The Cancellation of Counter-Terrorism Operation in Chechnya: Peace or War?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 10 Issue: 16

The Russian authorities have been trying to present the cancellation of the counter-terrorist operation as a victory over unruly Chechnya (Interfax, April 16). Yet, some 18 years have passed since the Chechen people declared independence from Moscow in 1991. This small North Caucasian republic was the first to take advantage of the USSR law No.1457-I, signed by the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on April 26, 1990 (Vedomosti S’ezda Narodnikh Deputatov SSSR i Verkhovnogo Soveta SSSR, M., 1990, No.19, pp.429-433). That law made the rights of autonomous regions within the Russian Federation equal to those of the Soviet republics, thereby taking them out from under the control of Russia and making them ostensibly independent entities. As the USSR was breaking up, on November 1, 1991, the then Chechen President Djokhar Dudaev declared the sovereignty of the Chechen Republic and from that moment onward all Russian mechanisms of administration on the territory of Chechnya ceased to function.

The anti-terrorist operation introduced in Chechnya in October 1999 continued the following years without interruption. The first time that Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov voiced the possibility of abolition was after a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in which Kadyrov declared that an announcement will soon be made “on victory over gangsterism in Chechnya” (Newsru.com, March 25). (This once again showed that the person who makes the decisions about Chechnya is not the nominal president of Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev, but Putin.) Three weeks later the decision about the abolition of the counter-terrorist operation was adopted at the highest level.

Kadyrov made a grandiose show out of the abolition of the counter-terrorist operation—religious ceremonies were held across the republic, celebratory demonstrations were organized to praise Putin and Kadyrov—and it was proposed that the date of the announcement be declared an annual nationwide holiday. With no compunction at exaggerating his assessments, Kadyrov proclaimed the end of the counter-terrorist operation “a triumph of victory of policy” carried out by Putin in the Caucasus (http://asfera.info/news/one-24257.html).

The abolition of the counter-terrorist operation in the republic will open a customs service in the republic. Kadyrov has repeatedly talked about the necessity of its existence. Undoubtedly, Moscow will appoint the head of a service of such strategic importance, but even that fades against the backdrop of the revenues that the Chechen leadership anticipates from this venture. It will allow the Chechen authorities to stop cooperation with the customs of neighboring regions, where corruption is skyrocketing.

Similar in importance is the granting of international status to the Grozny Airport, which will allow the Chechens to make direct trips abroad not via Moscow or the airports of neighboring republics. This will be a breath of fresh air for Kadyrov, who aspires to travel to the Middle East from his own airport.

The abolition of the counter-terrorist operation implies that Kadyrov’s plans will be drawn to withdraw a portion of the troops from the territory of Chechnya. First of all, this has to do with the troops of the federal Interior Ministry that have been deployed in the republic on a temporary basis. Since nobody really knows how many of them are in Chechnya, it cannot be ruled out that figures will be cited without corresponding evidence of who was withdrawn where and when. Few people will know the relevant details. It is only possible to conjecture that the withdrawal will affect tens of thousands of servicemen summoned from all territories and regions of the Russian Federation—from Khabarovsk to Murmansk. In either case, the withdrawal of two combat brigades—the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division of the Russian Defense Ministry and the 46th Separate Operational Purpose Brigade of the Russian Interior Ministry, which have been deployed in the republic on a permanent basis—will be out of the question (Newsru.com, April 16). Nothing is mentioned about the special detachments of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), or border troops or detachments used for the maintenance and servicing of armored equipment in the territories adjacent to Chechnya. For instance, one of the large military bases in the south of Russia is in Mozdok, which is located on the territory of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania but serves the exclusive needs of the Russian military deployed in Chechnya.

An equally important factor in the abolition of the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya will be the theoretical possibility of opening access to the republic to journalists and non-governmental organizations. It should be noted that since the start of military operations in the republic, Chechnya has been closed off to such visits. At present any independent journalist wishing to visit Chechnya needs not only official accreditation in Russia, but also two additional permits from the federal Interior Ministry and the FSB, which limit the visit to a pre-approved itinerary (The Guardian, February 23). If there is the slightest deviation from the approved route, the journalist’s accreditation in the zone of military operations is annulled and he or she is escorted from the territory of Chechnya (http://www.canadets.com/news/20089.html).

For ordinary citizens of Chechnya the formal abolition of the counter-terrorist operation will change very little. The truth is that while the operation may be abolished across the republic, it is likely to remain in effect in the mountainous part of Chechnya. Most likely the counter-terrorist operation there will be implemented as needed in accordance with an operational plan of strikes against members of the armed resistance (http://www.grani.ru/War/Chechnya/m.150015.html).

When the cancellation of the counter-terrorist operation was announced, an armed clash with militants took place in the mountainous part of Chechnya near the village of Dai. One of the militants who participated in that clash informed the North Caucasian service of Radio Liberty about the incident, which also indicates that the militants are now more actively using phones than before. Another confirmation of this shift was a series of recent phone interviews given by different members of the armed resistance in Chechnya to the independent reporting agency Prague Watchdog (located in the Czech Republic). In these interviews, the militants said that they intend to launch active operations against the enemy (meaning Russian servicemen and Moscow appointees in Chechnya) in the near future. One of the most recent interviews is with field commander Abdul-Malik, from the detachments deployed in the Vedeno District, who assessed the ending of the counter-terrorist operation negatively and said he considers it a fiction. Abdul-Malik is 30-year-old, and returned to Chechnya from Austria. He thinks that there are many people like him and that he would not be able to carry out the fight and to resist the Russian army without popular support (http://www.watchdog.cz/index.php?show=000000-000005-000004-000173&lang=2).

Kadyrov has again disputed the figures cited by the Russian special services that put the number of militants in Chechnya at 480. Kadyrov claims that the militants number less than 70 (http://www.newsru.com/russia/25mar2009/defeated.html). Even the members of the armed opposition do not know exactly how many militants are operating in Chechnya, but in any case it is unlikely that they can be counted in the dozens and it is more plausible to speak of hundreds of active militants, without counting those in the population who support them in the villages and towns.  

Against this backdrop Chechens will have to hear about the counter-terrorist operation in their republic for some time to come. Adopting an optimistic outlook regarding the end of the military operation in the republic is probably a losing proposition. Not only are there members of the armed opposition in Chechnya, but also an ideology that is shared by many of the republic’s youth.

Constant references by Western journalists and Russian pseudo-patriots to the supposed fact that Kadyrov has received independence that the separatists could only dream of do not correspond with the reality on the ground. Kadyrov enjoys what Moscow allows him to enjoy and it is anybody’s guess what Moscow will apportion for him tomorrow. All references to Kadyrov’s alleged departure from Moscow’s sphere of influence or his supposed achievement of independence are nothing more than wholesale demagoguery—a public relations campaign—by politicians in the Kremlin, who managed to create the facade of independence while skillfully concealing all the levers they use to control Kadyrov.