Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 44

Federal forces have taken the town of Shatoi, located in Chechnya’s mountains sixty kilometers (approximately thirty miles) south of the capital, Djohar. General Gennady Troshev, deputy commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, declared that the seizure of Shatoi essentially marks the end of the military operation in Chechnya. The Chechen rebels now control only six small villages in Chechnya’s mountains. According to Nikolai Koshman, the Russian government’s representative in Chechnya, military operations in the breakaway republic will be completed in ten days to two weeks–in any case, before Russia’s presidential elections on March 26. With the defeat of the main Chechen rebel forces in southern Chechnya, federal forces are now concentrating on searching for and destroying any remaining guerrillas. Using aircraft and intelligence units, they are hunting for small groups of Chechens who managed to escape into the mountains. Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo said yesterday that with the “antiterrorist operation” winding down, responsibilities will be shifted from the regular army to the Interior Ministry. The headquarters of the North Caucasus military district has begun planning the withdrawal of the bulk of the federal forces from Chechnya (Russian agencies, February 29-March 1).

The Russian military officials’ triumphal statements should be viewed with some skepticism. At the end of May 1995 the Kremlin also announced that its forces had gained control over 95 percent of Chechnya, but subsequent events showed such declarations to be overly optimistic. Likewise, it is difficult today not to suspect that the situation in Chechnya is far less advantageous to Moscow than the statements of its top military officials would suggest. For example, General Troshev claims that the rebel forces no longer have large armed formations, only small groups each made up of no more than ten to fifteen men. This, however, does not explain how the rebels continue to hold several hundred hostages and prisoners–a fact to which Russian officials admit. It is also unclear how the rebels could hold so many prisoners if they only controlled five or six small villages. It is also unclear why the Russian Air Force, which has cut the number of its combat missions in Chechnya significantly, has not carried out strikes against those villages, if the rebels are indeed concentrated there.

It is probable that the Russian forces “control” over Chechen territory is the same as it was in the last war, when Chechen fighters used to joke: “Let the federals act is if they’re in charge during the day: The night is still ours.” If this is the case, then guerrilla fighters, now posing as civilians, are probably awaiting for the appearance of foliage in Chechnya’s forests at the beginning of April as a signal to begin an active guerrilla campaign. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov claimed during a phone interview today that he still controls more than 20,000 fighters across Chechnya (Radio Liberty, March 2).