Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 3 Issue: 5

In “A Stable but Tense Chechnya,” an article appearing in the January 26 issue of Novoe Voennoe Obozrenie, military journalist Mikhail Khodarenok, a leading “hawk” on the subject of the war in Chechnya, describes the current situation in the republic as offering grounds for cautious optimism from the Russian perspective. The principal reason for this point of view is the slow and painful stabilization process which Khodarenok sees at work in the war-torn republic. Over the past year, he writes, “90,000 jobs were created in the republic;” back payments to pensioners for the year 1998 have now been fully “covered”; while on September 1 of last year “400 schools opened their doors.” The pro-Moscow Russian civilian administration in Chechnya, Khodarenok asserts, has been progressing from strength to strength: “The head of the republic, Akhmad Kadyrov, over the past year grew to the level of a major political figure… With each day [Kadyrov] more and more strengthens his personal influence in the development of the situation in the Chechen Republic.”

As evidence of Kadyrov’s increased status, Khodarenok notes: “During the course of the recent visit to Chechnya of the representative of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Lord Judd, Akhmad Kadyrov was seated at the center of the table… Until recently only the [Russian] military had that privilege.” During the meeting with Judd, it was the representatives of the Russian power ministries who now sat to the side.

The Russian Combined Group of Forces operating in Chechnya saw “the character of its activity in essence changed” over the past year. These forces are now concentrated “on destroying the leaders of the bandit formations” and on isolating and arresting “the residents of the bandit formations who live on a legal basis in Chechen cities and villages.” An assault has likewise been launched on the financial dimension of the conflict: a major effort is being made to cut off the flows of capital which the rebels use to purchase “a working force” to carry out concrete bandit actions; in addition, the local Chechen populace is being given an opportunity by the Russian authorities “to make a living by legal means.” This is a key point, Khodarenok stresses, because “an entire generation of young people in Chechnya have never seen anything but war and have known no other form of life.”

One worrisome development which became noticeable in the summer of 2001, Khodarenok remarks, were the targeted assassinations by the rebels of pro-Moscow Chechen officials. The successful killing of such figures represents a more serious blow than does, say, the blowing up of a Russian armored vehicle. It remains unusual, however, he notes, for a Chechen to decide to raise his hand against a fellow Chechen.

Chechen society, Khodarenok believes, is growing heartily sick of the conflict. “At the present time not a few representatives of the Chechen elite, recognizing the vital interests of their people, are prepared to cooperate with the federal center.” A former Dudaev field commander, Ruslan Yamadaev, has, for example, now been appointed a deputy military commandant of Chechnya. “Yamadaev has proclaimed the slogan: ‘Russia and Chechnya are inseparable!'”

Another positive development, in Khodarenok’s view, has been the permanent quartering within Chechnya of the Russian 42nd Motor-rifle Division. “During the last quarter of 2001, almost all of its units quit their tent camps and were settled in military towns [in Chechnya].” A serious problem afflicting the Russian military presence in Chechnya, on the other hand, Khodarenok writes, has been the use of contract soldiers (known derisively as “kontrabasy”). The introduction of these forces was an attempt to imitate the all-volunteer armies of certain “industrially developed countries.” In the Russian case, however, it has clearly represented a mistake: “A ‘kontrabas,’ if something is not to his taste, will begin to provoke his commanders and superiors so that they will break his contract; he will get drunk, infringe the established rules and order, and engage in debauchery.” Eventually a decision has to be taken to send such a contract soldier home. If the Armed Forces of Russia consisted only of contract soldiers, Khodarenok warns, its military preparedness “could fall to zero.” Regular conscripts represent a far more reliable source of troops.

As for the rebel forces, its “implacable leaders” essentially blackmail those Chechens who have formerly engaged in “large-scale bloodshed” to continue fighting. If they cease fighting, then the rebel leaders warn them “we’ll immediately give the federals video-tapes in which it is shown how you cut the Russians’ heads off.” Finally, the rebels make agreements with young boys, aged 14-16, to perform “one-time tasks,” such as setting a remote-controlled explosive device, for which they are paid US$100. There is a persistent assumption in Khodarenok’s piece that most, if not all, of the separatist fighters are motivated solely by money.

Khodarenok awards high marks to the development within Chechnya of police departments staffed by ethnic Chechens. These departments coexist with departments largely staffed with Russians coming from other regions of the country. On September 17, during a special operation conducted in Gudermes, the pro-Moscow Chechen police “performed very well.” Nonetheless, at present, “the security of each [pro-Moscow Chechen] village department of the police must be ensured by a motor-rifle platoon of the [MVD] internal troops.”

Recently, Khodarenok writes, the interaction of the army, MVD and other forces present within Chechnya has markedly improved, thanks in large part to the efforts of General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of staff of the Russian armed forces. An “effective structure” now exists in the Combined Group of Forces.

Despite his generally optimistic take on events, Khodarenok warns that Russia has a long row to hoe in Chechnya. The Chechen educated class has largely left the republic, and institutions like Grozny University lie in ruins. It is necessary, Khodarenok contends, to stress the following: “For eleven years there has been no power in the Chechen Republic. There has ruled only the double-eyed anarchy of bandit groups.” To get Chechens to surrender their weapons will be a most difficult task because the bearing of arms “has entered into their very flesh and blood.”

In the long term, Khodarenok believes, Russia will prevail in the struggle. “Normalization” eventually set in within “all the ‘problem’ regions of the former Soviet Union; in Western Ukraine, the Baltic and Central Asia.” (These examples have also been cited on several occasions by President Putin.) In these regions, Khodarenok writes, first came the stage of operations by the Soviet military and Chekists. Then, eventually, these regions “began to live within the frame of existing laws and the [Soviet] Constitution.” During the nineteenth century Caucasus war, which began in 1817, Russia suffered a serious reversal in 1843, yet ultimately prevailed in 1859 (eastern North Caucasus) and 1864 (western North Caucasus). Such a long-term victory will eventually ensue in the current protracted conflict.

One final problem which is broached by Khodarenok is the difficulty of explaining to ordinary Russians today “what we are fighting for” in Chechnya. It is “almost impossible” today to explain to Russians why they need to live together with Chechens. This, he underlines, is, in the final analysis, a task primarily for the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities.

To conclude, the “hawkish” military journalist Mikhail Khodarenok expresses, in our view, the convictions of many within the Russian power ministries and perhaps also of President Putin himself. By emulating the stern methods and the tenacity of Stalin and Beriya and of the tsarist general Yermolov, Russia will, as they see it, one day emerge victorious in the rebellious republic of Chechnya.