In looking back on the events of 2006 in the Northern Caucasus, it is impossible not to notice the significant political and strategic changes that have affected the Chechen resistance movement. The tactics used by the previous leaders of the movement—Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev and Shamil Basaev—constantly threatened the Russian government forces with unexpected blows across the entire region. During their tenure, the goal of shifting most of the actual fighting out of Chechnya proper and into the nearby regions was almost fully accomplished and today, the dzhamaats in Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia are quite active, forcing the Russian government to spread its security forces across the entire region of the Northern Caucasus.
The accidental killing of Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, who was both the president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and the leader of the entire regional resistance movement, was a powerful psychological blow to both the fighters and the political leadership of the resistance (http://ej.ru/comments/entry/4129). This unexpected loss (June 17, 2006, Argun) was quickly followed by the death of Shamil Basaev (July 9-10, 2006, Ingushetia), one of the most significant military figures of the entire movement. Basaev, who had founded many local ethnic-based dzhamaat groups, excelled as a strategist and was influential across the entire region. His death became the most significant blow to the movement since the killing of Aslan Maskhadov. The election of Dokku Umarov as the new Chechen leader brought much confusion into the ranks of the resistance movement. While trying to follow in the footsteps of Maskhadov, Umarov does not possess the same sort of legitimacy and is unable to match the military experience of Basaev or the spiritual authority of Sadulaev. However, shortly before his own death, Basaev required that ethnic dzhamaats swear an oath of fealty to the newly elected Chechen president, once more confirming the fact that Chechnya is the leader of the resistance movement of the entire region. Having been recognized as the leader of all the regional dzhamaats of the Northern Caucasus (Dagestani, Ingush, Kabardin, Balkar, Karachai, Adyg and Nogai), the Chechen presidency rose in status, but this elevation has brought increased risks.
Significant changes also occurred due to the deaths of numerous high-ranking commanders, including Lecha Eskiev, Sultan Khadisov, Isa Muskiev, Abu-Hafs and others. This means that many of those who are linked with the resistance movement are unfamiliar with the new, younger leadership that has replaced the old guard famous from the days of the First Chechen War (1994-96). This provides the advantage, however, of leaving the Russian authorities entirely unfamiliar with the new leadership, making governmental actions chaotic and leading Russian sources to label almost everyone new as a high-ranking Chechen leader. This ignorance has occasionally taken rather comic turns, with the Russian media even inventing Chechen units that have never existed. An example of this is the story about the surrender of a 76-year-old fighter from “Zelikhman Yandarbiev’s unit.” The man apparently joined in 1998, had his firearm taken away two months later and never participated in any anti-Russian activity (www.chechnyafree.ru, January 3, 2007). This “Zelikhman Yandarbiev” is the same Zelikhman Yandarbiev that held the post of Chechen president from April 1996 to January 1997 and was killed in Qatar by Russian agents. It is well known that except for his personal bodyguards, he never had a military unit of his own.
During the presidency of Aslan Maskhadov, the efficacy of Chechen diplomacy in the international arena was noticeable. Sadulaev’s tenure, however, saw a decrease in diplomatic effectiveness and now, Umarov’s time has resulted in a complete halt in diplomatic activity. The only notable political figure still active abroad is the information minister, Ahmed Zakaev, who is unable to freely travel across Europe and fulfill his duties due to unfounded accusations made against him by the Russian Federation. No other notable figures actively acting on behalf of the Chechen resistance movement in the international arena exist today. Even Movladi Udugov has lost his previous influence. Having concentrated fully on the “Kavkazcenter” website, he has shifted his focus from the North Caucasus to a broader coverage of news affecting the Muslim world. This has led to a loss of readership, since Udugov’s audience was more interested in news from the Caucasus, rather than information about world events. This shift has been partially caused by the lack of a unified vision for Chechnya’s post-war future, especially since current president Umarov tends to side more closely with the views expressed by Zakaev, rather than those of Udugov.
The Chechen parliament formed during Aslan Maskhadov’s presidency (not to be confused with the parliament chosen by Moscow in 2005 during the Second War) theoretically still functions to this day, and is represented by its chairman, Lema Saraliapov, and several deputies that currently reside in Strasbourg, France. Even these men, however, tend to act only when it is necessary to publicly mark an anniversary, and are entirely bereft of an organization or set of tactics that would allow them to work effectively while living abroad.
