Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 19

It is beyond obvious that the Russian army, despite the Kremlin’s expectations, will not be able to capture the Chechen capital in the near future, and that the protracted campaign to take Djohar could derail the entire Chechen military campaign. According to Radio Liberty’s correspondent in Djohar, fighting continues to rage in the center of the city near Minutka Square, which the federal forces have been trying to capture for a week, without success. The Kremlin originally planned to take the Chechen capital before the parliamentary elections last December, and then changed the deadline to New Year’s. It is nearly the end of January, and the center of the city remains under the control of Chechen fighters. According to Agence France-Presse, at least fifty Russian soldiers were killed between January 21-24. NTV television came up with similar figures, and, as a result, its correspondents were banned from government-organized press trips to the front in Chechnya (see the Monitor, January 25). An indirect sign that the Russian forces’ attempt to capture Djohar is in jeopardy is the death of General Mikhail Malofeev during fighting in the capital on January 18 (see the Monitor, January 24). Malofeev was the first Russian general to die in battle since 1945 (Radio Liberty, January 26; NTV, January 25; Agence France-Presse, January 24).

The failures in the Chechen campaign–and, in particular, the failure to take Djohar–led to the recent removal of Vyacheslav Ovchinikov, commander of Russia’s internal troops. On January 24, Acting President Vladimir Putin named Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, commander of the Urals military district, as the internal troops’ new commander and a deputy interior minister. During the 1994-1996 Chechen campaign, Tikhomirov commanded the federal forces fighting in the breakaway republic. He is remembered for threatening, in August 1996, to “wipe Grozny from the face of the earth.” In naming Tikhomirov to head the internal troops, Putin has essentially admitted that what is going on in Chechnya is not an antiterrorist operation, but a full-scale war (Kommersant, January 26).

In response to the lack of success in the Chechen campaign, the Kremlin appears to be hardening its position vis-a-vis Djohar. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the former presidential spokesman for Boris Yeltsin whom Putin recently picked to handle the Kremlin’s Chechnya information policy, said earlier this week (on January 25) that there is no one in the Chechen government’s leadership with whom to carry on negotiations to end the conflict. Yastrzhembsky said that neither is Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov a worthy negotiating partner “inasmuch as he has no legitimacy.” Yastrzhembsky insisted that Maskhadov was elected several years ago “in contradiction of the constitution and the laws of the Russian Federation” (Russian agencies, January 26).

The Kremlin, in fact, had earlier officially recognized the legitimacy of the presidential elections in Chechnya. In May 1997, Boris Yeltsin signed a peace treaty with Maskhadov as Chechnya’s legitimate leader.