Chechnya was put on a “reinforced security regime” on February 21 with the approach of the end of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov’s unilateral ceasefire on February 23. Mosokovsky komsomolets in its February 21 edition quoted a spokesman for the regional operational headquarters of Russia’s military operation in Chechnya as saying that the likelihood of renewed attacks was enhanced by the fact that February 23 is the 61st anniversary of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s deportation of the Chechen and Ingush people.
The newspaper quoted Chechen security officials as saying that rebels had carried out attacks in violation of the ceasefire and cited the reported attack on a scientific research institute of the Chechen branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences on February 19. RIA Novosti that day quoted Russian military sources who said that three rebel fighters wearing black uniforms and armed with pistols had broken into the institute and stolen computer equipment at gunpoint. The sources also pointed to another incident on February 19, in which a mine detonated in downtown Grozny, seriously injuring an employee of the Chechen Communications Ministry’s security service.
But at least one observer raised questions about the veracity of some of the Russian military’s claims of rebel attacks during the ceasefire. In an interview with Polit.ru published on February 22, Aleksandr Cherkasov of the Memorial human rights center cited one instance in which the federal side apparently manufactured a rebel attack that had not occurred. “Several days ago there was a battle in Chechnya: an item was shown on television showing that the militants were destroyed,” Cherkasov said. “Arriving at the scene, our staff examined the area and questioned local police, who had been enlisted to lie in ambush. And they didn’t find anything. According to the police, there had been a couple of shots at daybreak – nobody there pays attention to such things anymore – but they hadn’t heard or seen any kind of battle involving the use of mortars.” Cherkasov added: “We do not have information that the militants systematically violated the moratorium; rather, we have information that the federal side and its propagandists reported a battle about which no one at the scene knew anything.” Cherkasov concluded that Maskhadov’s unilateral ceasefire had failed as a peace initiative but succeeded as a demonstration by the separatist leader that he controls the rebel fighting forces.
On the federal side, even those who conceded that there was less fighting during the ceasefire than usual sought to downplay this fact. Col.-General Arkady Baskaev, a member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party who sits on the State Duma’s Security Committee, told Ekho Moskvy radio on February 22: “We know that there has been a certain easing of fighting in Chechnya in the past fortnight but I believe this is a repetition of what happened before,” he said. “When we conducted talks with Maskhadov in 1995, there were periods of a moratorium on fighting but in reality the militants used the respite to rearrange their forces and distract the attention of the federal troops.” Baskaev categorically denied the ceasefire had demonstrated that Maskhadov exercises control over the rebel forces.
A separatist representative, Usman Ferzauli, told Ekho Moskvy on February 22 that the rebel forces would resume offensive military operations with the ceasefire’s expiration. “To us, Russia has been unpredictable recently,” he said. “It treats Chechens in general with unjustifiable cruelty. So if no appropriate moves are made by the Russian Federation by 2400 hours [on February 22], then groups of fighters, by which I mean the army of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, will carry out planned combat operations to expel the aggressor from the independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.”
Meanwhile, nine Russian soldiers were killed and three injured on February 22 when a brick wall collapsed at a poultry farm on the outskirts of Grozny. A Chechen Interior Ministry source told RIA Novosti that that the collapse could have occurred during a battle as the result of a rocket-propelled grenade fired at the wall. However, other military sources told the news agency that the factory’s wall could have collapsed when one of the soldiers accidentally triggered an explosive booby trap.