In 2006, Chechens came to make use of the attention given to the human rights situation within the republic more frequently. The court-ordered halt of all activities by the “Society for Chechen-Russian Friendship” (“Obshestvo Chechno-rossiiskoi druzhby) and the legal actions against the “Chechen Committee of National Salvation” (“Chchenskii Komitet Natsionalnogo Spasenia”) led by the well-known human-rights campaigner Ruslan Badalov means that human-rights work may soon become an entirely underground enterprise (www.grani.ru, October 13, 2006). Constant pressure, threats and abductions have become part of the everyday lives of those who are still determined to live in Chechnya (www.kavkazmemo.ru, October 13, 2006). The murders of Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and Aleksandr Litvinenko in London, along with the prohibitions on journalistic visits to Chechnya should, as far as the FSB is concerned, force many to wonder whether reporting on events in the Northern Caucasus is worth risking one’s life. It should be noted, however, that foreign journalists are still attempting to secretly enter Chechnya and report on events there, with the latest example being the German reporter working for the “German Wave” radio station (www.newsru.com, December 15, 2006).
Reports by Chechens living in the republic have forced the Russian government to admit that military aviation is still being used in the highland regions, something entirely incompatible with the image of a “peaceful Chechnya” being promoted by the Russian government. Similarly, civilian reports indicating that villages were shelled using tanks and frequently strafed by helicopters have caught the military off guard (Kavkazky Uzel, December 28, 2006; www.strana.ru, December 21, 2006). Despite all of this, year after year Moscow has tried to popularize the notion that there is no resistance movement, and that only the criminal activity within the republic needs to be dealt with. The Russian government no longer finds it expedient to declare that it is fighting international terrorists in Chechnya, and today the Kremlin is concerned with ways of portraying the situation across the North Caucasus as peaceful and stable. Facts, however, show the opposite to be true. While Ramzan Kadyrov still insists that “only 40-50 guerillas that move from one republic to the next” are left in the mountains, the commander of the Unified Military Corps in the Northern Caucasus, general Evgenii Barayev, cites a much larger figure of 700 men (ITAR-TASS, December 5, 2007; www.kavkazmemo.ru, December 1, 2006). It is also interesting that Ramzan Kadyrov prides himself on having returned 7,000 guerillas to civilian life. This is an intriguing figure, partly because it has never been cited by an official source before and because one wonders as to how many men have simply decided to wait out the current situation.
There is no uniform opinion regarding the withdrawal of troops from Chechnya. The current pro-Russian leaders of the republic claim that they will be able to handle the situation with their current forces (17,000 policemen, the battalions “Yug” and “Sever,” two brigades from the Russian Ministry of Defense and 3,000 border guards from the “Argun” group). Yet, the Russian deputy-minister of Internal Affairs believes that this topic can only be discussed following the destruction of the main forces of the remaining guerillas (Radio Freedom – Northern Caucasus, August 10, 2006; Interfax – Yug, December 19, 2006). This means that the leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs admits to the existence of a “main force” of the resistance movement, one that has remained active despite the deaths of numerous well-known commanders. Notably, none of the regional pro-Kremlin rulers (A. Alkhanov, M. Aliev, M. Batdyev, S. Khazret, etc.) has been decorated by President Putin, indicating Moscow’s attitude towards its pawns (Yuzhnyi Reporter #87, December 25, 2006).
The daily military reports from Chechnya are full of firefights and ambushes, and the total numbers show a surprisingly high level of activity. The new Chechen leadership has made a variety of pronouncements (regarding the further expansion of military activity into Russia, about increasing activity in the Northern Caucasus, etc.), without actually undertaking anything notable following the death of Shamil Basaev. This can mean one of two things. It could be a move away from such operations (and the numerous civilian victims that would result), or a preparation for additional operations that will significantly demonstrate the new leadership’s abilities. That said, it might be possible that a temporary order to lay low has been issued in order to avoid the numerous recent anti-guerilla operations and to give time to coordinate and plan for the new year.
Today’s Chechen resistance movement is both able and active, its leadership has managed to keep control of all the ethnic dzhamaats, and armed operations continually discomfort and stress the leadership of the Russian Federation, leading to a large volume of mutually-contradictory pronouncements by the Russian government. The war-weary population of Chechnya still supports the resistance, discussion of Chechnya’s post-war future is still active and the republic continues to be the driving force behind the resistance within the entire North Caucasus. Currently, the weakest link in the entire resistance is its weak representation in the international arena, a defect that can and should be rectified in the future. Given the outcomes of 2006, it is certain that 2007 will be as difficult of a year for the Russian Federation as the preceding one, since there is no real evidence of fundamental changes taking place in either Chechnya or the whole region. It is even possible that disagreements between the various pro-Russian leaders in the region will further aid the Chechen resistance.