Russia’s Deepening Military Crisis in Chechnya

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 43

Russian generals continue to stun the public with sensational statements about the situation in Chechnya. A month ago Colonel-General Yevgeny Baryaev, the commander of the Russian military group in Chechnya, predicted that early November could be very unstable because “the number of acts of sabotage, terrorist acts, and raids of the militants has increased” (EDM, October 26). At the beginning of November, Baryaev made another and much more frank statement. On November 3, the general admitted that young Chechens continued to join the rebel ranks and that the Russian army continues to shell and bomb Chechen territory., citing Interfax, quoted Baryaev as telling journalists in Grozny that according to the joint estimates of Russia’s intelligence agencies, up to 700 rebel fighters are hiding in Chechnya’s mountains. The website reported that the Chechen authorities had previously estimated the number of rebel fighters hiding in the republic to be no more than 400. According to Baryaev, “The presence of such a large quantity of militants is explained by the flow of young people to the illegal armed formations.” The general added that the “problem of the flow of young people into the bandit formations exists, and only by acknowledging this problem can one prevent the forces of the illegal armed formations from growing. I am firmly convinced that by using military methods alone it is impossible to counter the bandit formations. The heads of administration, leaders of law-enforcement bodies and all officials must get really involved in this work.” Baryaev noted that the militants migrate, “jumping from Dagestan and Ingushetia to Chechnya and back,” and that “the members of the illegal armed formations engage in extortion, try to penetrate population centers and rob local inhabitants.”

Baryaev said the rebels are trying to equip and supply bases in the mountains. “In order to prevent them from carrying out the replenishment of ammunition and food and to stop them from penetrating the population centers, it is necessary to periodically use artillery and shell the mountainous wooded area,” he said. He said there is no way that the heads of administration would not have information about the process underway within the ranks of the illegal armed formations – that is, that people from their villages are joining the rebel ranks. Baryaev also said that the federal forces have information that that the rebels recently “received a large amount of money” and that this “facilitates the flow of young people into the ranks of the illegal armed formations.” He added: “I would not say that the situation has worsened, it is fully under control, but an analysis of the situation attests to the fact that there are no grounds to relax, either for the power structures, the law-enforcement bodies or the local authorities.”

Everything that Baryaev said on November 3 absolutely contradicts the Kremlin’s official propaganda. Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin himself, have been trying hard for the last few years to persuade the rest of the world that there is no longer a war in Chechnya and that the region is ruled by the iron hand of the de facto Chechen pro-Russian leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Baryaev’s comments, however, contradicted all of these assertions. Moreover, Baryaev sounded more like a Chechen separatist than a top Russian general responsible for combating “terrorism” in Chechnya. His words about young Chechens joining the rebels and about the continuing hostilities in Chechnya did not differ much from the rhetoric of a Chechen rebel leader. While the Kremlin has been talking about peace and stabilization, the Chechen rebels have continually repeated that the war is far from over and that the local population continues to support them. As one can see, the Russian generals agree more with their enemies than with their commander-in-chief.

The recent statements by Baryaev and other siloviki may be evidence of a crisis in Russia’s military tactics and policy toward Chechnya and the whole North Caucasus in general. None of the political or military steps taken by the Kremlin in the region have worked properly, and security officials see this more clearly than anyone else. Moreover, Russia’s generals know full well that the deadline is approaching for them to submit to the Russian president a plan for the withdrawal of troops from Chechnya in 2007-2008 (Chechnya Weekly, August 10). Nevertheless, the generals not only have no idea regarding how to withdraw at least some of the units from the republic, but, on the contrary, have been putting forward demands for additional troops to be sent to Chechnya. According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, Nikolai Rogozhkin, commander of the federal Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops, demanded in early November that the 46th brigade stationed in Chechnya be increased by 5,000 servicemen (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 2). This summer, Rogozhkin announced that the Internal Troops in Chechnya had been increased by 5,000 (Chechnya Weekly, August 17). It seems that this number was insufficient to pacify the region.

While the Russian generals publicly acknowledge their inability to suppress the insurgency, the Kremlin continues to place its hopes of ending the war on further Chechenization. More and more regiments with Chechen soldiers are being formed in the region. In addition to Vostok (East) and Zapad (West) special battalions, new special regiments, Sever (North) and Yug (South) were formed this year. It was discovered, however, that a Chechen who goes to serve in the Russian army simply becomes an ordinary Russian soldier. Pro-Russian Chechen soldiers and officers have no advantages over their Russian colleagues. Few of the Chechens in the Russian units are from the mountainous part of Chechnya, so most of the pro-Russian Chechen soldiers know the terrain of Chechnya’s mountains no better than the Russians who have been fighting in the region for a long time. The rebels have thus far been quite successful in disrupting the Russian military command’s attempts to recruit young people from the mountain districts. Just a month ago, Muslim Satabaev, the head of a department in the military recruiting office in the mountainous Shatoi district, was shot dead by militants in the village of Khalkiloi (Radio Liberty, September 22).

The Chechen police are a much more serious problem for the Russian authorities, since the level of militant infiltration of their ranks remains very high. On November 6, just three days after the Baryaev statement, Vladimir Putin appointed Nikolai Simakov, a senior police officer from Krasnodar Krai, to be Chechnya’s First Deputy Interior Minister. In fact, the ethnic Russian Simakov is going to be the real ruler of Chechnya’s Interior Ministry. Nikolai Varavin, head of the press service of the Russian Center of Operations in Chechnya, told Kommersant that “it is too early to talk about the full restoration of the Chechen Interior Ministry. All important divisions of the Chechen [Interior] ministry should still be headed by officers from the central apparatus of the Russian [Interior] ministry and from police directorates of regions adjacent to Chechnya” (Kommersant, November 7).

Putin’s appointment of Simakov indicates that the Chechen law-enforcement agencies are still under the strict control of the Russians and that his Chechenization policy cannot, by a long shot, be called successful. The failure to make Chechens fully responsible for fighting the insurgency means that the Russian authorities in Chechnya are in a deadlock. The Russian military command in the region is no longer hiding its inability to continue the war. This could be the first sign that Russia is facing a military defeat in the Chechen war – a prospect that many currently regard as absolutely impossible, but that Russia’s generals see as very real.