On Monday 14, a large-scale gun battle broke out in the Chechen city of Gudermes between forces of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and the Yamadaev brothers —Sulim Yamadaev, who is the commander of the Vostok battalion, and Ruslan Yamadaev, who is a deputy in the Russian parliament. The Kavkaz-Center rebel website reported that 16 “kadyrovtsy” and “yamadaevtsy” were killed in the fighting, while Reuters put the number of those killed at about 18, including several civilians. Kavkaz-Center and the Regnum news agency both said that the shootout lasted the whole day and that heavy-machine guns and grenade launchers were used by both sides. Kavkaz-Center also reported that armored vehicles could be seen on the battlefield.
Russian media have provided differing versions of what took place, and their casualty counts have been vague. Even the question of where the battle took place has not really been clarified. According to reports by the official news agencies RIA Novosti and Itar-Tass on April 14, the first clash between members of Kadyrov’s guards and Vostok battalion fighters took place near the Chechen town of Argun, followed by the shootout in Gudermes. The official agencies quoted anonymous sources in the Chechen police who said that a motorcade of Kadyrov’s guards came face to face with a motorcade of a Vostok unit led by Badrudin Yamadaev, the youngest brother in the Yamadaev family, on the road and that neither wanted to give way. Kadyrov personally solved the controversy and the two convoys moved on in different directions. Badrudin told the Gazeta newspaper that Kadyrov had hugged him and called him a “brother” (Gazeta, April 16).
Nevertheless, after that, Ramzan Kadyrov ordered that Gudermes be surrounded and the main base of the Vostok battalion in the city blocked. Official reports mentioned very little about the events that took place in Gudermes after the incident near Argun. According to the Regnum news agency, the fighting was centered on Tereshevka Street and near the railroad bridge. Kavkaz-Center reported that when Kadyrov ordered his forces to take control in Gudermes and when Chechen policemen loyal to Kadyrov started to detain members of the Vostok battalion, the “yamadaevtsy” attacked the barracks of Kadyrov’s guards near the railroad station, the place where the heaviest battles have traditionally been fought within the city. The “kadyrovtsy” then started to deploy additional troops to Gudermes from other parts of Chechnya.
Since Vostok is officially a part of the Russian army’s 42nd Motorized Rifle Division that is stationed in the republic, the “yamadaevtsy” asked the command of the division for help. Colonel Fomichev, the division’s chief of staff, however, was detained at a checkpoint in Gudermes that had been set up by Kadyrov’s guards. The “kadyrovtsy” arrested all drivers who identified themselves as Vostok fighters. A total of ten members of the Yamadaev group were detained and taken to the Vega Base of the “kadyrovtsy” on the outskirts of Gudermes. At the same time, the “yamadaevtsy” took eight members of Kadyrov’s guards as hostages (Gazeta, April 16). A Vostok officer told the Rosbalt news agency that the “kadyrovstsy” outnumbered the “yamadaevtsy” by evening of April 15 and that 300-500 police officers and members of the Sever (North) and Yug (South) battalions loyal to Kadyrov surrounded the Vostok base and the Yamadaev family’s private house (Rosbalt, April 15).
Nevertheless, Russian officials, including the commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, a deputy head of the Military Prosecutor’s Office for the Southern Federal District, the head of the Chechen branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the head of the Russian military intelligence (GRU) staff in Chechnya, among others, accompanied by federal motorized rifle units, prevented Kadyrov’s men from attacking the Vostok base. An officer from Vostok told Gazeta that General Sergei Mininkov, the commander of the 42nd division, promised to help the battalion if Kadyrov started the assault (Gazeta, April 16).
On April 15, the Russian security officials ordered Kadyrov’s squads to move back from the Vostok base and from the Yamadaev family’s house. Kadyrov was enraged but unable to do anything about it. He publicly accused the Yamadaev brothers of kidnappings, torture and murders, and demanded that Badrudin Yamadaev be handed over to him. Kadyrov’s accusations were supported by Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov, who also called Badrudin Yamadaev “a criminal” (RIA Novosti, April 15). Kadyrov pushed the republican human rights ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhazhiev, to accuse the Vostok commanders of numerous crimes and human rights violations. Some Chechen non-governmental organizations and human rights activists loyal to Kadyrov in turn publicly supported the Chechen president in his standoff with the Yamadaev brothers and threatened to organize street protests if Vostok is not disbanded (RIA Novosti, April 16).
