Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 9

According to one persistent rumor, Putin had decided on a replacement for Maskhadov as Chechen leader–Bislan Gantemirov, the former mayor of Grozny, the Chechen capital. Gantemirov had subsequently been jailed by the Kremlin for embezzlement, but was released last year to head the police force in the Russian-controlled regions of Chechnya. Yet other observers insisted that Putin would finally sit down with Maskhadov if the Chechen leader agreed to come to Moscow and, in essence, surrender to his Russian counterpart. According to these observers, Maskhadov had essentially been ousted from power by his radical rivals–the group of hardline rebel field commanders that includes Shamil Basaev, Khattab and Ruslan Gelaev. Thus Maskhadov now had little choice but to surrender to Putin, if for no other reason than to ensure his own safety and that of his family.

Yet it was precisely the actions of the irreconcilable field commanders which made all the Kremlin’s apparent deliberations and maneuvers involving Maskhadov and Gantemirov seem somewhat moot. While Generals Troshev and Manilov continued to insist that the “military phase” of the “counter-terrorist operation” in Chechnya had been completed successfully, they had apparently failed to inform Basaev, Khattab and Gelaev about it. On April 13, fifteen Russian servicemen were killed when rebels attacked a troop column in southern Chechnya’s Argun Gorge. It was the fourth such ambush since March, when the Kremlin made its first victory declaration. And with spring foliage in full bloom in the Caucasus, such attacks were likely to increase. Meanwhile, even state television began expressing frustration with the war, quoting officers in Chechnya speaking openly about how their men were exhausted after seven months of fighting and just wanted to go home.