Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 29

On July 29 the Russian authorities conducted a well-publicized ceremony–one that they had begun advertising months beforehand–marking the transfer of top command over the war in Chechnya from the Federal Security Service (FSB) to the federal Interior Ministry. The long planned transfer is part of the Putin administration’s strategy of showing the public that the war is in fact over, since, with the republic returning to “normal,” large scale rebel resistance is a thing of the past and large scale military and “anti-terrorist” operations are no longer necessary. (Another part of this strategy has involved repeated announcements of Russian troop withdrawals. These withdrawals somehow never seem to take place in practice, however, or they are counterbalanced by unannounced arrivals of new reinforcements. See Chechnya Weekly, July 3.)

The FSB and the Interior Ministry have long been rivals; the former has usually had better connections at the pinnacle of Russian politics, especially since former FSB officer Vladimir Putin became president of Russia. Putin is unlikely to strengthen the Interior Ministry at the expense of his own colleagues, and a dramatic article posted on the website on July 29 shows that, in fact, he has not done so in Chechnya. The website’s correspondent, Artem Vernidub, concluded that the transfer was simply “staged.”

“In fact, wrote Vernidub, “control over the activities of the regional operations staff will remain, as before, in the hands of the FSB–which only for the sake of formally obeying the presidential decree hastily transferred its own officer, Yury Maltsev, to the post of deputy minister of the interior.”

In late June two deadlines were announced for the transfer. The Interior Ministry was to gain full control over the operations headquarters in Khankala, just outside Grozny, by July 1. Two months later, on September 1, direction of all the anti-terrorist operations by federal forces in Chechnya was to pass from FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev to Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov. But as Vernidub observed, “the security agencies did not manage to meet these deadlines. It was only on July 4 that Putin signed a back-dated decree transferring the regional operations headquarters to a deputy minister of the interior. And for some reason, the decree failed to mention the name of that deputy minister; it had to be announced later, which indicates that serious complications had arisen…”

The Interior Ministry then announced to journalists that the new head of the regional headquarters would be Mikhail Pankov, a lieutenant general in the Interior Ministry. (Russia’s Interior Ministry includes tens of thousands of special police armed for military style combat, and the officers commanding these servicemen have military ranks.) Pankov was to replace an FSB officer in that position. But as it turned out, that never happened. Instead, on July 17 FSB head Patrushev made one of his rare visits to Chechnya. The details of the trip were kept from journalists, but according to Vernidub’s account, Patrushev convened a secret meeting to discuss the transfer of the FSB’s assignment to the Interior Ministry.

On July 29 Patrushev took another trip to Chechnya, this time in the company of Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov. The two jointly announced that the new head of the regional headquarters would be one Yury Maltsev, a rear admiral who is also a deputy interior minister. A spokesman for the headquarters refused to answer questions about why Maltsev had been appointed instead of Pankov.

The correspondent then discovered that not one of Russia’s public websites or computer-searchable media archives made any mention of Maltsev–nor did the FSB or Interior Ministry websites. The man seemed also to be unknown to employees of the Interior Ministry whom the journalist contacted. Finally, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s central headquarters in Moscow offered the following explanation: “We know nothing about him because he is from the FSB and has just now been appointed deputy minister.” The FSB’s press service was more reticent, but indirectly confirmed that Maltsev was a familiar figure there by referring to him by his first name and patronymic: “Yury Alekseevich.”

“Thus,” Vernidub concluded, “the transfer of control over anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya from the FSB to the Interior Ministry is actually a fiction….The fact is that the regional operations headquarters will be headed by FSB officer Maltsev, hastily assigned to the Interior Ministry.”

Significantly, the Kadyrov administration’s own interior minister, Alu Alkhanov, was away from the republic on July 29. This major reshuffling of personnel was thus carried out in his absence. That fact makes it even clearer that the whole episode was one of Akhmad Kadyrov’s rare defeats. His administration has long been lobbying the Kremlin to transfer control of the conflict from the military and the FSB, which are dominated by ethnic Russians, to the local Chechen police, who are much more numerous and influential in the Interior Ministry’s units. The FSB has been fiercely resisting, and this time the FSB won.