On October 3, Yakov Nedobitko, the commander of the Russian Joint Military Group in Chechnya, told the newspaper Nezavisimya gazeta that it was too early to talk about disbanding the Joint Military Group in the republic. The general added that during this fall and winter, “the mission procedures and scope of the Group in Chechnya will not fundamentally change.” Nedobitko’s statement means that one should not expect any real changes or troop withdrawals from Chechnya in the near future. In August 2006, President Vladimir Putin issued a decree that called for the military “to submit by December 15, 2006, in accordance with the established procedure, proposals for how to reorganize the Joint Military Group assuming a stage-by-stage withdrawal in 2007-2008 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.”
As one can see, despite Putin’s order, no real withdrawal from Chechnya has yet to begin even as the end of 2007 approaches. Nedobitko explained the delay in the withdrawal of troops by pointing to the fact that the Chechen Interior Ministry has only begun to accomplish its tasks, and thus withdrawing the Joint Military Group would be premature. The general told Nezavisimaya gazeta that the troops in Chechnya will be reduced step-by-step but “it will depend on the situation.” This phrase indicates that the commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya does not regard the situation in Chechnya as stable enough to begin a withdrawal right now.
Russia’s generals have already become the Kremlin propaganda machine’s most “dangerous enemies.” Russian officials, particularly the leaders of Chechnya’s pro-Russian administration, have been trying their best to make everybody believe that the war in Chechnya has ended. However, every new statement made by a Russian general contradicts their claims, and is much more convincing than Chechen rebel propaganda.
Yakov Nedobitko’s comments imply that the Russian authorities have not yet achieved any of their key goals, which include:
1) Shifting the responsibility for maintaining the stability in the republic from federal bodies to local authorities;
2) Withdrawing most of the troops from the republic, leaving in Chechnya only one division and one brigade that will be stationed there permanently in large garrison camps;
3) Destroying the centralized command structure of the Chechen and Caucasian rebels;
4) Disbanding or at least reducing commandant offices of the Russian armed forces in the republic.
Indeed, recent statements by Russian generals demonstrate how far the Kremlin is from being able to declare a final victory in Chechnya.
Goal # 1
The Russian authorities have been making great efforts to Chechenize the conflict and make the pro-Russian forces in Chechnya strong enough to combat the local insurgency without the assistance of federal forces. Yakov Nedobitko said that the role of the pro-Russian Chechen military units (the Sever [North] and Yug [South] battalions) in fighting the rebels is increasing all the time. According to Nedobitko, the reason for this is that “knowledge of the local language, of the terrain, traditions, interpersonal and family ties, are all great advantages in fighting terrorism and the bandits in the territory of the republic.”
However, despite such advantages, members of the pro-Russian Chechen armed formations, such as the Sever and Yug battalions, regularly suffer heavy casualties during counterinsurgency operations in Chechnya’s mountains. In late September, the Sever and Yug battalions moved to the mountainous areas of the Vedeno district. At the same time, the so-called Oil Regiment (Neftyanoi Polk), a unit that reports directly to Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s pro-Moscow president, was moved to Shatoi, another mountain district.
Neither knowledge of the local language, nor the knowledge of the terrain and the other advantages cited by Nedobitko, helped the units to defeat the guerillas who are hiding in the mountains. On September 29, a motorcade of the Sever battalion was ambushed near the village of Tazen-Kala, while a motorcade of the Yug battalion was ambushed on October 7 on the road between the villages of Zhani-Vedeno and Dargo. On October 5, 15 men from the Oil Regiment were killed in the Shatoi district (Sobbkor.ru, October 10; Kavkazky Uzel, October 14). After that, the pro-Russian Chechen units were called back and Russian special units were brought back to the scene. On October 10, Interfax reported that a clash had taken place between a Russian army reconnaissance unit and a rebel squad near Tazen-Kala, where the insurgents had earlier ambushed the Sever battalion.
It should be noted that the Chechen police and the pro-Russian military units cannot function properly without the assistance of the Russian army or the guidance of Russian police officers stationed in Chechnya. The commander of Russia’s anti-terrorist forces in the North Caucasus, General Arakady Yedelev, told Nezavisimya gazeta that policemen from other Russian regions stationed in Chechnya take part in all major operations against the “bandits” in the republic.
Goals # 2 and #4
No real troop withdrawal will be possible until the Russian military command fully trusts its Chechen allies and is certain of their strength. This means that the commandant’s offices of the Russian armed forces, which are in fact a network of Russian garrisons across the territory of Chechnya, cannot yet be disbanded and the Russian army units cannot lock themselves up in large military bases.
On September 1, Nikolai Rogozhkin, the commander of Russia’s Interior Forces, told journalists that the number of the commandant’s offices in Chechnya, currently at 20, would not be changed (Kavkazky Uzel, September 1).
Goal # 3
Destroying the centralized command structure of the Chechen rebels is an even more important task for the Kremlin than its attempt to convince Chechens to kill Chechens. As long as the insurgency in the region has a unified command, the guerrillas can recover from any loss. The fact that every rebel field commander who is killed is replaced by another makes the Russian generals feel helpless and impotent. For instance, when Rappani Khalilov, the leader of the rebels in Dagestan, was killed, he was replaced by Abdul-Majid as the commander of the rebel “Dagestani front.” Abdul-Majid’s photo was even posted on the Kavkaz-Center website. Although Russian officials pretended that they knew nothing about it, they nervously responded when Chechen rebel leader Dokka Umarov issued new decrees appointing new commanders in Chechnya. “Illegal armed formations were almost totally destroyed and decapitated,” a representative of the anti-terrorist operations staff told Interfax agency. “Umarov and Yevloev [the Ingush commander newly appointed by Umarov as the military commander of rebel squads in the North Caucasus (Chechnya Weekly, August 2)] remain, but only a few people know them outside of the North Caucasus” (Interfax, October 10).
In fact, Russia’s generals understand that the elimination of a rebel commander of any rank will not change anything as long as the rebel “fronts” and “sectors” continue to exist: a new commander of a “front” in Chechnya or Dagestan simply replaces the one who has been killed. On October 1, General Yedelev admitted during a press conference in the Chechen capital of Grozny that “one can talk about the total destruction of the armed formations in Chechnya only if the republic does not have any alternative governors like Umarov.”
Several years ago, a former member of Aslan Maskhadov’s administration told this author that “people say that we [the Chechen separatists] failed to build an independent state in Chechnya, but I cannot agree with that. I believe that the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria is the strongest state in the world. Russia has been using all of its forces to eliminate it, but has thus far failed to do so.”
Arkady Yedelev’s recent statement simply proves these words to be true. Yedelev and other Russian security officials clearly understand that despite what Ramzan Kadyrov says, no real withdrawal from Chechnya is possible as long as the underground Chechen Republic of Ichkeria continues to exist.