Ruslan Yamadaev demanded that Kadyrov’s forces be moved out from Gudermes in order to permit the military prosecutor’s office to investigate whether members of Vostok committed any crimes (Vremya Novostei, April 16).
While both sides of the conflict in the Chechen pro-Russian camp were making one public statement after another, federal officials remained silent. On April 14, Maryam Nalaeva, an aide of the head of the Investigation Committee of the Prosecutor’s Office in Chechnya, told the media that a Vostok unit headed by Badrudin Yamadaev was responsible for the traffic incident near Argun that provoked the fighting in Gudermes. Nalaeva said that criminal proceedings had been initiated under the article of the Russian Criminal Code “Violence against representatives of the authorities.” At the same time, an official in the Chechen branch of the federal Prosecutor General’s Office spoke about two criminal proceedings, including one against Vostok and one against the pro-Kadyrov policemen that shot dead two Vostok battalion members at a checkpoint in Gudermes. The official said that if it turned out that any Vostok members violated the law, their case would be handed over to the Military Prosecutor’s Office to investigate (Regnum, April 15). In practice, this means that the civilian Prosecutor General’s Office wants to wash its hands of the conflict and not get involved. This could also mean that it is trying to support the Yamadaev brothers, since handing over the case to the military in fact means a victory for the brothers.
There were no comments about the conflict between Kadyrov and the Yamadaev brothers from federal political leaders from April 15 and through the first part of the day on April 16. The first comment from a high-rank official in Moscow appeared in the media only on the afternoon of April 16. Vladimir Shamanov, head of the Russian Armed Forces’ Main Directorate for Combat Training and Service, said that there had been no clashes in Gudermes and no casualties. “It was just a warlike gesture,” Shamanov told journalists (Grani.ru, April 15). That Shamanov was lying was clear to everybody, but by issuing this statement the general came down firmly on the side of the Vostok battalion and this could be a good sign for the Yamadaev brothers. It means that there is a hope for them that their fate will not be like that of Movladi Baisarov, another pro-Russian Chechen warlord, who was liquidated by Kadyrov’s agents in 2006.
When analyzing the events that took place in Argun and Gudermes on April 14 closely, one cannot help but conclude that this was a clear provocation on the part of Ramzan Kadyrov. It is Kadyrov, not the Yamadaev brothers, who is interested in an armed conflict now. Kadyrov did not attend the rally of the Kremlin’s United Russia party that took place in Moscow on April 14 and remained in the republic that day, while the commander of Vostok was not in Chechnya that day. Kadyrov apparently hoped that he could destroy the battalion by a sudden attack while Sulim Yamadaev was absent. Kadyrov apparently thought that the Russian authorities, who are currently preoccupied as power is handed over from incumbent President Vladimir Putin to President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, would not interfere in the conflict fast enough and he had time to achieve his goal of destroying Yamadaev’s clan.
Kadyrov miscalculated, since he failed to disarm Vostok quickly, and his main mistake was that his people used violence against Colonel Fomichev, a senior officer of the Russian army. This fact only spurred the Russian military command to help the Yamadaev brothers more actively.
Now the Kremlin faces the very difficult decision of how to resolve a conflict that has gone too far. Any decision the Kremlin makes will have an adverse effect on Russian policy in Chechnya. If Vostok is disbanded, Kadyrov will think that he can do anything he wants, and it will not be easy to replace him when the need arises. The Kremlin is not happy with Kadyrov’s policy because he cannot defeat the insurgency and is simply lying about there being no rebels left in Chechnya. Nevertheless, however dissatisfied the Russian authorities are with Kadyrov’s policy, there is no better alternative at this point, and if Vostok remains intact, this will damage Kadyrov’s image as a strong leader.
How the Kremlin decides to resolve this quandary remains to be seen.