Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Russia's Grozny Deal

Russia claims to have driven the Chechens out of Grozny, but others suggest it struck a humiliating deal to save itself further embarrassment at the hands of the rebels.
By Andrei Matyash

On the night of February 1, a force of up to 2,000 Chechen fighters abandoned key positions in Grozny and slipped through the federal blockade. The battle to seize the capital was all but won -- but not in a way that the Russians would have chosen.


General Victor Kazantsev, heading the Russian troops, was denied his moment of glory. He would have liked to have swept through Grozny at the head of an armoured fist, driving the demoralised Chechen rebels before him.


Instead, it would appear that the bulk of the defending garrison pulled out in a well planned operation, leaving the Russians with nothing more than a handful of prisoners - mostly fighters who were too badly wounded to move - and a virtual wasteland of blasted concrete.


The Chechen withdrawal was perhaps not as seamless as the rebel commanders might have wished. Most versions of the event agree that a sizeable force under maverick warlord Shamil Basaev blundered into a minefield near the village of Alkhan-Kala, before being caught in a punishing artillery barrage.


Casualties were heavy: top field commanders Aslambek Ismailov, Khunkar-Pasha Israpilov and Lecha Dudayev, mayor of Grozny, were killed. Basaev is rumoured to have lost a leg.


Nevertheless, it is hard to explain how 2,000 heavily-armed rebels could have broken through a cordon of 60,000 federal troops in the heat of some of the fiercest fighting that Europe has seen since World War Two.


It is even harder to explain what happened afterwards. Western journalists in Alkhan-Kala reported that scores of Chechen wounded were given rudimentary first aid at a local hospital while their comrades regrouped to the south of the village. Then a force of around 200 fighters came down from the mountains to cover the rebel retreat. An extraordinary feat when one considers that Alkhan-Kala was supposedly under federal control at the time.


The Russian military suggests that two months of carpet-bombing had effectively broken the rebels' fighting spirit. General Vladimir Shamanov claimed that 800 Chechens surrendered prior to the exodus, then the bulk of the shattered defence force was deliberately lured into a cunning trap.


He explained that an agent provocateur with the Russian security service FSB had promised to secure the Chechens a safe corridor to Alkhan-Kala in return for $100,000. The rebels then, "like complete idiots", stumbled into a specially laid minefield and fell victim to "the withering crossfire of federal troops".


Colonel Alexander Veklich, head of the press centre for Army Group North, announced, "The federal command made a conscious decision to lure the fighters out of the city, so as to minimise our losses."


However, it is infinitely more likely that the "conscious decisions" were in fact made by the Chechen high command. January 31 was the official deadline for a Russian amnesty offering safe passage to any Chechen fighters surrendering their weapons to the federal troops.


On the same day, a total of 140 rebels gave themselves up to pro-Russian Chechen militiamen in the Staraya Sunzha district. Of these 60 per cent were seriously wounded or suffering from a variety of illnesses ranging from pneumonia to kidney infections.


According to Bislan Gantamirov, former mayor of Grozny and head of the militia, most of the prisoners were aged between 18 and 23, men recruited by Basaev and Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov in October and November. The fighters, he said, "had simply been browbeaten by their leaders and recognised the futility of resisting the Russian forces."


It seems much more likely that the rebel forces were actually getting rid of their "dead weight" prior to breaking out of the city. Certainly, Russian troops seized nothing more than a few assault rifles whilst the bulk of the Chechen arsenal was spirited away to the hills.


Why did the Russian generals wait three days before announcing that the "complete idiots" had fallen into their crafty trap? In the past, they have been quick - usually too quick - to trumpet their victories.


No less suspicious is the fact that, even according to official reports, 75 per cent of the Chechen forces came through the "withering crossfire" unscathed and took refuge in Alkhan-Kala for at least 24 hours - time enough for Basaev to undergo emergency surgery and plan his next move.


If the trap was so carefully set, then why were there no Russian troops waiting for Basaev in Alkhan-Kala? Why was the operation not seen through to its logical conclusion?


All the evidence points towards a bargain that was, in fact, initiated by the Russian general staff. Appalled by the rising human cost of the siege and the stubborn Chechen resistance, the generals went cap in hand to their rebel counterparts and offered a safe passage out of Grozny to the entire garrison - failing to mention, of course, that there was a minefield directly in their path.


From Alkhan-Kala, the guerrillas were able to make good their escape to nearby mountain strongholds. It was a trade-off that allowed Russian Acting President Vladimir Putin to save face and the Chechen guerrillas to gather their strength.


Then it was simply a case of putting on a noisy show for the media. Artillery bombardments rained down on unmanned rebel positions, tanks pulverised empty buildings and blood-soaked prisoners were paraded in front of the TV cameras. Finally, the Russian army began advancing through the conquered city at a leisurely pace, savouring their long-awaited victory.


Andrei Matyash is a correspondent for the Internet publication Gazeta.ru in Moscow .