Less than three months after the rebel attack on the city of Nalchik, the capital of the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in the North Caucasus, the Russian military command has again begun to talk about new rebel attacks.
On January 8, Sergei Topchy, deputy commander of the Russian Interior Forces, told Interfax news agency that the Command of the Interior Forces expect a rebel attack to occur in any of six Caucasian regions or in one of five “zones”: Krasnodar Krai, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia and Ingushetia, and Dagestan (Newsru.com, January 8). In other words, the federal agents believe an attack is possible in any part of the North Caucasus.
Topchy said that special reserves totaling 13,000 troops had been formed for each zone to respond quickly to an insurgency offensive in any Caucasian region. The reserves are to deploy to the conflict zone by air or by rail. Topchy mentioned, however, that the primary task of the Interior Forces would be to prevent the attacks by blocking escape routes that rebel groups could use to reach the lowland from the Great Caucasian Range, which runs along the Russian-Azerbaijan and the Russian-Georgian borders. Special mountain units will be set up for this task, and they will coordinate their operations with border guard forces posted in the region.
The Russian generals regard the high mountain areas of the North Caucasus as the rear of the rebels’ front (see EDM, August 11, 2004). The mountain forests are the only place where the insurgents can secretly congregate in great numbers, enough to start a large-scale offensive. Their lines of arms supplies and reinforcements also run along the foot of the Caucasian Range. It is clear to the Kremlin that federal agents must control the mountains in order to defeat the rebels. Otherwise, large-scale attacks will be possible anywhere in the North Caucasus.
After the October 13 Nalchik raid, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered additional frontier posts for the mountainous parts of the North Caucasus. For example, seven new frontier posts are designated for Kabardino-Balkaria, and two of them have been already opened (regnum, December 28). Unlike frontier posts on other Russian territory, the main task of the posts in the Caucasus is not to defend the state border, but rather to prevent the rebels from escaping on the Russian side of the Great Range.
Nevertheless, the latest fierce battle near the mountain village of Gimri in Dagestan clearly demonstrated that the Russian troops are still unable to fight in the mountains, even against small rebel groups. On January 2, a police special-task unit was ambushed near Gimri. Additional troops immediately dispatched to the area also met strong resistance. After three days of shelling and bombing a gorge near the village, the Special Forces moved into the mountains but they only found an empty dugout with no rebels dead or alive. A group numbering between eight and 30 gunmen, according to different sources, had already left the area.
In addition to technical problems of fighting against a mountain-based insurgency, the Russian authorities are simply unable to do anything to stop youth from flooding into the ranks of the rebels. Today widespread and powerful insurgency cells exist even in such relatively peaceful regions as Adygeya (Krasnodar Krai), Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and North Ossetia.
In his latest interview, Shamil Basaev, the Chechen warlord and the commander of all Caucasian rebel forces, described the inability of the authorities to stop the expansion of the war from Chechnya to other regions as a “strategic victory” for the insurgency (Kavkaz-center, January 9). “Even if we had lost all mujahideen who took part in the Nalchik raid, this would have been our victory,” Basaev declared. He meant that the very fact that the militants could organize such a large-scale attack 200 miles away from Chechnya is itself a great success and shows how poorly Moscow controls the North Caucasus.
Basaev does not hide the fact that the expanding war is the result of a well-calculated policy. Basaev said that this strategy had been approved by a grand council meeting of field commanders that took place in Chechnya in 2002. He said that when he visited Kabardino-Balkaria two years ago, his calls for armed struggle were ignored by local Muslims, but last spring the Muslims, angered by the authorities’ repressive policies, deliberately sought him.
Now Basaev is trying to strengthen the North Caucasus insurgency structure by traveling around the Caucasus. The warlord claims that last year he had meetings with local rebel leaders in Nalchik, Cherkessk (the capital of Karachaevo-Cherkessia), North Ossetia, and Ingushetia.
There is so much evidence of the increasing strength of the Caucasian insurgency under Basaev’s command that the Kremlin finally had to recognize this development. “Extremist and terrorist groups operate now in all regions of the Southern Federal District, including Stavropol, Astrakhan, and Volgograd Oblast, and Shamil Basaev is at the head of this criminal organization,” Nikolai Shepel, a Russian deputy general prosecutor, conceded this week (Izvestiya, January 9).
The statements from Topchy and Shepel reveal how deeply worried the Kremlin is about the situation in the North Caucasus. However, the Russian government still hopes to solve the problem by deploying more and more specially trained troops. Negotiations are not on the agenda.