Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Karachaevo-Cherkesia, Kabarda: the Kremlin is losing the Caucasus


Despite Aslan Maskhadov’s public announcement (in a Radio Liberty interview on June 17) that an active phase of resistance to the federal forces was starting, the guerrilla attack on Ingushetia in the early hours of June 22 came as a complete surprise to everyone – the Ingushetian authorities, Moscow, and the military. As the Novye Izvestia newspaper noted, federal law enforcement agencies either failed to hear Maskhadov’s warning or ignored it. But the guerrillas did keep their word.

As the Kommersant newspaper points out, it seems that “what happened in Ingushetia on the night of June 22 was indeed a large-scale military operation, not a vigilante raid.” And the main strike was directed not only at the people of Ingushetia, as Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov said, but rather at the Kremlin’s policies in the North Caucasus. In the opinion of Kommersant, President Putin – who flew to Nazran to make a personal evaluation of the scope of these events – may view the Ingushetian disaster as a personal defeat.

The scene in Ingushetia made an impression on Putin; he acknowledged that “the federal authorities are not doing enough to defend Ingushetia” and gave orders to station another regiment of Interior Troops there. As for the attackers, Putin promised to “seek them all, for as long as it takes – seek them all until we find them.” But Kommersant notes that when 500 guerrillas led by Shamil Basayev carried out a similar raid on Budennovsk in 1995, only 20 of them were subsequently prosecuted.

The Vremya Novostei newspaper comments: “In terms of tension, casualties, and duration, the events of June 22, 2004 in Ingushetia were not the most tragic page in the history of the ‘Chechnya crisis’ which Moscow has been trying to resolve for the past decade. But in political terms, this may well be considered one of the worst failures ever for the special services and the authorities as a whole.” After all, previous attacks were aimed at “remote, poorly-defended districts of no strategic significance.”

The Izvestia newspaper says it was the fourth attack of this kind, the previous three being Basayev’s raid on Budennovsk in 1995, Raduyev’s attack on Kizliar in 1996, and the attack led by Basayev and Khattab on the village of Pervomaisk in Dagestan in 1999. The attack in 1999 aimed to do more than take revenge on local authorities and police; the ultimate goal was to create a new state in the North Caucasus, based on Islamic Shari’ah law.

The difference, says Vremya Novostei, is that Budennovsk and Pervomaisk were small, obscure locations. But in the present case, “a region’s capital city was taken over, if only temporarily, and attempts were made to destroy the main support bases of the federal authorities – the buildings occupied by the regional law enforcement agencies.” Against the backdrop of numerous other actions by the guerrillas – such as bombings in Moscow and the recent murder of Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov – it’s impossible to write this off as “the death throes of the separatists.”

It still remains unknown exactly how many guerrillas there were, and where they went after carrying out their plans.

According to the Gazeta newspaper, “the night of Nazran” lasted from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. – throughout the hours of darkness. The official count is 200 attackers. But Gazeta points out that no fewer than 80 people attacked the headquarters of the Ingushetian Interior Ministry alone – and simultaneous attacks were under way at 20 other locations. Several more groups of guerrillas were in the city disguised as police patrols. Simple arithmetic shows that there must have been several times more attackers than the official count. And an “informed sources in the federal security structures” told Gazeta that to all appearances, up to 1,500 guerrillas were active in Ingushetia.

The number of casualties has varied from 47 on the first day to 95 at the final count.

According to Vremya Novostei, sources in the Ingushetian government aren’t concealing their outrage at the inaction of security and law enforcement agencies.

A senior state official in Ingushetia told Vremya Novostei: “It was impossible to reach any of them by phone that night – they simply weren’t answering.” According to the source, the only security agency to answer the phone was the headquarters of the mobile detachment assigned to President Putin’s special envoy in the Ossetia-Ingushetia conflict zone – but when asked for help, they at first replied that they could not place their people at risk. The federal forces only turned up two hours after the guerrillas had withdrawn.

