Winter is traditionally the time when Russian security officials intensify their counter-insurgency activities in the North Caucasus. Cold weather forces many Caucasian insurgents to come down from the mountains to hide in settlements in the lowlands.
Seasonal factors, however, are not the only reason that security operations are being accelerated now. “Operation Successor” has gotten under way and nothing should be allowed to interfere with the Kremlin’s plans to replace Vladimir Putin with Dmitry Medvedev in the presidential election scheduled for March 2. The Russian authorities regard the rebels in the Caucasus as a potential threat to the political stability of the country. The Kremlin believes that rebel attacks before or during the presidential election could disrupt that election and raise questions about its legitimacy.
In order to prevent any possibility of rebel raids in the roughly two months left before March 2, Russian forces have started to comb the republics of the North Caucasus on an unprecedented scale.
During the first years of the second military campaign in Chechnya, Russian military forces conducted large-scale sweeps of Chechen settlements that were called “zachistki” in Russian. The primary aim of such “zachistki” was not to search for rebels, but to terrorize civilians in those villages where residents supported the guerrillas. The Russian military command in Chechnya believed that such measures would force the civilians to stop helping the rebels and that the insurgency would lose their base of support. Beatings, looting and unmotivated mass arrests of the locals are the basic characteristics of “zachistki.” Such sweeps in Chechnya usually lasted several days, during which a settlement was totally isolated from the outside world.
Such a security sweep is now underway for the first time in Dagestan. On December 16, Russian special-task police forces from various Russian regions surrounded the mountain village of Gimry in Dagstan’s Untsukulsky district, and the village was declared a “counter-terrorist operation zone.” As the Dagestan Interior Ministry’s Acting Chief Spokesman Mark Tolchinsky told Interfax, the police forces conducted passport control in the village and combed the adjacent area, “searching for members of illegal armed units.” According to Tolchinsky, Russian police troops from Rostov, Volgograd and Krasnodar Krai are taking part in the sweep.
Kavkazky Uzel provided more detailed information about what has been happening Gimry. The independent news agency reported that a whole regiment (more than 1,000 troops) supported by tanks, infantry combat vehicles and artillery moved into the village. A curfew was declared in Gimry and snipers were stationed on the highest points near the settlement. The sweep operation is going under command of a deputy chief of the federal Interior Ministry’s anti-organized crime department, Major General Sergei Chenchik. A source in the village told Kavkazky Uzel that the policemen were conducting house-to-house searches and demanding that local residents identify local rebels. The security forces in Gimry have been arresting young men and threatening to bomb the village. The security forces set up a tent camp near the village and declared that the mopping-up operation would last for months. Residents are allowed to leave the village only with special permission from the police.
Gimry is one place in Dagestan where local insurgents enjoy particularly high support from the civilian population. The aim of the sweep in Gimry is clear—to terrorize the local population and force them to stop assisting the militants. On December 17, Dagestani Deputy Interior Minister Magomed Gazimagomedov said on Dagestan TV that “the bandit underground is active in Gimry and in the whole Untsukulsky district … and we cannot tolerate it any more” (Kavkazky Uzel, December 17).
Gazimagomedov mentioned areas of Dagestan where large-scale security sweeps might be conducted in the future—the city of Buinaksk, the district of Buinaksk, the village of Gubden in Karabudakhentsky district, the city of Khasavyurt and the district of Khasavyurt.
Itar-Tass on December 20 quoted a Dagestani Interior Ministry official as saying that one policeman was killed and another wounded in an exchange of fire that took place on December 19 after police detected a group of 5-8 militants two kilometers south of Gimry. Two militants were also killed in the gun battle and a Kalashnikov assault rifle, four magazines and several hand grenades, including homemade ones, were found at the scene. The Dagestani Interior Ministry official said that three more policeman were wounded in a clash with militants three kilometers south of the Gimry village later in the day on December 19.
In Chechnya, security forces are also on the hunt for rebels, but unlike in Dagestan, they are trying to conduct special operations targeting specific individuals, not massive security sweeps. “The Chechen police have intensified operational search actions recently,” a Chechen police officer told a Kavkazky Uzel correspondent. “In the fall and winter the bulk of gunmen come down from the mountains to attack policemen and the facilities of security forces. It is much easier for them to mix among civilians in large settlements.
