Russian president Vladimir Putin signed three major decrees in one week last month, making important changes to the Russian occupation regime in Chechnya. On January 18 he approved a detailed plan prepared by Akhmed Kadyrov, then the head of Chechnya’s interim administration, to restructure the economic, social and political situation in Chechnya.
The next day Putin signed a decree changing the Kadyrov administration from an interim one to a permanent one, and increasing its power. The decree also authorised Kadyrov to appoint a Chechen to serve as his deputy, and a full Chechen government. Kadyrov immediately announced the appointment of Stanislav Ilyasov, a former governor of Stavropol Krai, as Chechen premier.
Finally, on January 22 Putin issued a third decree, cumbersomely entitled “On Measures to Combat Terrorism on the Territory of the North Caucasus Region of the Russian Federation”. This transferred responsibility for military operations in Chechnya from the Russian defence ministry — ie the army — to the Federal Security Service (FSB). At the same time Putin announced that the number of troops in Chechnya would be reduced from 100,000 to 22,000.
All these measures are intended to give an impression of normality being restored in Chechnya. In fact, they are responses to the failure of the Russian army to defeat the Chechen mujahideen. This point was emphasised even as the changes were being announced. On the weekend of January 20-21, Chechen mujahideen launched 19 separate operations against Russian positions in Grozny, Gudermes and Argun. Although accounts of the operations vary, the largest clashes appear to have taken place in and around Gudermes. The number of Russian casualties reported varies from five to 33, while Russian military commander lieutenant-general Ivan Babichev claimed that the mujahideen involved in operations in the Gudermes area “were almost immediately surrounded and destroyed”. Thanks to the Russians’ previous record of falsehood, no-one believed him.
The mujahideen’s operations were particularly galling for the Russians on two counts. The first was their timing while Putin and local pro-Russian leaders were trying to create the impression that they are in such complete control of the situation that they can withdraw troops and devolve authority to a local administration. The second was the fact that such substantial operations could take place in the heart of Chechnya, in spite of the army’s claim that it controls most of the country, and that the mujahideen are able to operate only in the mountainous south.
The truth of the matter is rather different. The Russian troops occupying the country are little interested in fighting the mujahideen. Instead they have been terrorising the local population, looting, raping and burning their way through the countryside. Some of the reports of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers against Chechen civilians, including women and children, make extremely grim reading.
While Russian troops occupy towns and some villages, the mujahideen, supported by the local people, have the run of the countryside, and are able to move about at will. Even when they do meet Russian troops, the soldiers are so reluctant to fight armed and trained men that they avoid combat rather than confronting the mujahideen. Only a few elite Russian units have engaged in serious operations against the Chechen fighters.
The Russian forces in Chechnya, like those elsewhere, are underpaid, underequipped and receive little central direction or support. The result is that many have turned to dealing in oil and black-market scrap-metal rather than fighting. Many officers and units also sell weapons and munitions to the mujahideen whom they are supposed to be fighting. Reporters often tell of mujahideen units passing unhindered through Russian military checkpoints, either because the soldiers are too scared to stop them or because the officers have business dealings with them.
Moscow’s disillusionment with the performance of the army in Chechnya is one reason for Putin’s decision to replace them with units from the FSB. Putin clearly hopes that these will be easier to control, and at least will do less harm to Russia’s cause than the unruly rabble that the Russian soldiers have become. The reduction of Russian troops is an illusion: soldiers will be replaced by ‘policemen’ or FSB units, who are soldiers in all but name.
Since the mujahideen withdrew from Grozny a year ago, in an audacious operation to pass through Russian forces surrounding the city, Russia has claimed to have the country under control except a few stragglers and bandits. In order to try to turn this claim into some semblance of reality, and just days after a strong mujahideen attack on Grozny in which hundreds of Russian troops were killed before the mujahideen withdrew unilaterally, on July 7, 2000 Putin announced the transfer of power to an “interim Chechen administration” under Akhmad Kadyrov. Kadyrov had been appointed mufti of Chechnya in March 1995 under the late Djohar Dudeyev, but had soon betrayed himself as pro-Russian.
During the last six months, Kadyrov has tried desperately to take control of Chechnya’s civil administration, and to build some sort of colonial infrastructure on his Russian masters’ behalf. The obstacles he has faced have included the implacable opposition of most Chechens, as well as the contempt and non-cooperation of Russian generals and other appointees from Moscow. Nonetheless, Putin appears convinced that he is the man to try to create some semblance of civil order in Chechnya in order to secure Russian control.
The mujahideen, meanwhile, are determined to carry on harrassing the Russians and their puppets. This role the Chechens’ history and traditions have well prepared them for. Aslan Maskhadov’s four-year term as president of Ichkeria runs out on January 27, but the truth is that the effective devolution of power among different mujahideen leaders — Shamil Basayev and Khattab being prominent — is more suitable both for the sort of fighting now taking place and for the Chechens’ social traditions.