Russia’s Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev has appealed for the fight against terrorism in Russia to transcend military and security structures and include psychological, ideological, and economic means. Speaking in Moscow on November 26, Nurgaliev explained that the struggle against terrorism within the Russian Federation must become the central mission of the entire public, if success is to be achieved. His comments have direct implications for Russian security policy in Chechnya, as the Interior Ministry (MVD) has sought to raise its profile for its role in the conflict in Chechnya, from the perceived encroachments of the Ministry of Defense and other power structures.
Nurgaliev’s comments contribute to the current debate within Russian security circles on how to strengthen counter-terrorism in the aftermath of Beslan. Specifically, he insists on widening the parameters of the traditional and failed reliance on the military option, pursued in Chechnya for instance, while maintaining the centrality of the MVD in that theater. He advocated an approach to the phenomenon of terrorism that emphasizes tackling its pre-conditions in addition to its manifestations: “We should clearly understand that terrorism, in spite of its horrific consequences, is not so much a military threat as a social and ideological one. In the daily activities of extremist organizations terror is not only a method but also an end in itself,” (Itar-Tass, November 26).
However, Colonel-General Nikolai Rogozhkin, Commander of the Interior Troops, apparently sensitive to suggestions that proposed reforms to the Interior Troops raises the specter of cuts in their strength, considers current Interior Troop strength to be safe for the time being. “The Internal Troops are not to be reformed. The cuts in the troops have been suspended as a result of additional functions the troops have been entrusted with,” Rogozhkin said. The MVD troops will not be affected in the latest round of reform posturing, leaving the current structure largely unchanged. Rogozhkin also defended the performance of MVD Troops in Chechnya, which he alleged has shown a marked improvement throughout 2004, with a reduction in casualty figures by around 30% compared with 2003, though he failed to disclose the exact number of Russian losses in Chechnya. Better management, training, and provisions for MVD personnel serving in Chechnya produced these advances (RIA-Novosti, November 26).
Indeed, Rogozhkin has been at great pains to stress the value attached to Chechnya by his troops, which he claims is their single greatest priority. The North Caucasus will be their most pressing priority in future, according to Rogozhkin. Moreover, highlighting the significance of the MVD troops in the Chechen theater, he pointed to the attention given to these forces by President Vladimir Putin in 2004, which he believes underscores their centrality in stabilizing the North Caucasus.
Russian Interior Troops held their own exercises on November 25 at the Dzerzhinsky Division base in Balashikha (Moscow Region). More than 1,000 officers from across Russia gathered to observe anti-terrorist exercises designed to demonstrate the validity of the Russian military’s ongoing reliance on MVD Special Forces, despite unanswered questions over their handling of the Beslan siege in September. They liked what they saw during the exercises: the “White Snow Leopards” unit defused all booby traps and saved civilians from a chemical attack. This was followed by a small-scale special operation that included securing a town in the North Caucasus. The exercise was made as realistic as possible, and even included some “civilian traders” who fled as the gunfire erupted. Intended to raise the standards and preparedness of company commanders, to avoid the sense of chaos that spread during the operation in Beslan, the exercises were judged as successful (Ren TV, November 26).
Rogozhkin clearly attaches some weight to the continued presence of MVD troops in Chechnya, despite current reforms presenting little opportunity for substantial reductions in the numbers of servicemen deployed there. Nurgaliev’s hopes of genuinely widening public support for counter-terrorism run contrary to recent experience and practice in Chechnya. Conservative Russian media estimates of the number of MVD personnel currently serving in Chechnya are around 22,000. Russian commanders do not envisage these levels of commitment being reduced soon.
Moscow’s main challenge in Chechnya remains gathering support from Chechens and winning their support for Moscow’s vision for Chechnya’s future. These public efforts to promote the image of the MVD in the context of Chechnya are an interesting counterpoint to claims that the Chechen Interior Ministry may take on the responsibility for counter-terrorism in the republic. Taus Dzhabrailov, Chairman of the Chechen State Council, told a news conference in Moscow on November 23 that the Chechen Interior Ministry could soon be ready to assume such responsibilities (RIA-Novosti, November 23). He spoke of a 1,100-strong anti-terrorist regiment set up under the Chechen Interior Ministry, which could be tasked with combating terrorists in Chechnya and neighboring republics. In reality, however, Russian security forces continue to be the backbone of the campaign in Chechnya, and they will continue serving in this capacity as long as the political impasse lasts. Thus, Nurgaliev’s vision for the development of a publicly backed pro-active counter-terrorist campaign in Russia, one that no longer relies heavily on the Russian military, will be tested and judged in the Chechen theater. It may only represent a hope rather a solution.