Speaking today to an annual gathering of the Russian armed forces senior officers, President Vladimir Putin praised the Russian military for its handling of the military operation in Chechnya, saying that recent events, including actions carried out by international terrorists, had shown the military operation in Chechnya to be “correct, timely and well founded.” Putin said that Russia had come up against “well-trained and mobilized units of terrorists” in Chechnya, which, he argued, was no surprise, given “the financial base of the terrorists and our lackadaisical attitude toward this problem over a period of many years” (RIA Novosti, November 12).
The Russian authorities, while continuing to hold out the possibility of sitting down with the Chechen rebels–but only to discuss their disarmament and “reintegration” into Chechen society–has been doing its best since the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington to delegitimize the Chechen rebels by stressing their putative associations with international terrorist, including Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network (see the Monitor, November 9).
Putin stressed this point in a meeting with Western journalists in the Kremlin on Saturday (November 10), during which he said he had direct evidence of links between “international terrorists” in Chechnya and organizations connected to bin Laden. The Kremlin press service quoted the Russian president as telling the journalists: “[A]t the present time, anywhere from 500 to 700 mercenaries from various Islamic states are fighting in Chechnya, many of whom plan to return to Afghanistan. Our armed forces are holding back that potential. As soon as we weaken our activity there, they will wind up in Afghanistan and will do there what they are doing in Russia’s North Caucasus.” Putin was also quoted as saying that the Russian special services were prepared to turn over a list of more than 100 “fundamentalist” fighters who had left Chechnya and were currently heading toward Afghanistan via Georgia and Turkey. Putin said the identities of another 300 or so such fighters heading to Afghanistan had not yet been established and that 500 “mercenaries” from Arab countries had been killed in Chechnya since the start of the current military operation there in the autumn of 1999. He was also quoted as saying: “The problem of Chechnya is much more complicated than simply the problem of international terrorism. But it is a fact that international terrorists are present there” (NTV.ru, Radio Mayak, Finmarket, November 11).
Last week, Russian media, citing military sources, reported that intercepts of Chechen rebel radio transmissions made on November 7 indicated that “mercenaries” fighting in Chechnya had begun moving out of the breakaway republic headed for Afghanistan, but were traveling via Dagestan and Azerbaijan, not via Georgia and Turkey. Few observers doubt that Islamist volunteers from a variety of countries have gone to Chechnya to fight the Russians. There is, however, debate over their numbers, and some observers suspect the Russian authorities have exaggerated the numbers for propaganda purposes. It should also be noted that a special representative of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov last week categorically denied allegations that any Chechen fighters had connections with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida international terrorist network (see the Monitor, November 9).
AMERICAN BASE PLANNED, NATO EXERCISE HELD IN AZERBAIJAN.