Kavkazky Uzel reported on August 13 that members of the Chechen-manned Vostok battalion of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) were among the Russian forces that invaded Georgia. According to the website, the Vostok fighters were located in area of the Georgian town of Gori along with Sulim Yamadaev, the Vostok battalion commander. Yamadaev, who became a target of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s wrath following a confrontation and apparent shootout last April involving Vostok members and security forces loyal to Kadyrov, was put on Russia’s federal wanted list earlier this month (North Caucasus Weekly, August 7; see Mairbek Vatchagaev’s article below).
Kavkazky Uzel quoted a correspondent for the Gazeta.ru website as saying that he had been told by several Russian servicemen that Yamadaev and the Vostok battalion were deployed in the “conflict zone” in South Ossetia. Meanwhile, GZT.ru, the website of the newspaper Gazeta, reported on August 12 that the Vostok battalion was located near Gori and that Yamadaev had led it in an assault on the Georgian village of Kvemo-Nikozi, during which at least two Vostok fighters were wounded.
As Kavkazky Uzel noted, Sulim Yamadaev is wanted in connection with the February 1998 kidnapping and subsequent murder of Usman Batsaev, a 32-year-old businessman from the Gudermes district village of Dzhalka (North Caucasus Weekly, August 7). According to the website, on August 11, a local television channel in Chechnya broadcast a bulletin headlined “Attention: Wanted”, in which photographs of Sulim Yamadaev and his brother Badruddi were shown and the voice-over stated that Badruddi Yamadaev, a resident of the city of Gudermes, was wanted for violating articles 105 and 167 of Russia’s Criminal Code (concerning murder and willful destruction or damage of property, respectively). The advertisement then gave a telephone number that viewers could call with information about Badruddi Yamadaev’s whereabouts and said callers would be guaranteed anonymity. There was no indication whether the bulletin, besides showing a photograph of Sulim Yamadaev, referred to his alleged crimes.
According to Kavkazky Uzel, on August 10, just a day before the bulletin showing photographs of Sulim and Badruddi Yamadaev and announcing that Badruddi was wanted for murder and destruction of property was broadcast on Chechen television, various Russian media had reported that Sulim Yamadaev and members of the Vostok battalion were in the “Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone” and fulfilling “tasks” as part of the Russian “peacekeeping contingent” there. That information was reportedly confirmed by Isa Yamadaev, the commander of one of the Vostok battalion’s companies, at the battalion’s base in Gudermes. Isa Yamadaev was reportedly preparing to go to South Ossetia together with 100 fighters.
Kavkazky Uzel on August 14 also quoted an unnamed Vostok serviceman as saying that the battalion had incurred “serious losses” in fighting around the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. “I cannot say how many of us were there or the exact number killed, but I will say this: Three days ago the bodies of six of our guys who died in the conflict zone were taken back to Chechnya. In our group only half survived. A commander was also killed. Many were wounded. If reinforcements hadn’t arrived in time, the Georgians would have destroyed all of us.”
The anonymous Vostok member also said Russian media reports that the Georgian forces lacked preparedness to wage war were false. “These are extremely well prepared, trained and equipped soldiers,” he told Kavkazky Uzel. “It would be wrong to make them out to be complete cowards and dilettantes. They know how to and can fight. The Georgians have their heroes and their cowards, just like in any army. It would be wrong to lump them all together.”
An assignment in the war zone is the result of “voluntary compulsion,” the unnamed Vostok serviceman told Kavkazky Uzel. “We had only two possibilities: either go to the war or be discharged,” he said, adding that those who choose the latter will not receive back wages or other payments owed to them. “Not to mention the fact that everyone knows what it means to remain today in Chechnya, where 80 percent of the population is unemployed. So that’s why we are fighting.”
The Vostok fighter told Kavkazky Uzel that two companies from the Vostok battalion were fighting in South Ossetia and Georgia. “Sulim Yamadaev is commanding us,” he said. “By the way, rumors that he has been removed from his job are, putting it mildly, contrary to fact. True, they have said that some sort of high position in the [North Caucasus Military] District is being prepared for him, but, so far anyway, he’s still our commander.”
The Rosbalt news agency on August 13 quoted “an informed source in the Russian power structures” denying reports that Vostok battalion members were involved in acts of marauding blamed on pro-Russian forces in Tskhinvali. The source told Rosbalt that Vostok had stopped ten kilometers outside Gori on August 12 in expectation of receiving orders to storm the city but had returned to Tskhinvali on August 13. “Vostok [members] are soldiers, not marauders,” the source said, adding that the Chechen battalion was in top fighting form and spirit and had been involved taking the Georgian village of Nikozi on August 11 after a tough fight with Georgian forces. “The Georgians put up fierce resistance, with massive support from Grad [missile systems] that hit a column of Russian infantry and paratroopers,” the source told Rosbalt. “The Russian armed forces incurred losses but then, with close air support from helicopters, assumed the offensive and, after cleaning out the area, went back behind the administrative borders of South Ossetia.”
Rosbalt reported that “individual acts of marauding” which had taken place on August 12 had been carried out by “representatives of the Ossetian side.” It also reported that the head of South Ossetia’s Security Council had announced the creation of special commission to prevent marauding, including in “liberated” Georgian villages, and that a curfew had been imposed. Both Russian and Western media reported that Ossetian irregulars had engaged in acts of looting and arson.
It should be noted that several Western journalists reported that Chechens were among the Russian forces involved in the fighting in and around South Ossetia and may have been involved in abuses. Britain’s Times newspaper reported on August 13 that the personnel at a Russian army checkpoint on the approach leading from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to Gori were all ethnic Chechens and quoted one soldier as saying his unit was part of the “42nd Chechen Division.” While it is not clear what he meant by that designation or whether something got lost in translation (for example, the soldier was identified as “Yuri,” which is not a typical ethnic Chechen name), the Russian army’s 42nd Motor Rifle Division is headquartered at Khankala, outside Grozny, and includes the Chechen-manned Vostok and Zapad battalions. The Times also quoted an elderly woman who was among the civilians who were fleeing burning Georgian villages surrounding Gori as saying: “They are killing people there, the Chechens and the Ossetians.”
Likewise, the Guardian on August 13 quoted its correspondent Luke Harding as saying that “a whole column of irregulars”—who locals identified as Chechens, Cossacks and Ossetians—had entered the Georgia village of Rekha outside Gori behind a Russian military column that included at least 25 tanks and were, according to eyewitnesses, “killing and burning.” Harding reported that the irregulars had killed three people and were setting fire to villages and taking away young boys and girls.