#13 - JRL 7188
May 20, 2003
Atypical Chechen Attacks
By Boris Kagarlitsky
When the government starts talking about achieving a conclusive peace in Chechnya, it usually means one thing: more fighting.
The recent spate of violence in Chechnya came as no surprise. Chechens in Moscow began warning several months ago that the referendum championed by President Vladimir Putin would lead to an escalation of the conflict in the region. Before the election, the residents of Chechnya were told that if the referendum passed, federal sweep operations would cease and the government would actually begin to treat them like normal citizens of Russia.
The referendum passed without serious incident. But passage of the new constitution did not stop the sweep operations or the violence against the residents of Chechnya. Everything continued as before, with one exception: Chechen society had once more been deceived and insulted. The fighters were more or less obliged to make a show of strength. Aslan Maskhadov has some 2,000 men under arms capable of making life unpleasant for federal troops and the regional administration. Maskhadov also has about 10,000 reservists at his disposal for large-scale operations.
Suicide bombers have been used more than once in Chechnya, but they are not the weapon of choice of the Chechen resistance. Arab radicals resorted to blowing themselves up because more traditional methods proved utterly ineffective against Israeli and U.S. forces. The fighters in Chechnya, on the other hand, were trained by officers from the Soviet school and are very confident taking on regular army units.
These facts compel us to look elsewhere for answers. Why were the terrorist attacks carried out in the Nadterechny and Gudermes regions of Chechnya? Blowing up the local administration and Federal Security Service headquarters in the Nadterechny region -- the safest, most loyal and prosperous in Chechnya -- makes clear that the federal government has no control of the region. The explosion during a religious holiday in the village of Ilaskhan-Yurt was simply an assassination attempt on Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the Moscow-backed regional administration.
It remains unclear how a truck loaded with explosives could have passed through innumerable checkpoints on the road from the mountains in the south to the Nadterechny region on the plains of central Chechnya. Perhaps the explosives were loaded on site? If so, where did the suicide bombers get them? However powerful the fighters might be, they have no bases in the plains of Chechnya. Building such bases would be too great a risk -- expensive and difficult to equip, and excessively vulnerable to seizure by federal troops.
If the explosives did not come from a rebel arsenal, who else has large supplies of munitions in Chechnya? Why, the federal troops, of course. But we're not talking about selling the enemy a dozen grenades or a couple thousand rounds of ammunition. This was a ton of TNT. A deal like that couldn't go unnoticed.
Setting off a bomb during a Muslim religious festival is not exactly how Chechens do business. No matter how much you hate Kadyrov, this was the worst possible place for an assassination attempt. Huge civilian losses were guaranteed, and all to no effect. Neither attack fits Maskhadov's modus operandi. It's entirely possible that the fighters who organized these attacks were operating without orders from the the rebel leadership. Were they acting on orders from the Russian security services instead?
Press reports on the recent terrorist attacks in Chechnya were accompanied by reports of destroyed armored personnel carriers, dead soldiers and fire fights. These are more Maskhadov's style, but they are an everyday occurence in Chechnya. The press normally doesn't bother to report them. Now suddenly they start informing us about all sorts of horrors. Chechen sources say that the fighters are becoming more active. It may well be that federal troops have sustained signifcant losses, and the brass can no longer keep them under wraps.
But it's hard not to think that our political strategists and media magnates are making an issue of Chechnya again for a reason. You get the same feeling watching television coverage of Putin's falling job approval ratings.
Elections are right around the corner.
The Chechen war brought Putin to power, but the administration's inability to secure victory or peace in the region is becoming its Achilles' heel. And we will soon learn that, contrary to popular belief, the current regime has more than one Achilles' heel. A lot more.
Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.