Putin Address Conceals Challenges in the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 19

On May 10, Putin delivered his long-awaited address to the Russian Federal Assembly. A significant part of the address was a response to the last week’s speech by U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney at the summit in Vilnius. Cheney criticized Putin’s foreign policy, the use of natural resources to blackmail neighboring governments and Russia’s democratic backsliding.

In his address to the Federal Assembly, Putin did not mention Cheney but instead referred to “comrade wolf who knows whom to eat” (NTV, April 10). Then the president complimented the United States for its huge military budget, and the audience immediately understood that “comrade wolf” referred to the U.S. government. It was an old-Soviet style response of Russian authorities to critics from the West. It became clear that like general secretaries of the CPSU (the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) Vladimir Putin believes that the best way to respond is to equalize the military powers of Russia and the United States. Indeed, Putin talked at length in his address about strengthening the Russian military.

“We should always be ready to repel any potential external aggressor and attacks of international terrorism, and should be able to respond to any attempt to exert foreign policy pressure on Russia,” Putin said (RIA Novosti, May 10). He added that “[i]n the next five years we must significantly increase the procurement of modern aircraft, submarines and strategic missiles for the armed forces.” Putin then specified that the armed forces must be able to fight simultaneously in global, regional and local theaters.

The Russian leader appeared very confident talking about the increasing capability of the Russian army, but he immediately changed the tone when he mentioned the Chechen war. “We needed 65,000 troops to fight the [Chechen rebels], but we had only 55,000 capable soldiers, and they were scattered around the country,” Putin said, remembering the beginning of the second Chechen war in 1999. “We still have to expose to bullets young boys instead of contract soldiers. We have an army of 1.4 million servicemen, but none can really fight,” the Russian president added with a disappointed look (NTV, May 10).

While Putin failed to mention either Chechnya or the North Caucasus, it does not mean that the Russian president is satisfied with policy in the region. In contrast to Putin’s previous addresses in which he managed to find something positive to say about Chechnya and about the normalization of the situation in the republic, this time there was clearly a feeling of defeatism and shame in Putin’s speech. His phrase about “exposing young boys to bullets” disproved countless previous assertions that the Chechen war had ended. The commander-in-chief recognized that he has no capable army troops on the eve of a great rebel offensive in the North Caucasus (Eurasia Daily Monitor, April 27).

Last year Vladimir Putin talked about the establishment of two Russian military bases in the North Caucasus—in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Dagestan. Yet everyone forgot about this project very soon since it became clear that these bases would fail to stem the spill-over of the war beyond Chechnya’s borders and would not stop the growing strength of the insurgency. The Kremlin relied on a massive deployment of troops from the ministry of interior to the region. The total number of Russian troops from all branches reached 300,000 by the middle of last year (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 13, 2005). Yet the rebel attack on Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, showed that this level was insufficient to fight the Caucasian rebels controlled by the Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev. The rebel squads who entered the city lost more than 30 men, but managed to retreat with captured weapons. It became clear that Russian MVD forces are unable to confront the rebels without assistance from more capable Russian troops.

After the Nalchik raid the Russian military command started to supplement the ranks of the troops located in the North Caucasus with contract soldiers. “There are no large-scale hostilities in Chechnya and there won’t be,” Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s defense minister said this March. “Now there are so many military units concentrated in the North Caucasus, which are made up of contract soldiers that it is impossible to repeat large rebel raids in Chechnya or in the North Caucasus,” he continued (Interfax, March 28).

Nevertheless, recent clashes in the Buinaksk District of Dagestan have demonstrated that in the mountains, at least, the rebel forces can hold their own against Russian troops. The latest gun battle near Nizhnie Kazanishe village, two miles from the Dagestani city of Buinaksk, continued to reveal serious weaknesses in the Russian army (Eurasia Daily Monitor, May 11). Supported by mortar fire and air forces, the troops failed to destroy a squad of a dozen insurgents, suffered many casualties and let the militants escape. Failures in Dagestan and the continuing guerilla war in Chechnya, which is far from over, made clear to the Kremlin that neither the interior forces nor army troops are capable enough to confront the militants.

Thus airborne troops, the Russian military elite, are being prepared to return to the Chechen-Caucasian front. Alexander Kolmakov, the commander of the Russian airborne troops, declared that the 7th airborne division located in Novorossiysk on the Black Sea coast will become a mountain division equipped even with army mules. In addition, elite airborne divisions in other parts of Russia, in Pskov and Ulyanovsk, will be again provided with tanks and artillery, similar to the beginning of the second Chechen war (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 28). These developments suggest that the Russian military command plans to use airborne troops as ordinary infantry in the North Caucasus in case rebels increase their attacks, the prospect of which seems very real. Nevertheless, the airborne troops did not prove during the Chechen war that they can fight more effectively in the North Caucasus than other army units. The most painful defeat of the Russian army in the second war was near Ulus-Kert village in February 2000 when the militants who were retreating from Grozny to their mountain bases destroyed the elite airborne company that tried to stop them. Thus, the Russian military lost a unique chance to destroy the bulk of the Chechen guerillas and to prevent the beginning of the rebel war in the republic. It is unlikely that the airborne troops will do better this time.

The main problem of modern Russian soldiers is the same as that for the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. They are confronting rebels who dream to die, to become shaheeds defending their religion and country. Russian contract soldiers, however, have the mentality of mercenaries, and are not as committed to their cause. It is impossible to see now how Putin will make the Russian army fight “in several local conflicts”—as he said in the address—when victory in Chechnya is still far away and while the war is metastasizing across the whole North Caucasus region.

Preparing for a new cold war with the United States, the Russian president should be aware of the consequences that could be even more serious than for the Soviet Union. While Putin can talk about the rising strength of Russian military power, the sling-shot of the Caucasian war will continue to drag Russia into the quagmire of chaos and instability.