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Chechen Rebels Declare New Front

Is Chechen rebel pledge to widen their fight an escalation of the conflict or a sign of desperation?
By Umalt Dudayev

Notorious Chechen militant leader Shamil Basayev has claimed responsibility for the electricity blackout in Moscow on May 24 – 25 and the fire that broke out in one of the capital’s oldest theatres on the night of May 27.

Some observers say this is proof that rebel fighters are successfully carrying out a threat to move their military activities outside Chechnya. Others say it suggests the fighters are under extreme pressure, in particular from the so-called Kadyrovtsy, the armed militia loyal to pro-Moscow deputy prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov.

In statements published on the main Chechen Islamist website Kavkaz Centre, Basayev claimed that the disasters in Moscow at the end of May were no accident, but were carefully planned and executed acts of sabotage by Chechen fighters.

Basayev boasted, “Our diversionary groups have dealt a significant blow to the life support system of the Russian Empire. The success of the special operation has exceeded our expectations. Right now we are collecting information about the consequences of our attack on central Russia.”

A subsequent statement promised new attacks on Russian territory. It said, “As we promised after the despicable murder of ex-president of the Chechen republic [Zelimkhan] Yandarbayev in 2004, we will do everything we can to bomb, blow up, hunt down, burn, set off gas explosions and [start] fires all over Russia.

“Today we have in our ranks, thanks to Allah, Muslims of many different nationalities, including Russians, who are on the path of jihad, as well as a number of non-Muslim sympathisers who are their assistants, and our capabilities are growing from one day to the next.”

The head of the pro-Moscow State Council of Chechnya, Tais Jabrailov, described Basayev’s claims as being a PR stunt. “It used to be [Chechen commander] Salman Raduev who claimed responsibility for all that went on in the world. Now Basayev has taken over this role,” said Jabrailov.

“Basayev wants the attention of the leaders of international terrorist networks so that he can attract more funds for his illegal armed groups.”

However, there have been predictions that Basayev, who is now undisputedly the most powerful Chechen rebel leader after the killing of former pro-independence president Aslan Maskhadov in March, is planning a summer campaign of attacks.

On April 15, Chechnya’s chief prosecutor Vladimir Kravchenko said, “The fighters are planning to make themselves heard and make use of the injections of cash which, unfortunately, they continue to receive. They are calling this summer ‘the summer of fire’.”

Two weeks later, Radio Liberty broadcast an interview with Chechen field commander Dokku Umarov, in which he announced the fighters’ intention to “carry military actions over onto the territory of Russia”. Around the same time, Abdul-Khalim Saidulayev, the Muslim cleric named as successor to Maskhadov, announced the creation of a united “Caucasian Front” to stretch across the North Caucasus.

This Caucasian Front would include all the republics and regions of the North Caucasus, as well as “Ichkeria” – as the rebels call Chechnya itself.

The last few months have indeed seen an upsurge of violence in Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachai-Cherkessia between militants and the security forces.

However, Andrei Mikhailov, an officer with the FSB intelligence service, told IWPR that he regarded the latest statements as evidence of weakness rather than strength amongst the rebels. “After the killing of Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen separatists could no longer carry out a single manoeuvre,” he said.

“Now they have no single leader - the new ‘president of Ichkeria’, Abdul-Khadim Saidulayev, does not even have the doubtful legitimacy accorded Maskhadov. Bit by bit, they are losing the support of the population of Chechnya, without which it is almost impossible to wage a partisan war. It is this which is pushing them to announce the creation of all possible ‘fronts’ and attempts to unleash military action outside Chechnya’s borders.”

Mikhailov said the fighters had lost most of their leadership and were now broken up and isolated.

Pro-Moscow Chechen security boss Ramzan Kadyrov is also talking with confidence. With several thousand men under arms at his disposal, he has been organising military operations against the rebels in the mountains over the last few months, with Russian forces playing only a supporting role.

The burden of the fighting has fallen on the Kadyrovtsy as well as two other nominally pro-Moscow GRU military intelligence battalions, headed by Sulim Yamadayev and Said-Magomed Kakiev and thus known as “Yamadayevtsy” and “Kakievtsy”.

Kadyrov has accused the rebels of taking shelter in neighbouring republics and, in particular, in Dagestan.

“We have got these devils on the run here, and now, realising that they will no longer get anywhere here, they hide in Dagestan,” he said. “Because they realise that here there are real men, who won’t let them wreak havoc any longer. But over there they feel safer, because the police in Dagestan simply don’t dare touch them.”

However, others warn that it would be premature to write off Basayev, who has also claimed responsibility for the attack on the Moscow theatre in 2002 and the Beslan school seizure last year.

“The events of recent years clearly demonstrate that we should take Basayev’s pronouncements seriously,” said Chechen political commentator Murad Nashkhoev.

“In 2003 he announced the start of ‘Operation Boomerang’, after which suicide bombers carried out a series of large scale terrorist acts in Chechnya, its neighbouring regions, and Moscow. I think the creation of a Caucasian Front and the idea of transferring military actions onto Russian territory are his idea. This means he has the necessary resources, both in terms of manpower and of money.”

Nashkhoev said Basayev and his comrades had been “forced into a corner” and knew there was little chance of negotiations, so were attempting more desperate measures.

“Every war has different components, a military aspect, a political aspect, an information components and support from the public. During the first Chechen war of 1994-6, the Chechen side had all these components,” said Umar Baisayev, a human rights monitor with the Memorial organisation in Grozny.

“Now the situation is far more complicated. The people of Chechnya are frightened and are unable to express their opinions; there is still an information blockade in the republic, and pro-independence representatives abroad have not managed to change western public opinion. But whether or not Basayev and Saidulayev will achieve peace by taking the fighting into Russia is difficult to say.

“In my opinion, as long as Putin’s team remains in power, the war in Chechnya is unlikely to end.”

Umalt Dudayev is the pseudonym of a Chechen journalist and IWPR contributor.