On December 15, Chechen police units supported by armored personnel carriers with federal forces surrounded an apartment in the Chechen capital Grozny with four militants inside. All four militants and a member of an OMON special purpose police unit were killed and three other police officers were injured in a fierce fight that lasted all night. Interfax on December 16 quoted Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov as saying that the rebels were under the command of Chechen rebel leader Dokka Umarov. “The rebels had an enormous quantity of ammunition, which is shown by the fact that they were shooting for several hours,” the news agency quoted Alkhanov as saying. “It’s not impossible that this group had infiltrated into the city to carry out some sabotage or terrorist acts.” Alkhanov said that two of the dead militants had been identified and were “the leaders of a gang which was involved in murders of police officers in Grozny and elsewhere in Chechnya since the summer of 2007.”
On December 18, a roadside bomb killed one prison guard and wounded three others as they drove in a van transporting suspected criminals in Grozny. Kommersant reported on December 19 that the van was transporting twelve prisoners, including three—Doku Dzhantemirov, Shamsutdin Salavatov and Sultan Matsaev—accused of shooting down three Russian helicopters in 2001-2002, which took the lives of more than 130 Russian servicemen. A Mi-26 troop transport helicopter packed with troops was shot down in Chechnya in August 2002, killing 127 servicemen and crew. The three accused terrorists were given life prison sentences, but Russia’s Supreme Court ruled in April 2007 that there had been procedural violations in the sentencing and ordered that the case be retried. According to Kommersant, the federal Investigative Committee’s investigatory department for Chechnya believes the bombing may have been organized by militants attempting to free the prisoners. The newspaper, however, also quoted Zezag Mikhailov, a lawyer for the three accused terrorists, as saying the blast may have been attempt by siloviki to take revenge on the suspects.
In Ingushetia, security forces are using both tactics: large-scale mopping up operations and detentions of individuals. According to the Ingushetiya.ru website, four young Ingush men were kidnapped by Russian special forces over several days and taken to the neighboring republic of North Ossetia for interrogation. Meanwhile, Russian Interior forces sealed off the village of Troitskaya on December 19 in order to conduct a mopping-up operation.
On December 14, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Amir Medov, a bodyguard and relative of Ingushetia’s Interior Minister, Musa Medov, Interfax reported. The shooting took place near Amir Medov’s home in the village of Surkhaki in Ingushetia’s Nazran district. On December 13, gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs and hand grenades attacked a military and police post in village of Malgobek, the Associated Press reported. No casualties were reported in the assault.
On December 7, a military council was held in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria (Vesti-Severny Kavkaz, December 7). Among those who participated in the council included General Yevgeny Vnukov, commander of the North Caucasian District of the Interior Troops, Mikhail Pankov, chief of the Main Department of the Interior Ministry in the Southern Federal District, and Yury Tomchak, Kabardino-Balkaria’s Interior Minister. They discussed counter-insurgency activities planned for Kabardino-Balkaria in 2008. A special issue on the agenda was that of the tactics used by military units in the mountainous areas of the region. On December 17, Valery Ustov, head of the Investigative Committee of the KBR, declared that some 50 militants were hiding out in the republic’s forests (Kavkazky Uzel, December 17). Ustov stressed that the insurgents most likely had support from local civilians.
Ustov’s declaration could mean that like Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya, the KBR may also face a wave of kidnappings and security sweeps in the near future.
There is no doubt that the heightened activity of the security forces in the North Caucasus has been sanctioned by the Russian leadership at the very top. Indeed, nobody is hiding this fact. The acting spokesman for Dagestan’s Interior Ministry told Interfax that the decision to conduct a sweep in Gimry had been made by the Russian National Anti-Terrorist Committee, which is headed by Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev (Interfax, December 16). The fact that a decision to launch a sweep on the Dagestani village was taken in Moscow indicates how important the North Caucasus is becoming in Russia’s domestic politics.