Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 234

Yesterday’s reports by Western news agencies concerning the unsuccessful attempt by Russian forces to storm Djohar, the Chechen capital, on the night of December 15 (see the Monitor, December 16), have aroused a storm of outrage in Moscow. Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev declared that no such attempt was made or will be made. General Colonel Valery Manilov, deputy chief of the Armed Forces’ General Staff, categorically denied that there was a serious battle in Djohar or that Chechen rebels destroyed an armored column near the capital’s Minutka Square. While correspondents for Reuters and the Associated Press reported in the wake of the incursion seeing the bodies of more than 100 Russian soldiers, along with burned-out armored personnel carriers and tanks, Manilov claimed that only two Russian servicemen were killed over the 24-hour period during which the battle reportedly took place. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, called the reports of the incursion and Russian losses “complete nonsense.” For its part, the Defense Ministry’s press service claimed that the foreign media had no representatives on the ground in Chechnya, covering either the Russian troops or the rebels in the capital–meaning there could not have been witnesses to the reported battle in Djohar. Reuters’ correspondent in the Chechen capital–and one of the eyewitnesses to the battle–is Maria Eismont, a Russian citizen.

The Russian military charge that the reports about the battle were an “informational provocation” organized by the Chechen militants, aimed at discrediting the Russian army in the eyes of the international community (ORT, December 16; Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 17). On the other hand, while the generals have accused Western news agencies of falling for or promoting “disinformation,” anonymous military officials themselves reported that twenty-five Russian servicemen were indeed killed that night when a reconnaissance group was sent into the Chechen capital and attacked by Chechen rebels (Russian agencies, December 16).

Meanwhile, it has been noted in the Russian press that the December 15 incident took place just at the time the Russian government leadership–specifically, Minister of Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu–was seeking to begin talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. In addition, the reconnaissance group was sent into Djohar while Knut Vollebaek, chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who has offered his services as a mediator between Maskhadov and the Russian leadership, was on an official visit to the North Caucasus (see the Monitor, December 16). Russia’s military officials are reportedly completely opposed to contacts with the Chechen president. Indeed, following the December 15 events in Djohar, General Manilov again declared that talks with Maskhadov were “senseless” as long as the Chechen president did not “distance himself from the terrorists.” It is thus possible that even if Russia’s political leaders, under pressure from the international community, agree to negotiate with the Chechen rebels, such a decision will be strongly resisted by Russia’s military leaders (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 17).

In any case, Western news reports concerning the December 15 battle in Djohar have further complicated relations between the Russian political establishment and the West. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, declared that OSCE Chairman Vollebaek should be “tossed out” of the North Caucasus before his organization repeats the “Kosovo scenario” in Russia–that is, dividing Chechnya from Russia and driving the Russian forces out of the republic. While the comments from the ultranationalist leader were in themselves not surprising, it is significant that they were made live over Russian Public Television (ORT), the 51-percent state-owned channel (ORT, December 16).