Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 125

Following the news that Russian special forces had managed to kill the Chechen rebel field commander Arbi Baraev, reports appeared in the Russian press that another top rebel warlord, the Jordanian-born Khattab, had also been killed during fighting along Chechnya’s border with Georgia (see the Monitor, June 27).

The reports turned out to be false, but were evidence of a kind of euphoria in the Russian media over the apparent fact that the Kremlin has finally decided to fight the Chechen rebels in earnest. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, for example, wrote that the Russian power ministers had decided there would no longer be any “untouchable” figures among the separatist leaders. What is interesting here is the fact there appears to have been a kind of “hands-off” policy toward some of the rebel leaders. Indeed, the most odious rebel field commanders seemed to enjoy a kind of immunity from actions by the federal forces, even though Russia’s military leadership constantly spoke about the need to neutralize them.

The killing of Arbi Baraev, who held a high position in the rebel hierarchy, suggests that Moscow is seeking to “decapitate” the rebel leadership, and a number of top Russian officials have said that the campaign to neutralize the Chechen rebel leadership will continue. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that operations similar to the one that took out Baraev would continued until the rebel leadership is completely neutralized, and that such operations were necessary to begin to restore “normal life” in Chechnya. Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, who briefed President Vladimir Putin on June 27, also called the destruction of “the leaders of the band formations” a “top priority.” And while some observers have speculated that the elimination of radical rebel leaders like Baraev might clear the way to negotiations between Moscow and more moderate leaders like Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, President Vladimir Putin’s aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky reiterated the official Kremlin view that negotiations with “the leader of the former regime of Ichkeria” were pointless, and that the only official who would talk to Maskhadov would be the prosecutor general (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 28; Russian agencies, June 27).

Thus there is the impression, on the one hand, that the Russian military leadership has had its hands untied and that its promises to completely destroy the Chechen rebel leadership are less empty than in the past. However, even if the federal forces succeeded in eliminating or capturing the top rebel leaders–including Maskhadov, Shamil Basaev and Khattab–it is highly doubtful that this would bring about an end to the war. This is understood, for example, by Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya, who said that while he hoped Baraev’s elimination would improve the situation in the republic, the situation there remains tense, in no small part because of actions by the federal forces, such as the detention of civilians who were not in any way involved in fighting and acts of looting during so-called “mopping up” operations (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 28). As Kadyrov’s comments suggest, even if the rebel leadership were removed, the social roots of the resistance would continue to exist and new field commanders would appear to replace the old ones.

On the other hand, it cannot be ruled out that despite the current euphoria over the killing of Arbi Baraev and the confident hard line being voiced by Kremlin and military officials, that there are elements within both the Russian political and military leadership who are looking for a political exit from the Chechen war. Defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, who has good contacts in Russia’s Defense Ministry, reported this week that there is “a growing antiwar movement within the Russian high-brass, a group of generals who believe that the Chechen war is totally immoral and impossible to win, and that it is destroying our armed forces both physically and morally for no good reason.” Felgenhauer said that “an influential three-star general” had recently told him that “[Russia has] lost this war and should get out.” According to Felgenhauer, in order for this to happen, there first must be a rebel offensive underscoring the futility of the Russian military campaign–something he said may be in the offing (Moscow Times, June 28; see also Chechnya Weekly, June 29).