Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Chechnya: The Fighting Goes On
Usman, 37, from the Achkhoi-Martan district of western Chechnya, is commanders of a small squad of rebels – or, as he prefers to put it, a major in the armed forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
Tall and skinny, Usman wears a short, neatly trimmed beard. “The Russian army has tried everything it could here during these four years, but they failed,” he said. “Almost every village has a garrison stationed in it, but that changes nothing. Complete occupation of a territory does not mean victory over the enemy, and no one anywhere in the world has ever succeeded in defeating a partisan movement.”
As the fifth year begins since the start of Russia’s second military campaign in Chechnya, someone like Usman should, according to Moscow’s version of events, no longer be around. The Kremlin has declared that a “political process” is now fully underway in the troubled republic and all hostilities are over.
Yet Usman maintains that the fight by pro-independence rebels is continuing at full strength. And evidence for this comes in every day.
The fighters are particularly dangerous in the gorges and forests of the Caucasus and in the shattered landscape of the Chechen capital, Grozny. On January 14, four military sappers were killed and two were badly injured by a mine laid in the Shatoi region in Chechnya’s southern mountains. A day earlier, three sappers were killed and another hurt in the same region. Three days before that, a group of marines were ambushed near Vedeno, and one was killed. In the last week, the heavily-guarded group of pro-Moscow government buildings in Grozny has also come under grenade attack.
Usman’s group operates in the mountains and carries out ambushes and acts of sabotage. He says, “If the numbers are unequal, and you have to save your men and survive, then you must split your forces into many small groups and conduct the war so as to wear the enemy out – and it will eventually bring results.”
A Russian officer named Vitaly from the military command headquarters also admits that the conflict is not over.
“Not a single day passes by without our field-engineer soldiers finding landmines and other self-explosive devices on roads during terrain inspections, while in Grozny and other major towns the attacks on soldiers continue,” he said. “It’s a real partisan war going on here. At the moment the fighters are slightly less active due to winter conditions, but during the spring and summer it gets really hot here.”
The character of the fighting has changed. The Chechen fighters are more scattered and divided than they were in the conflict of 1994-96. Several former rebel commanders, including Ruslan Yamadayev, Apti Arsanukayev and Ibragim Sultygov are now fighting on the Russian side.
Usman claims that those still fighting remain loyal to rebel president Aslan Maskhadov and that if necessary, they can unite forces for a joint operation at two or three days’ notice.
The main disagreement, he says, is over the use of suicide bombing as a tactic. The most feared Chechen fighter, Shamil Basayev, argues for shifting military operations to Russian territory, deploying suicide bombers, and eliminating those who collaborate with the Russian authorities, while Maskhadov, Ruslan Gelayev and some other commanders disagree.
“Basayev is convinced that Russia is conducting a total war of destruction against us, a terrorist war, and therefore Chechens have the right to respond to it with terrorism,” Usman said. “That includes terrorist acts on Russian territory using suicide-bombers. Otherwise, there are no disagreements,” said Usman.
“The war will last as long as the Russians are here. We are not in a hurry. Shamil [19th century Islamist leader and warrior] said, ‘When the mujahedin sleeps, the jihad carries on!’”
The greater fragmentation of the Chechen side actually makes things harder for the Russians, said Vitaly. “Groups that fight on their own, without a single centre of command, are much more dangerous,” he said. “They are hard to locate and defeat. They are also quite unpredictable. After federal troops had crushed nearly all the major groups in Chechnya in the spring and summer of 2000, the war shifted to sabotage and terrorism.
“This can go on for years, like it did in Afghanistan.”
Over the past year, Moscow has come to rely more on pro-Moscow leader Akhmad Kadyrov, who was elected president of the republic in October 2003 in a much-criticised poll. The several thousand armed Chechens loyal to Kadyrov, known in Russian as “Kadyrovtsy”, now play a much greater role. They go on joint patrols with Russian interior ministry forces, and locals say they fear the dreaded “clean-up” operations because of the Kadyrov men more than the Russian soldiers.
Vitaly, however, does not trust his would-be allies. “Akhmad Kadyrov’s security service is full of former [rebel] fighters,” he said. “Many of them came over to our side only to save their skin, and not for ideological or patriotic reasons. They used to fight against the Russian army, and I just don’t believe that those former rebels have made such a sharp about-turn in their beliefs.”
“Chechnya is a very small place, and they all know each other and have family and clan connections,” he went on.
Certainly, Kadyrov has so far failed to deliver on promises he made last year when he said that, “Chechnya must enter the New Year without such names as Maskhadov and Basayev.” Since then the only major capture has been of two flags, once belonging to Basayev, when he fought in Abkhazia in 1992-93. And even those flags date from a time when Basayev was fighting alongside Russian soldiers against the Georgian army.
Usman confirmed that many of the “Kadyrovtsy” are potential fifth-columnists. He said, “The fact that some of my former brothers-in-arms went to join Kadyrov’s service does not mean they have become my enemies. If I need their help I think they won’t say no.”
In the mean time Chechnya’s endless conflict continues to arouse suspicions amongst weary Chechens, many of whom believe that there is some kind of collusion between the two sides.
“Chechnya is not Vietnam, which was helped by the Soviets in its war against the United States, and it’s not Afghanistan that was helped by the Americans in its war against the Soviet Army,” said Chechen political analyst Murad Nashkhoev.
“We have no borders with other countries, and our territory is a thousand times smaller than Russia’s. Where do the rebels get arms and money? If it is so crucial, why have the Russian special security services failed so far to capture Basayev or Maskhadov?
“This is not a war but a dirty game played by both sides, and it is the Chechen people who suffer as a result.”
Umalt Dudayev is the pseudonym of a Chechen journalist.
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