Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 92

During his May 9 “Victory Day” speech before troops and military veterans assembled on Moscow’s Red Square, President Vladimir Putin made a thinly veiled threat to Chechen rebels, saying they should end their guerrilla war or expect a new military offensive against them. “We cannot allow the spread of local conflicts, which could lead to larger wars,” he said, adding that the lesson of Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany was that the promotion of violence and extremism leads to “horrible tragedies… and I wish to make it clear that no one should forget this” (The Times [London], May 10).

It was clear that the Russian president was referring to the war in Chechnya, which has been going on for more than a year and a half without the Kremlin managing to crush the rebels’ resistance. In addition, there are signs that the resistance is about to increase. During the recent battle between federal forces and rebels in the town of Argun, thirty rebel fighters blockaded themselves into the top floor of a five-story building, from where they battled Russian troops tanks, helicopter gunships and even artillery. According to the Financial Times, it was one of the biggest battles in the region during the last year. A rebel spokesman said that the Russian side lost fifty soldiers and seven armored vehicles in the battle (The Times [London], Financial Times, May 10).

There have been other signs that the Chechen conflict is about to escalate. A report by the Forum on Early Warning and Early Response (FEWER), prepared jointly with the Peace Mission in the North Caucasus, headed by former Security Council Secretary and current Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed, argued that Putin’s visit to Chechnya last month, the regrouping of rebels near the Chechen capital and attempts by both sides to move hostages and POWs to secure areas were all signs of an impending escalation of the conflict. The report also said that there were signs of increased international funding for the rebels. In addition, despite promises earlier this year that the military contingent in Chechnya would be reduced from 80,000 to 20,000 men, only 5,000 troops have been withdrawn since January. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said last week that there would be no further withdrawals (Financial Times, May 10; see also the Fortnight in Review, May 11).