Last week’s sensational raid on Ingushetia gave the anti-Moscow guerrillas a significant moral advantage as compared with other recent tactical novelties such as suicide bombings: To any objective observer, it looked a lot more like a legitimate military operation than a terrorist attack. The planners of this operation seem to have realized that terrorist atrocities deliberately aimed at civilians are self-defeating. Tatiana Stanovaya suggested in a June 25 commentary for the Politcom.ru website that “after the Nord-Ost episode a qualitative change took place in Russian popular consciousness: The populace is now quite willing to pardon the authorities for serious losses among hostages in the course of annihilating guerrillas. Precisely for this reason, Ingushetia did not see a ‘Budennovsk scenario’ with the seizure of hostages.”
As of June 27, according to the official figures of Ingushetia’s pro-Moscow administration, in total the dead numbered 98 and the wounded 104. In addition to Ingushetia’s acting Interior Minister Abukar Kostoev, among those killed were the city of Nazran’s chief prosecutor Mukharbek Buzurtanov, the district of Nazran’s chief prosecutor Belan Oziev, and the Ingushetia’s investigator for major criminal cases Timur Detogazov. The simultaneous attacks targeted the Interior Ministry headquarters in Nazran, the base of an FSB border-guard unit in Nazran, and also arms depots, municipal police headquarters and OMON headquarters in Karabulak and Sleptovskaya northeast of Nazran.
Among the dead were five officers of the FSB, including three commandos from the elite Vympel unit. Andrei Korneyev wrote in Rodnaya Gazeta on June 25 that it has been years since the elite units have experienced such losses.
It is now widely thought that the number of raiders was about 200. Gazeta.ru reported on June 28 that Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky told a closed hearing of the State Duma that he agreed with that estimate, and also agreed that most of the attackers were residents of Ingushetia. That admission contrasts with earlier claims by some officials that the attackers were mostly Chechens and Arabs.
Nearly all independent observers, even those for moderately nationalistic newspapers such as Izvestia, also agree that a major role was played by local Ingush guerrillas—whom Izvestia correspondent Vadim Rechkalov on June 24 tendentiously called a “numerous, well-trained, well-informed and well-armed bandit underground.” Eyewitnesses told the Izvestia reporter that most of the raiders were masked—meaning that they feared the possibility of being recognized. The eyewitnesses also said that the guerrillas spoke in both the Chechen and Ingush languages, and that they obviously knew their way around in the neighborhoods which they were raiding—even in the narrow, tangled streets of places like Troitskaya. An officer of Ingushetia’s militia who took part in the defense of the Interior Ministry building told Rechkalov that the attackers were as well-equipped as federal troops—with standard uniforms, helmets and bullet-proof vests.
In a June 28 commentary for Novaya Gazeta, the military-affairs journalist Pavel Felgenhauer wrote that the participation of large numbers of ethnic Ingush along with Chechen rebels was one of the guerrilla raid’s most unexpected features. (He also noted that the raiders reportedly included Slavs and Arabs.) All the more striking, in his view, was the smooth coordination among the raiders’ various ethnic groups—the synchronization of their attacks and their ability to react flexibly to unpredictable changes in the tactical situation—even though they presumably had never been able to practice together. (Perhaps yet another example of that coordination, according to a June 28 analysis by Tatiana Stanovaya for Politcom.ru, was an under-reported June 21-22 raid on a residential building on the other side of Chechnya—in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan—”evidently a diversionary maneuver.”)
“Until now the Ingush had not taken part in any massive separatist movement; their first serious baptism of fire came only last week,” wrote Felgenhauer. “During the great Caucasian war in the 19th century, the Ingush were on Russia’s side. Only Iosif Stalin united the Ingush people with the Chechens by means of his mass deportations in 1944—and now the present Russian government has managed, by introducing its death squads into Ingushetia, to transform its former loyal allies into dangerous enemies.”
“The recent events in Ingushetia do not testify to the beginning of an escalation of the Chechen conflict into the neighboring region, but only prove that this escalation has long since taken place already—and that the local security agencies are powerless against it,” Vadim Rechkalov of Izvestia acknowledged. “The guerrillas have humiliated the federal forces by carrying out a bold raid into the center of Ingushetia—easily, impudently and almost without casualties of their own.”
For example, the 503rd regiment of the Russian army’s 19th Motorized Rifle Division was stationed on the outskirts of the village of Troitskaya, about 20 kilometers from Nazran. But Rechkalov’s sources told him that a mere 15 or 20 guerrilla raiders succeeded in neutralizing this potent, 500-man force simply by mounting a diversionary attack on it and blockading the road to the city. The federal troops managed to reach Nazran only at 4 a.m., after the battle there was over.
