The Alkhazurovo Operation: Are Chechnya’s Rebels on the Rebound?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 13

Recent developments in the North Caucasus have captured the attention of skeptics who had prematurely decided that the region had finally achieved long-term stability and that there was no longer anything that could unsettle the situation. Armed clashes of the magnitude of those that took place near the village of Alkhazurovo in Urus-Martan district of Chechnya on the evening of March 21 have not been witnessed in Chechnya’s military operations for a long time.

Numerous commentaries made by the separatists, along with the meaningful silence and attempts to minimize the reaction to the attack, suggest that the Alkhazurovo fight was not just a random skirmish between the resistance fighters and the Russian troops and policemen. Indeed, the operation was a well-organized military sortie mounted by one of the numerous Chechen units of the armed opposition forces. The fact that the operation was staged by a single unit is clear from the number of rebel fighters involved. In addition, according to witness reports (Kommersant, March 21; Chechnya Weekly, March 27), the group of rebel fighters entered the village simultaneously by two main roads running from Urus Martan and from Starye Atagi. The fighter headcount (even if assumed to be half as high as the separatists claimed) reached up to 70 men (Kavkazcenter.com, March 20), which indicates that this was not a run-of-the-mill raid, since it has been some time since rebel leader Dokka Umarov has dared to bring so many fighters together in one place.

The Amir of the Urus-Martan sector, Dishni Abdulmalik, entered the village of Alkhazurovo around 9 p.m., local time, and had total run of the place for three hours. One should note that this village, located in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, is only 28 kilometers away from Grozny. Additionally, the village of Starye Atagi, located only 6 kilometers away, is home to a large military base of Russian Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry troops, who were nevertheless in no hurry to come to the rescue of their Chechen colleagues—that is, members of Kadyrov’s pro-Moscow police force. What’s more, one of the largest Russian army bases outside of Khankala, located east of the town of Urus Martan, is only 7 kilometers northwest of Alkhazurovo. Therefore, the Alkhazurovo operation was staged within easy reach of two military bases that did nothing to respond to the clash until the morning hours. The rebels were engaged by local policemen whose mission does not equip them to mount military operations: in effect, the police were mostly defending themselves, since they were the real target of the rebel raid. The end result was five dead and three wounded policemen as well as civilian casualties among the locals. The latter included a man who was killed and three wounded passengers in a car that was caught in the crossfire, including a woman (www.chechenews.com/news/117/ARTICLE/4068/2008-0).

The Alkhazurovo operation serves as further proof of the longstanding lack of unity between Russian troops and police forces, on one hand, and the Chechen police and their Russian counterpart units serving tours of duty in Chechnya, on the other hand. This trend of a lack of coordination and the army’s intense (and fully reciprocated) contempt toward the police has been frequently observed during both military campaigns in Chechnya.

Should the Alkhazurovo raid be interpreted as a restart of military activities by the armed opposition forces or an isolated act of a single Chechen jamaat commander? It would probably be premature to conclude that the separatist forces, who are sinking into political infighting over building the Islamic state of the Caucasus Emirate, have decided to launch a campaign. In truth, Dokka Umarov has never been the military mastermind he was undeservedly believed to be. His military mastery came from audacity and the sheer numbers of his troops, but to this day he has no independent military actions attached to his name. Umarov also has nothing to contribute to the idea of building the Islamic State due to a complete lack of education in this area. Therefore, he will always remain dependent on those who orchestrated the transformation that replaced Ichkeria with the Caucasus Emirate and on those who managed to split the resistance movement into the democratic camp of Akhmed Zakaev and the Islamists led by Dokka Umarov. And that would have been fine, except that the change has led certain politicians to jump to the conclusion that the Chechen conflict is now fueled by religious rather than separatist sentiments, which certainly harms the public opinion that is generally sympathetic to Chechens and their resistance to Russia.

The Alkhazurovo operation, when combined with the multiple isolated attacks against policemen, the repeated mining of roads used for military traffic and the attacks on police units from other Russian regions serving in Grozny (http://ru.wordpress.com/tag/wilayah-of-nokhchicho), provides incomplete but consistent proof that those who believe in the demise of the Chechen resistance movement are rushing to judgment.

In truth, the death of Chechen Pesident Aslan Maskhadov and his successor Abdul Khalim Sadulaev, followed by the assassination of the military leader of the entire regional resistance movement Shamil Basaev, has resulted in a de facto paralysis of the core of the resistance movement. Only the foundations built by Shamil Basaev that survived his death allowed the Chechens to regroup and attempt to reorganize their resources. Instead, however, they decided to change the initial strategic goals and reduce them to religious slogans, which served to delay the restructuring even further. It also took at least a year for them to explain the need and reason for this change in strategy.

Therefore, the next month should be a good indication of whether any further actions by the Chechen resistance fighters should be expected. Although the present state of affairs, in which no active military operations are underway, is quite satisfactory to everyone involved in the conflict. The Chechen rebels can use this time to focus on the political battles within the resistance movement. For their part, the Russians are quite happy with the appearance of a temporary lull or ostensible calm, and Ramzan Kadyrov is certainly satisfied with the way this fits in with his policies and the dividends he receives for the putative victory over the separatists, whose numbers (according to his statistics) keep going down every year. In reality, their numbers remain constant due to the incoming young recruits who see the rebel fighters as heroes. In this regard, Magomed Vakhaev, a State Duma deputy representing Chechnya, launched an official inquiry to compel the Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry to explain why their estimates still refer to “hundreds” of rebel fighters (http://www.km.ru/news/view.asp?id=BEBB82337D9B4665B2A4145A7A20F689), a move that will likely force the Russians to make their numbers consistent across different government agencies.