allies. “A lengthy effort resulted in Azerbaijan’s giving us several participants in the illegal armed formations…. For the rebels, Azerbaijan is becoming an ‘uncomfortable’ country.” Relations with Georgia, Patrushev suggested, were not as good. Fortunately, he noted, the major separatist field commander Ruslan Gelaev, who is located in Georgia, has serious disagreements with Khattab and Basaev and is therefore “taking a wait-and-see position,” and “that is good [for Russia].”

In his comments, presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who also attended the press conference, underlined that “Chechens loyal to the federal regime” had been delighted when the FSB had assumed leadership over the operation, because they had been unhappy with numerous activities of the Russian military, such as “‘blind’ mopping up operations, the at times unwarranted shelling of population points, and the movement of columns of armor through arable land.” Chechens loyal to Moscow, Yastrzhembsky stressed, “fear another Khasavyurt.” To allay such fears, a decision has been taken to base the 42nd Russian Motor-Rifle Division in the republic on a permanent basis. The move of the capital from Gudermes to Djohar will also represent “a stabilizing factor.” “For the Chechens Grozny is a symbol, it is the capital.” On the subject of attitudes in the West toward the conflict in Chechnya, Yastrzhembsky said, “I have the impression that they have grown tired of the Chechen theme.” Previously, he remarked, Russia had been accused in the West of “an excessive application of force” in Chechnya. “Now that theme has disappeared.”

In a comment on the power ministers’ press conference appearing in the 18 May issue of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vladimir Pozharsky noted that his journalist colleagues were still carefully studying the transcript of the May 15 meeting. Of the numerous experts he had approached for a comment concerning the press conference, he emphasized, not a single expert had had a positive assessment of what the power ministers were attempting to do. “Many respondents said that the Russian power ministers have de facto admitted that the situation in Chechnya and the prospects for its development are very far from optimistic.” The “heavy crisis” in the republic will, therefore, Pozharsky predicted, continue.