Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 6

Yesterday evening Russian agencies reported fierce battles between federal forces and Chechen fighters in the towns of Argun and Shali, which were both taken by Russian forces late last year. According to one report, at least 300 rebels blocked the Russian military headquarters and railway station in Argun. Yesterday, the Russian military said that it had encircled the town of Vedeno, in Chechnya’s mountains (Russian agencies, January 9). Today, the Russian military reported that its forces had retaken the town administration building in Shali, which the rebels had seized yesterday. Chechen guerrillas also reportedly attacked the Russian military command’s building in the town of Gudermes and ambushed a column of Interior Ministry troops several kilometers outside the town, near the Dzhalka River. The besieged federal force radioed for backup, after which the five armored personnel carriers which came to their assistance were also ambushed (Russian agencies, January 9-10; NTV, January 9). Russian military sources claimed that only two of its soldiers were killed in the fighting over the last twenty-four hours, but the state Itar-Tass agency put the number at twenty-six (CNN, January 10). Both sides tend to exaggerate the losses of the other side and play down their own.

The events of the last day show that the war in Chechnya is turning into a guerrilla war, which is likely to be both protracted and costly to the Russian forces. The 51-percent state-owned Russian Public Television (ORT) quoted military and intelligence officials yesterday as saying that the rebels have been mining roads in the mountainous regions and bridges spanning mountain gorges, and that large numbers of rebels remain, incognito, in those regions of Chechnya now under federal control. “They temporarily hide their weapons, so that later, with the first order from their commanders, they can shoot Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry units in the back,” ORT reported, and quoted Russian intelligence officials as saying that the greatest concentration of rebel fighters is in the town of Shatoi (ORT, January 9).

The bombardment of the Chechen capital of Djohar eased over the weekend after Russian authorities announced that they were partially suspending their siege of the capital because the rebels were using toxic chemicals and creating an ecological hazard. Many observers, however, feel that the authorities in fact suspended the attack in order to reconsider their strategy and reshuffle their commanders due to heavy losses in their attempt to seize Djohar. On January 7, the Russian government removed two of its commanders in the Chechnya campaign, Lieutenant General Gennady Troshev and Major General Vladimir Shamanov in Chechnya, handing over their commands to their deputies, General Sergei Makarov and Aleksei Verbitsky. On January 8, however, Acting President Vladimir Putin appeared to deny that any such thing had occurred regarding the commanders: “Russia doesn’t throw away such generals as Troshev and Shamanov. There has been no replacement and no replacement has been planned. It is a technical question” (Russian agencies, January 8). In addition, the ceasefire in the Chechen capital proved short-lived: Defense Minister Igor Sergeev said today that the ceasefire in the capital was off due to the rebel attacks in Argun and Shali (CNN, January 10).