In Rechkalov’s view, the guerrillas never intended to capture the Interior Ministry—they lacked the numbers to do that. Instead, they seemed to want to kill as many officers of the militia and other security agencies as they could find. “It seems evident,” wrote the Izvestia correspondent, “that the guerrillas knew the addresses, telephones, and automobile license-plate numbers of the interior ministry’s senior bureaucrats—and also the routes which they followed to and from work. After the beginning of the battle the guerrillas pinpointed those automobiles which were trying to get to government buildings such as the procuracy and the interior ministry and opened fire on them. One of the unofficial versions of the death of acting Interior Minister Col. Abukar Kostoev is that an accomplice of the guerrillas summoned him to his office by the colonel’s personal cell phone at about 10:30 p.m. The guerrillas intercepted his car en route and shot him.”
Insight into the tactics used by the guerrilla raiders came from an accidental eyewitness, apparently a civilian, who told Rechkalov that he was on the way home on foot when he was stopped by masked gunmen who introduced themselves as federal military-intelligence operatives and demanded to see his identification papers. As soon as they saw his documents they released him. He continued for about another 100 yards, then suddenly heard gunshots into an automobile from the same men who had briefly detained him. “After analyzing the situation later,” he said, “I realized how all this could have happened. If you are an officer of the police or of some other state structure and federal troops stop you, the first thing you do is to show them your official identification. That’s how the police are able to drive through federal checkpoints here. The guerrillas knew about this practice and so they pretended to be federal officers. They didn’t even need to sort out people for themselves, the people themselves handed over their documents and [some of them] thus signed their own death sentences.”
Imran Ezhiev of the regional branch of the Society for Russian-Chechen Friendship said in an interview published in Rodnaya Gazeta on June 27 that he and his colleagues spoke with private security guards at institutions such as banks. According to the guards’ account, the raiders assured them that they would not be harmed.
On June 24, Putin said that Moscow would increase the size of its security forces in the North Caucasus; specifically, that a new regiment of interior troops would be stationed in Ingushetia and that the Russian army units there would also be strengthened. Felgenhauer of Novaya Gazeta sarcastically compared these new deployments to the movement of a brigade to Budennovsk after the Shamil Basaev’s attack on that south-Russian town in 1995. “Obviously the idea is that if the guerrillas show up once again in precisely the same place which they visited earlier, they will be awaited.” But he asked whether it would have made “any difference” even if there had already been a federal regiment in Nazran: “Most likely the regiment would just have remained in its barracks until dawn, waiting for the situation to be clarified. During the night our forces do nothing but sit behind their fortifications, since we don’t have night-vision equipment or sensors for detecting enemy movements in the woods of the sort that the Americans began to use more than three decades ago in Vietnam. We don’t have night attack helicopters, and our artillery fire cannot be pinpointed in cities which are full of our own people and in which the enemy is wearing uniforms just like ours. Our forces have to wait until the morning and then take a look around—and get moving only after that, maybe.”
The Chechen human-rights activist Imran Ezhiev provided additional evidence for Felgenhauer’s conclusions in his Rodnaya Gazeta interview. He said that he and others from the Society for Russian-Chechen Friendship spoke with various eyewitnesses who told them “that most of the federal troops hid in buildings during the raid….There is a market here called the 21st Century Trade Center; the federals hid in its building because it is solidly built with thick walls….They finally left four hours after the raiders did.”
Putin has also authorized increasing the size of the Kadyrov clan’s security forces, noted Felgenhauer: “One wonders how soon this overheated cauldron will burst, with the guerrillas then returning en masse to the underground? Judging by the events in Ingushetia, we won’t have to wait long.”
As Tatyana Stanovaya observed in a Politcom.ru commentary on June 25, Putin’s statement about federal reinforcements was utterly “dissonant” with the reassuring words which had come from his own top officials just a day or two earlier. The presidential representative in the Southern Federal District, Vladimir Yakovlev, had said that Ingushetia’s president, Murat Zyazikov, “has the situation under control” and that “the republic has all the security forces it needs to repel the guerrillas.” Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, had said there is “no necessity for regular troops to commence operations in Ingushetia.” General Anatoly Kvashnin, the armed forces’ chief of staff, had said that he was not going to enlarge the federal forces deployed in the North Caucasus. Especially noteworthy, wrote Stanovaya, were the words of State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov (who is also head of the pro-Putin United Russia Party and former Interior Minister). The federal and Ingush security forces’ reaction to the raid, said Gryzlov, was “successful.”
Alu Alkhanov, the Kadyrov clan’s choice to fill the vacant presidency of the pro-Moscow administration in Grozny, continued to insist after Putin’s June 24 statement that no fundamental changes were needed. According to Reuters, he told journalists on June 26: “We do not have to rethink anything, all our forces know their job, I do not see the need for any change in tactics. There is no necessity to change anything in the Chechen Republic, we just need to strengthen our policies.”
“All these commentaries,” opined Stanovaya of Politcom.ru, “certainly seemed strange against the background of the burning Interior Ministry building, the captured weapons stores and the guerrillas’ successful escape.” She concluded: “It has become clear that the normalization of life in the North Caucasus is totally illusory, and that the attempts to sustain that illusion have reached such an extreme that they have even tried to portray the failure of the security organs in Ingushetia as a success.”