Russia Admits Rebel Fighter Activity in Chechnya

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 21

Faced with recurring reports of assaults and assassinations in Grozny and the rest of Chechnya, Russian government officials are being forced to admit that rebel fighter operations have become a reality. As always, the leadership of Russia’s Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry attempts to explain this by pointing fingers at funding received from overseas sources and generated, among other things, by the kidnapping business, although the officials conveniently fail to mention that no high-profile kidnappings have been reported for quite some time.

It is also unclear exactly how these funds are remitted to Chechnya, because in contrast with 2002–2003, when rebel fighters were active in the Pankissi Gorge (the ravine straddling the Georgia-Chechnya border in the mountainous part of the Major Caucasus ridge that is populated mostly by ethnic Chechens), no illegal border crossings have been attempted during the last few years.

According to Deputy Russian Interior Minister Arkady Yedelev, all rebel fighter activity boils down to a small group of no more than twenty foreign mercenaries working to draw young people into anti-Russian operations (www.regnum.ru/news/fd-south/chechnya/1001679.html), although Yedelev did admit that the situation in the North Caucasus in general may be described as stable with some tension. He also noted that rebel fighters are making special efforts to destabilize Karachaevo-Cherkessia, thus proving the importance of this region for their purposes, and said this was the reason for the recent dispatch of troops to the area.

The losses among rebel fighters continue to be an important indicator for propaganda purposes, yet after nine years of war neither Russian nor Chechen officials can explain exactly how they arrive at these casualty numbers. For instance, according to official Grozny government reports, “this year, police investigations and special operations led to the killing of 23 rebels, including two commanders, arrest of 144 members of illegal armed groups, and surrender to the police of 25 former rebel fighters,” which is a total of 192. The Russian military cites another set of numbers—according to them, 32 rebel fighters have been killed and none was arrested or surrendered. If these reports are true, it is puzzling why Ramzan Kadyrov claimed in his statement on January 30 that “the war may already be described in the past tense.”

It is equally mystifying how these ostensibly defeated rebel fighters could manage to mount a number of high-profile attacks against government facilities in the villages of Alkhazurovo (village administration building), Bamut (administration building burned down), Roshni-Chu (shootout with an intelligence gathering group), Dai (Interior Ministry department/police building), Shali (military commander’s office shot up), Grozny (a military column bombed) and other units of the pro-Moscow government (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1214147.html). This list does not include dozens of minor isolated explosions and assaults against the police forces across the republic. Even those who would have preferred to keep information of this sort under wraps for fear of damaging the image of Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow government, could not keep quiet about these developments. If rebel fighters are capable of mounting so many attacks across the entire republic after almost two hundred of them were supposedly eliminated, then their true numbers could only be guessed, and that does not even include areas outside of Chechnya.

Young Chechen men who keep leaving for the mountains to join the rebel forces are a constant thorn in the government’s side. For example, according to the villagers of the town of Vedeno, five young men, including one high school and four college students, left to join the rebels during the month of May alone (www.vedeno.net/forum). To contain this trend and keep it from spreading, the Grozny government is putting pressure on friends and family members of the young men who left to join the rebels. Frequent interrogations of parents and family members by assorted government agencies (including the Federal Security Service, Interior Ministry, Yug [South] special forces unit and other pro-Moscow government groups) force people to yield to the government’s demands. For instance, the evening news of the local TV channel “Grozny” on May 22 featured footage of a group of mothers who were placed in front of the cameras and forced to appeal to their children to return home or be cursed for the rest of their lives. It was a miserable sight to see: people understood that children left home to join the rebels because of the actions of the government, not because their parents urged them to do so. The families cannot stop them from leaving and the government’s use of their parents as a pressure tool causes nothing but public resentment against the government.

The second development worth noting is the government’s admission of public support for the rebel fighters. As noted by the commander of the Combined Group of Forces in the North Caucasus Nikolai Sivak, “the local populace either supports the bandit groups or stays neutral, does nothing to resist them and does not give them up to the federal forces” (BBC radio, May 20; Chechnya Weekly, May 22). This fact is well-known yet neither Russia nor Chechnya likes to bring it up. In a place where unemployment is sky-high—according to the official reports, 76.9 percent of the able-bodied population or half a million people are unemployed (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1215658.html)—and where the law is used primarily for putting pressure on the public instead of protecting it from the government, it is easy to find thousands of people who not only support the resistance movement, but are ready to become its active members. Without this support—or, at a minimum, widespread public sympathy—the rebel fighters would be nothing but kamikazes ready to perish at any moment. It is the support of the population that allows the rebels to not only survive for years, but implement structural and qualitative changes in their ranks as well.

Grigory Shvedov of the Kavkazky Uzel website confirmed that rebel fighters in Chechnya usually do not terrorize the public. According to Shvedov, acts of violence targeting civilians are usually staged by elements other than the rebels, and this is an important consideration that the Chechen rebels seem to have included in their tactical arsenal. The assassination of rank-and-file policemen is always condemned by the public because many of them have joined the force as the only available way to earn a living. It should not be forgotten that the educational system, which would have given many people a chance to learn marketable skills, has been missing in Chechnya for the last 18 years. Today the only opportunities available in Chechnya are in the construction business or the police. Akhmed Zakaev, prime minister in the government of the exiled separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI), tried to take advantage of the situation when he shocked all Chechens by admitting the achievements of Ramzan Kadyrov’s rule and suggesting that the rebels should revise their stance toward the Chechen policemen (http://chechenpress.org/events/2008/05/20/1f.shtml). The rebel leader Dokka Umarov has not stayed quiet either: he continues to argue the cause of his recently announced Caucasus Emirate on video by making frequent references to his predecessors Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev and Shamil Basaev, who, according to Umarov, did not announce the Emirate earlier only because they did not have enough time. Umarov also claimed that the rebel forces today are capable of mounting strikes across the entire territory of the Emirate (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5991894707404590867&hl=fr).

Regardless, the massive stream of news reports from all the parties involved in the conflict make it clear that the Chechen rebel forces are ramping up their activities and this is certain to affect the entire North Caucasus resistance movement and the political environment of the region in general.