Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 2 Issue: 5

As reported last week, on January 22 Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev was to be placed in charge of the entire “counterterrorist operation” being conducted in Chechnya. As Putin’s decree of that day mandated, all of the Russian “power ministries”–the General Staff of the Armed Forces, the GRU, the MVD, the FSB, FAPSI, the Ministry for Emergency Situations, the Russian Border Guards, the Railway Troops–were to be subordinated to Patrushev as regards their activities in Chechnya. The Ministry of Justice and the Southern Federal District (headed by retired General Viktor Kazantsev) were likewise subordinated to the FSB chieftain (for the full text of the decree, see Strana.ru, January 22).

The following day, January 23, it was announced that Rear Admiral German Ugryumov, deputy chairman of the FSB and head of that organization’s Department for the Defense of the Constitutional System and the Struggle with Terrorism, was to travel to Chechnya to take over the actual direction of the operation (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 24). Ugryumov was recently made a Hero of Russia for his leadership of a series of special operations conducted during the current conflict (Strana.ru, January 24).

Certain of Ugryumov’s new tasks were quite clearly defined. As presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky recently stipulated, the head of the FSB-led operation is to hunt down rebel “warlords,” such as the elected president of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, and field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab (Agence France Presse, January 22). Other tasks were left rather more murky: Ugryumov is to oversee a reduction in the number of Ministry of Defense troops serving in Chechnya (they currently number 40,000, in addition to another 40,000 from other ministries), while at the same time increasing the number of FSB personnel present in the republic.

How have the Russian military reacted to Putin’s new plan, which has removed the overall supervision of the operation from the Defense Ministry? On January 23 and 24, the newspaper Moskovsky komsomolets published two informative reports written by journalist Aleksandr Chuikov, who was present with the Russian military forces in Chechnya. Chuikov underlined that the idea of a military withdrawal from Chechnya is strongly opposed by Russian army officers. At the headquarters of the Combined Group of Russian Forces in Chechnya, he reports, it is believed that “[Akhmad] Kadyrov in his recent conversation with Vladimir Putin… seriously underestimated the danger which threatens the republic in the case of a weakening of the forces based here. The [pro-Moscow Chechen] civil authorities are, for the time being, completely incapable of fully resolving the problems of the republic.”

The army officers contend that the rebels remain a real force in the republic. “And if the military and police units… are scattered about in garrisons, then the rebels will receive a freedom of movement such as they have not had since the very beginning of the war. The commander of the group, Lieutenant General Valery Baranov, also considers that, for the time being, it is premature to withdraw forces from the republic.” As an officer in the paratroops told the Moskovsky komsomolets reporter, “Of course we all want to go home. But first we have to finish the work we were ordered to complete. If we leave now, then in several months all the banditry will begin anew. The local [pro-Moscow] police are themselves half, if not full, bandits” (Moskovsky komsomolets, January 23).

In a second report devoted to the views of the Russian military, Chuikov interviewed a group of officers in the army spetsnaz. Noting that “up until now no one has been withdrawing us,” one of the officers declared: “Chechnya is our [that is, Russia’s] land, our zone of interests, and if there are idiots at the top who do not understand that we will have to cleanse this festering sore, and cleanse it completely, then this is stupidity rather than treason.” And the officer continued his emotional statement: “How many times can one step on the same pile of excrement? We have to carry things through to the end! If these Wahhabis are given freedom to act as they please, or if we simply let Chechnya go, then soon we will have to fight them in Stavropol Krai or once again in Dagestan” (Moskovsky komsomolets, January 24).

In a similar vein, an article appearing in Gazeta.ru reported the following concerning sentiments obtaining among the Russian military in Chechnya: “In reality in Chechnya…every day there are some twenty attacks on checkpoints and every day the army incurs losses from explosive devices placed on the roads… Under these conditions, a withdrawal of the troops would be uniformly perceived-whatever the official propaganda says-as a defeat in Chechnya. The rebels would grow stronger in spirit, while the number of Chechens willing to cooperate with the authorities would diminish sharply.” The Putin leadership, the Russian military believe, fully understand these facts. The recent announcement concerning troop reductions was merely intended to placate the Council of Europe (Gazeta.ru, January 22).

