On August 10, Leonid Krivonos, the acting military commandant of Chechnya, stunned the Russian public by commenting that the Russian military command in Chechnya expects rebel activity in Chechnya to increase in August and September. Krivonos mentioned the recent ambushes and bombings of Russian military columns that took place not only in mountainous Chechen districts like Vedeno, but also in Naur, a district in northern Chechnya that had always been relatively calm, at least by local standards (kavkaz.strana.ru, August 10).
His statement is all the more remarkable in light of the death of Shamil Basaev last month and Moscow’s subsequent offer of amnesty to the Caucasian rebels. Lately, Russian officials have sounded very optimistic regarding the situation in the North Caucasus. On August 10, for example, Nikolai Patrushev, director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and chairman of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee, told Izvestiya that 107 insurgents had already accepted the amnesty and surrendered. Patrushev made it clear that he expected more rebels to come forward thanks to encouragement from relatives of the rebels, village elders and other authoritative figures in Caucasus societies.
The general’s statement completely contradicts the optimism of the FSB director, which may indicate a deepening division between the FSB and the Russian army over the state of operations in Chechnya. Krivonos doubts the effectiveness of the amnesty campaign and he is not alone. On August 5, just five days before Krivonos spoke, Arkady Edelev, head of the Center of Operations in Chechnya, cautioned reporters during a press conference in Rostov-na-Don saying, “The threat that comes from the insurgency should be regarded as real.” Edelev stressed that Doku Umarov, a Chechen field commander who became the top rebel leader after the deaths of Aslan Maskhadov, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, and Basaev, still has full control over the Caucasian insurgency. “Umarov will try to destabilize the situation in the whole North Caucasus. He has already announced the establishment of two new fronts [in the Ural and Volga regions], and he is ready to conduct a big military operation. Under Umarov’s leadership the terrorists will attempt to recover the combat strength of bandit formations,” Edelev added (kavkaz.strana.ru, August 5).
The warnings from Krivonos and Edelev, however, should not be treated as merely another reminder about the real situation in Chechnya. Rather, the generals may be voicing a broader dissatisfaction within Russian military circles regarding the latest decree issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The decree ordered the security bodies to “submit by December 15 this year a plan of stage-by-stage withdrawal of troops from Chechnya to be carried in 2007-2008” (Chechnya Weekly, August 10).
Throughout the entire second Chechen military campaign, every public declaration of a troop “withdrawal” from Chechnya has actually resulted in the deployment of new, refreshed units in the region. In 2001, when the authorities first announced the withdrawal of troops from Chechnya, the 245th Regiment was sent to Russia and then secretly returned to the Urus-Martan district of Chechnya. In 2002 and 2003, Russian generals promised to start the drawdown soon, but instead each time brought in new troops under the cover of darkness. Each spring people in Chechnya living near the Trans-Caucasus highway, the main road running through the region, complained about the noise from major military columns passing through at night. In 2004, after the assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov, the first pro-Russian president of Chechnya, troops began coming to the region in daytime as well. In May 2004, there were reports of major columns, some as large as 10 trucks and one APC, with infantry inside, moving from Ingushetia toward Chechnya. At that time, the Russian authorities wanted to demonstrate to the Chechens that Kadyrov’s death would not bring any radical changes, and Russian officials believed that a massive redeployment of troops during the daytime would have the desired psychological effect.
In 2005, when the Kremlin declared the situation in Chechnya to be “normalized,” the presence of a large number of troops in the republic was hidden by transforming units of the Defense Ministry into Interior Ministry troops. Accordingly, the commanders of the interior troops began to demand that more reinforcements be sent to Chechnya. In May 2006, Sergei Bunin, chief of staff of the interior forces, said that 3,000 troops had been withdrawn from Chechnya. Hardly two weeks later, Nikolai Rogozhkin, commander of the interior troops, announced the increase of interior troops in the region by 5,000 men (RIA-Novosti, May 29). He explained that the increase was needed to strengthen the Chechen part of the Russian border with Georgia; however, the border was already guarded by special border groups directly subordinated to the FSB, and the number of these forces in Chechnya had also been increasing. Clearly, some explanation was needed to hide the real reason for sending more troops: violent rebel attacks and heavy losses by the Russian army.
Usually, the Russian Defense Minister or another top security official gives the only accurate number of troops that would be located in Chechnya permanently some time in the future, but no information has been revealed to the media about how many units from all security agencies are located in Chechnya right now. On July 4, the rebels ambushed a column near the Chechen village of Avturi. The authorities could not hide this incident, since the casualties were high, but they failed to identify which unit the dead servicemen belonged to. However, Zhizn newspaper discovered that the insurgents had destroyed one unit from a GRU (Russian military intelligence) brigade based in the Russian town of Tambov. Observers can only guess how many such units are currently operating in Chechnya because the Russian generals keep the data secret.
It seems that the Russian military commander, who continues to have problems in Chechnya, is not happy at all with Putin’s order to submit a withdrawal plan. The generals simply do not know how to withdraw even a handful of troops from the region without weakening their control over it. For now, at least, it is a very difficult task.