Russian President Vladimir Putin, intermittently reminded of his stated intention of bringing peace and stability to the Chechen Republic when he rose to power in 1999, made a surprise visit to the opening of the Chechen Parliament on December 12. Putin told the Chechen Parliament: “It is an important stage in the settlement in the Chechen Republic, and as I have already said, it completes the formal legal restoration of the constitutional system in our country as a whole and in the Caucasus in particular—even though there is still a great deal of work to be done there.” Essentially his visit served limited political ends, aimed at inducing some positive publicity for the failing security policies of the Kremlin amidst continued challenges to the Russian security forces in the region and problems stemming from the wider malaise within Russia’s armed forces (Interfax, Moscow, December 12; Channel One TV, December 12, Ekho Moskvy Radio, December 12).
Despite Putin’s tough stance on the security dimension to the Chechen conflict, the situation within the North Caucasus does not inspire widespread confidence that Russian security forces alone will bring a lasting resolution to the conflict. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, a total of nine Russian soldiers were killed in Chechnya during November, with combat operations resulting in four of these fatalities; none were listed as missing in action. Official Russian statistics, which cannot be independently corroborated, suggest that since the commencement of the current campaign in 1999, 3,491 Russian security personnel have been killed in the republic, with 32 listed as missing in action. In 2005, the official figure currently stands at 99 killed with an additional four soldiers missing in action. (Interfax, December 12). These statistics reveal aspects of the inherent problems in achieving a settlement through force of arms alone, but often conceal a wider and much more damaging picture, which the Kremlin seeks to downplay in the Russian media. Statistical losses, disputed figures and claims on both sides of the conflict of signs of progress, submerge rapidly in the quagmire of the real and bitter experience of Russian security personnel in the region.
On December 6, the military prosecutor of the Sochi garrison filed charges against the head of the Sochi military registration and enlistment office, Colonel Viktor Smolensky. “The investigation has established that Smolensky frequently abused his office by sending conscripts to do the work unrelated to military service in a seaside restaurant, where his wife is one of the founders,” according to a source in the military prosecutor’s office. Such reports, confirming the generally poor and languishing condition of Russian servicemen in the North Caucasus, illustrates vividly the endemic corruption of superiors and the problems of inspiring public confidence in the various security bodies involved. Smolensky is also accused of embezzling funds from the military registration and enlistment office (Interfax, December 7).
At the political level, efforts are being made to present an image of improving the lot of Russian servicemen serving in Chechnya. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told a government meeting that he was developing a system of streamlining payments that will result in soldiers receiving R300, or about $10, in addition to their regular pay for each day spent on active duty in Chechnya. “We have agreed that instead of combat awards servicemen will receive higher field pay for every day of their stay in Chechnya—R300 a day,” explained Ivanov. The sum of R2billion (about $66 million) will be allocated from the state budget for this purpose from January 1, 2006 (ITAR-TASS, December 5).
The command of the North Caucasus Military District considers as its main priority that formation of 10 military units serving on a contract basis next year. Within the overall government plan to increase the levels of contact personnel between 2004–07, 11,000 such contract servicemen are envisaged. The new training year includes elaborate plans to carry out more than 3,000 tactical and live firing exercises with 30 percent of these being conducted as night-fighting training. Though the actual numbers of exercises scheduled are less significant, the content appears to herald a shift in tactical readiness, emphasising night-fighting and prioritizing training at local regiment and brigade level (Interfax, December 5).
Any assessment of the current strength and condition of Russian security personnel in the North Caucasus must be cautious and tempered by reference to the long-running nature of the Chechen conflict and its capacity for overspill into neighboring republics. Another factor is the organizational reshuffle that is taking place, which entails the transfer of four commandants offices in the mountainous part of Chechnya from the Russian Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry Internal Troops. Consequently, all 20 commandants offices in the republic are now under the control of the Internal Troops, and they are reportedly serving on a contract basis. “The main responsibility for stabilization of the situation and for preserving public order in Chechnya now lies with the Internal Troops and the republican Interior Ministry,” Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev explained (ITAR-TASS, December 2).
Russian security agencies have borne the brunt of Putin’s experiment in Chechnya. The reliance on strongman tactics and the promise to stabilize the situation there and throughout the North Caucasus have proven too much for the Russian armed forces deployed in the region. Their morale, generally questionable throughout the armed forces, has been strained to the very limit in the unpredictable and messy course of the conflict. At an organizational level, Russian authorities now signal hope that transferring control to the Interior Ministry at the expense of the Defense Ministry will bring greater cohesion to the security response. The myriad layers of experimentation on the part of the authorities in Moscow, ranging from increasing contract personnel to making better pay conditions or adjusting the aims and priorities of training, point to the complete absence of any realistic prospect that Putin’s dream of bringing peace to Chechnya through strongman tactics will ever be realized. Yet while security reform and alterations are in progress, the Smolensky case will remind Kremlin planners that the most recent security lapses in the North Caucasus have damaged the reputation of the Russian security agencies. Putin’s surprise visit to the Chechen parliament did not offer any hope that the security situation will improve rapidly, in the absence of real and genuine dialogue.