Actually, the presence of the military – even the extra regiment of Interior Troops promised by President Putin – probably wouldn’t have made any difference, says Pavel Felgengauer, defense observer for Novaya Gazeta. If that regiment had been present, it would have had to defend itself against gunfire until dawn, just like the Ingushetian police who bore the full brunt of the guerrilla attack. Felgengauer explains: “Our troops can only take a defensive position at night, since they don’t have any night-vision goggles or devices capable of tracking enemy movements in the forest – the kind of equipment American troops started using over 30 years ago in Vietnam. They have no night-attack helicopters, and the artillery is incapable of precision targetting – especially in urban conditions, where there are many of our own troops and the enemy is wearing the same uniforms as we are.”

It’s impossible to overlook the fact that last week, while all this was happening in Nazran, the Armed Forces were carrying out the costly Mobility 2004 maneuvers. Paratroopers, mobile artillery units, and marines armed with heavy weaponry were airlifted from the European part of Russia to the Russian Far East, where their war games scenario involved repelling the attack of hypothetical “terrorists.” Felgengauer notes: “It’s pointless to fly soldiers all the way across the country if they are equipped with obsolete Soviet weaponry and insufficiently trained, so that in a real combat situation they don’t dare make a move until the enemy leaves.” The essential point of mobility, says Felgengauer, is to have a relatively small force of well-trained, well-equipped troops capable of carrying out assignments in any location at any time of the day or night. “At present, only the guerrillas are demonstrating real mobility – our own forces merely simulate it for the benefit of the top brass.”

Until now, says Felgengauer, the Nazran scenario had only been seen in Hollywood action movies: “Special squads of saboteurs disguise themselves in the enemy’s uniforms and set up fake checkpoints, patrols, and unexpected ambushes; under cover of night, they take everyone by surprise and kill countless people without suffering any casualties themselves.” And the finale was equally movie-worthy: “After performing their dirty deeds, the saboteur partisans follow the laws of the genre and disappear into the forests, brazenly and effortlessly eluding the clumsy army tanks and combat helicopters which don’t know where to shoot.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta argues that the only explanation for the guerrillas vanishing without a trace after attacking Nazran is that most of them were actually residents of Ingushetia.

They did not withdraw to Chechnya, Georgia, or North Ossetia (the law enforcement agencies of all these republics claim that no one crossed their borders); they simply went home, with a veritable arsenal of weaponry taken from Interior Ministry storehouses in Nazran. “Three hundred handguns, 322 automatic rifles, six machine guns, 200 hand grenades, and 68,000 rounds of ammunition. Enough for a whole battalion.”

Eye-witnesses to the bloody events in Ingushetia claim the guerrillas spoke of taking revenge for relatives who had been killed or abducted. The Memorial human rights group told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that in 2004 alone, 18 people have been detained in Ingushetia and 19 have been killed – eight of them shot by special services personnel. Magomed-Sali Aushev, a member of Ingushetia’s legislature, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that local residents believe “this is being done with the tacit consent of President Zyazikov.” Nazran residents believe that if Ruslan Aushev were still president of Ingushetia (Moscow managed to get rid of him in 2002) none of this would be happening: “But now people have been abandoned to their fate.”

“They were killing police officers in Ingushetia,” says Yulia Latynina in Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal. “The police officers of a region where the usual corruption of Russian police is multiplied by the disorder of the Caucasus – so a cop’s income is derived from abductions and murders rather than running protection rackets for businesses. This was a collective act of blood vengeance against the security and law enforcement agencies.”

Latynina goes on to note that there has been plenty of media commentary on the fact that although the authorities “flopped in Nazran,” they did successfully handle some hypothetical separatists “who were thoughtful enough to make their stand on an isolated hill in the Russian Far East.” Obviously, real terrorists would never choose such a location for a confrontation – instead, they would try to seize “a densely-populated place, or something environmentally dangerous like an airliner or a nuclear power station.” In that kind of situation, it would indeed be futile to rely on army artillery or tanks.

Latynina says there are two possible conclusions to be drawn from this: “Either the military is using obviously unrealistic scenarios for its war games” – or it is considering scenarios involving “civilian casualties in the process of defeating guerrillas.”

In Latynina’s view, the events in Ingushetia make the latter option perfectly plausible: “Imagine it’s 2010, and the Ingushetians rebel against their own police force, demanding independence – and the army moves in to flatten the city of Nazran just like that hill in the Russian Far East.” And no one would care if civilians are killed.