The pledge to withdraw Russian forces, Gazeta.ru wrote, represents little grounds for concern among the Russian military: “After all, there is no timetable set for the withdrawal of troops, and no one will ever see one. Taking into consideration the real situation, one can confidently predict that the question of a withdrawal will not go beyond words. Otherwise, in the spring, the Kremlin would need to begin a third campaign in Chechnya” (Gazeta.ru, January 22).

That the FSB fully understands this situation was made clear on January 25 when Rear Admiral Ugryumov met at the Khankala military base outside of Djohar with officers of the Russian military. Ugryumov stressed that no military forces whatever would be withdrawn from Chechnya until a thorough assessment of the military situation in the republic had been completed (Itar-Tass, January 25).

General Yury Baluevsky, a deputy chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, recently asserted that no troops from the large North Caucasus Military District were to be withdrawn from Chechnya (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 23). And when it was announced on January 24 that detachments of the Moscow Military District and certain artillery units would be withdrawn in February 2001, a counterannouncement immediately followed: “In the Ministry of Defense of Russia they have categorically repudiated… reports that in February of this year there will be a withdrawal from Chechnya of artillery units and of detachments of the Moscow Military District” (RIA novostei, January 24).

Journalist Ilya Masksakov has noted that in Putin’s decree, “the number of federal troops to be withdrawn from Chechnya is not stipulated, and therefore it remains for the time being only words” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 24). A spokesman for separatist President Maskhadov reported to Agence France Presse the separatists’ conviction that any Russian troops that are withdrawn from Chechnya will be “immediately replaced by others” (Agence France Presse, January 23).

What new initiatives can one expect in the operation which is to be headed up by Rear Admiral Ugryumov? As the respected military journalist Pavel Felgenhauer noted recently on the pages of the Moscow Times, the FSB is now harking back to the Stalin period to find a “model” for a successful crushing of separatist guerillas: “It [has become] fashionable,” Felgenhauer wrote, ” to recall the experiences of the 1940s and 1950s, when Soviet forces successfully put down separatist guerilla movements in the Baltic republics and western Ukraine.” An elderly former participant in the NKVD’s war on Ukrainian and Baltic separatists recently counseled: “It’s easy to win an antiguerilla war: Just put a company of soldiers in each Chechen village and give them a KGB operative as chief.” This advice has apparently been taken by the Putin regime. Felgenhauer writes: “Some 200 Chechen villages and towns will now have permanent Russian garrisons of 150 to 500 soldiers. These troops will be supported by local pro-Moscow Chechen militias, and FSB operatives will be in overall control” (Moscow Times, January 25).

Felgenhauer contends that this strategy is likely to backfire given that today’s FSB–not to speak of the military and MVD units based in Chechnya–lack the discipline and the professionalism of Stalin and Beriya’s NKVD. Journalist Mikhail Khodarenok has made the same point on the pages of the January 26 issue of Nezavisimaya gazeta.

Both commentators, however, ignore the fact that today represents an especially propitious time for the FSB to initiate a sweeping cleansing campaign in the aforementioned 200 Chechen settlements. With the kidnapping of American Kenneth Gluck of the organization “Doctors without Borders,” and the subsequent withdrawal of Western humanitarian organizations from Chechnya, a path has been cleared for the FSB to do whatever it wants, without publicity. As journalist Zoya Svetova recently observed: “One’s worst fears are being justified: gradually Chechnya will become a completely closed zone. After the kidnapping of Kenneth Gluck… the staff of other international organizations are halting their activity in the rebellious republic. It is obvious that, once the FSB takes over the counterterrorist operation, then control over the work of journalists in the zone of conflict will become still more harsh.”

And Svetova continued: “It is not known whether employees of the human rights organization Memorial will be able to work further in Chechnya, as they have worked up until now, collecting testimonies concerning the infringement of human rights, the illegal arrest of civilians, actions of revenge against the civilian populace, marauding and robberies” (Russkaya mysl, January 25).

Under the leadership of Rear Admiral Ugryumov, who will presumably be emulating the draconian methods of Stalin and Beriya, Chechnya is likely to be plunged into darkness, its inner life no longer visible, even in part, to the outside world. If, as Akhmad Kadyrov has repeatedly advocated, the estimated 170,000 Chechens currently taking refuge in Ingushetia are induced to return to their home republic, then their fate, too, will become shrouded in darkness.