Putin’s Potemkin Withdrawal from Chechnya

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 32

On August 8, Rossiiskaya gazeta published an excerpt from a decree signed by the Russian President on August 2. In the decree, Putin instructs the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry “to submit by December 15, 2006, in accordance with the established procedure, proposals to reorganize the Joint Group [of Forces] by envisaging the stage-by-stage withdrawal in 2007-2008 of units of the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops and units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation that are deployed in Chechnya on a temporary basis.”

This instruction in the decree’s text has been regarded by Russian media as proof that the Russian authorities are ready to declare the end of the second Chechen war or “counter-terrorist operation” as it is officially called in Russia. The Russian authorities did their best to support this interpretation of the decree by the Russian public. On August 9, the day after the decree was published, Vladimir Putin met Ramzan Kadyrov, Prime Minister of the pro-Russian Chechen government, in the Kremlin and promised him that he would increase funding for the reconstruction of the Chechen economy. After the meeting, Kadyrov said, “the very fact that a possibility of withdrawal of troops from Chechnya is under discussion proves that the situation in the Chechen republic is regarded as stable” (gazeta.ru, August 9).

On the same day the decree was published, Alu Alkhanov, the Chechen pro-Moscow president, said that there were bandit formations in Caucasian regions such as Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia and Dagestan, but this problem was not related to the Chechen republic (gazeta.ru, August 9). By saying this, Alkhanov again voiced the Kremlin’s strategy to have the Russian public believe that the recent increase of violence in the North Caucasus has no connection with the situation in the Chechen republic, which continues to normalize.

Nevertheless, Putin’s decree does not consist of a single instruction to the Russian military command to think about a possible withdrawal of the troops from Chechnya in 2007 and 2008. The decree also mentions the establishment of the Center of Operations in the Chechen republic to carry out counter-terrorist missions in the region. The decree gives the Center of Operations of the Chechen republic additional powers “to direct special forces and means to find and eliminate terrorist organizations and groups, their leaders and persons taking part in organizing and carrying out terrorist acts on the territory of the North Caucasus region and to organize, plan and perform counterterrorist operations in Chechnya with these allocated forces and means of the Joint Group of Forces,” According to the decree, all Russian troops in Chechnya should be subordinate to the Center. The decree says that the Command of the Joint Group of Forces is to carry out the orders of the Center of Operations in dispatching the missions set out to the Command and to send troops and means as told by the Center. The membership of the Center of Operations shall include “a Deputy Interior Minister of the Russian Federation (to head the Center), the President of the Chechen Republic, the Head of the republic’s Federal Security Service Directorate, the commanders of the Joint Group of Forces, of troops of the North Caucasus Military District and of the North Caucasus Interior District, the Head of the Operations and Coordination Directorate of FSB in the North Caucasus, the military commandant of Chechnya, the Chechen Interior Minister,” and a number of other heads of regional and federal bodies.

The text of the decree raises the question of why bureaucratic monoliths such as the Center of Operations that includes heads of so many security agencies and forces should function in Chechnya while the government prepares to withdraw the troops from the republic. The Russian authorities also failed to explain why the Center of Operations of the Chechen Republic should seek and destroy terrorists all over the North Caucasus along with counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya itself. It looks even stranger considering the fact that the same decree says that the Anti-Terrorist Center of Operations should be set up in all regions of Southern Russia and these centers, just like the Chechen Center of Operations, should also include all heads of the regional security and military authorities. According to the decree, there should be regional Centers of Operations in all Caucasian regions that include heads of local security agencies. These Centers should be subordinate to the Center of Operations of the Chechen republic, which also include heads of military and law-enforcement bodies (like the Heads of the North Caucasus Military District and of the North Caucasus Interior District, the Head of the Operations and Coordination Directorate of FSB in the North Caucasus, etc.) responsible for security in the North Caucasus. The fact that the Chechen Center will in fact be the headquarters of all Russian forces that fight with the rebels in the North Caucasus demonstrates that despite numerous claims that the war in Chechnya is waning, the Kremlin still regards Chechnya as the center of the Caucasian insurgency.

Indeed, the rebels in Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and other Caucasian republics operate under orders from the Chechen rebels. “The rebel leaders of the North Caucasian groups are members of the State-Defense Committee—Majlis-ul-Shura, which is the council of field commanders and the military organ of the Chechen separatists.” All meetings of the council are held in the Chechen territory, and the council is headed by Dokku Umarov, a Chechen and the current top Chechen rebel leader. The logic of the Russian authorities is understandable: if the Caucasian insurgency is managed from Chechnya, the center of the Russian forces who confront it should be also located there. Furthermore, Chechnya continues to be the area of the most intense military hostilities. The Kavkaz-Center rebel website reports regular clashes with Russian troops, which it supports with short videos of rebel attacks posted regularly on the site. Low-ranking officers of the Russian military group in Chechnya also confirm the rebel reports. An officer from a special task force that operates in the Vedeno District told a Komsomolskaya Pravda correspondent that in comparison to previous years, the frequency of the rebel attacks in Chechnya had increased this year (Komsomolskaya Pravda, July 29). The fact that in May, Nikolai Rogozhkin, a Deputy Commander of the Russian Interior troops, asked for an additional 5000 troops to be deployed in Chechnya also shows the difficulty of the situation (RIA Novosti, May 29).

The information blockade around Chechnya preventing the release of regular reports documenting the violence in other Caucasian republics has created the illusion that Chechnya has become the quietest place in the North Caucasus. Yet, nowhere in the North Caucasus can one find the number of soldiers, armored personnel carriers and checkpoints as one can in Chechnya. Ingushetia or Dagestan, for example, can be described as unstable regions, but Chechnya is a stable war-zone where ambushes, roadside bombs and shootouts are daily occurrences, which the locals have become accustomed to.

The Russian authorities hope to end the Chechen war by the forthcoming parliament and presidential elections in 2007 and 2008. For now, however, Putin’s order to plan for the withdrawal of troops from the republic during the next two years seem as unrealistic as his efforts to portray the situation in Chechnya as being stabilized. Moreover, Putin’s decree officially recognizes the extension of the Chechen war to the entire North Caucasus region. It seems that the “counter-terrorist operation” is not ending, but rather a global Caucasian war is beginning, one that Putin’s successor will inherit.