Izvestia adds that Ruslan Aushev, the former president of Ingushetia, was indeed skilled at avoiding such incidents on his territory: “But this was achieved at a fairly high cost, from Moscow’s perspective.” There was “the notorious tax haven of Ingushetia”; and “representatives of Ichkeria” used to feel much more comfortable on Ingushetian territory than they do now, while the federal forces “were almost shy about their own presence there.”

Dmitri Oreshkin writes in Ogonek magazine: “Lieutenant-General (reserve) Ruslan Aushev served the fatherland faithfully and made skillful use of the contours on the political map of the North Caucasus, while not forgetting the interests of himself and his entourage. But he also maintained the people of Ingushetia in peace and relative prosperity. So Chechnya suffered from an acute case of envy.”

Izvestia considers it pertinent to point out that the latest raid has come just as the idea of re-unifying Chechnya and Ingushetia is being raised again; this idea has found support among “many influential figures in Chechnya – and not the guerrillas.”

All this, according to Izvestia, indicates that “the current situation in Ingushetia may have more than one aspect – rather than just being about the guerrillas, it could involve at least several factors and circumstances not fully understood as yet.”

On its part Kommersant specifies that dozens of guerrillas moved to refugee camps in Ingushetia after the second Chechen campaign started. “This was where detachments to raid Chechnya afterwards were formed, and where they returned to have a rest.” In fact, Ingushetia became a rest center for the guerillas. But once Murat Zyazikov became president, the camps were shut down and refugees were returned to Chechnya.

Besides, says Kommersant-Vlast magazine, the security structures “started to finding faults with the guerrilla business: for instance, raids were taken to markets where arms were sold.” For these very reasons the guerrillas exploded the building of the Ingushetian FSB in Magas last September and an assassination attempt on Zyazikov in April 2004: his escort was attacked by a suicide bomber driving a Zhiguli car filled with explosives.

Besides, special operations were conducted in the republic, during which not the guerrillas alone “were eliminated on the spot or vanished in detention cells,” but everybody suspected of being in touch with them. As a result, the guerillas who were in Ingushetia illegally gained lots of volunteer aides among locals, who supported the attackers on June 22.

The law enforcement agencies may lose control of the situation in Ingushetia entirely, warns Novye Izvestia: “Feud wars are imminent in the republic.” Relatives of the people killed in Nazran have already sad they won’t wait for results of the official investigation, which is likely to last for years. Referring to web resource, the newspaper says that representatives of several clans have already said: “We’ll be seeking and kill each of them. Ingushs have always religiously observed vendetta laws and nobody will avoid the payback.”

According to Profil magazine, the authorities are unlikely to succeed: the cleanups launched in Ingush villages after June 22 will only embitter the civilians. “This is unlikely to strengthen Murat Zyazikov’s positions, especially in case he supports the security structures.” However, notes the magazine, “his standing in the republic couldn’t ever be worse.”

To a certain sense, the guerrillas have actually faced an own goal, says Kommersant-Vlast magazine.

According to the Interior Ministry of Ingushetia, after Zyazikov came to power and special operations were launched against the guerrillas and their accomplices, the criminal structures no longer felt safe; “many influential people broke contacts with them, give them parts of profit being afraid of endangering their reputation.” According to a source of Kommersant-Vlast, the guerillas “must show that they are still in control of everything here. So they did.” Most likely, Ingushetia is now to face “mass cleanups and many will envy even Chechnya.”

However, there are other parties concerned for progress in the conflict.

Ruslan Martagov, former media minister in Doku Zavgayev’s government, told Kommersant-Vlast that hopes for another Khasavyurt peace accord, similar to what occurred in 1996 after the guerillas attacked Grozny, are futile.

According to Martagov, “today they (the guerrillas) can’t fail to realize that such actions will only lead to force being used. It means somebody is interested in that.”

In the opinion of Martagov, “a party of war, which has been steering the country for many years” is responsible for the Ingush tragedy. Despite the high assessments some observers give to military, strategic and organizational abilities of guerrilla leaders, a source of Kommersant-Vlast is certain that they are unable to prepare such an action on their own: “They had documents of the Russian military; they competently conducted the entire operation. This is how Russian Special Force works.”

According to Ruslan Martagov, “a layer of the bureaucracy and military elite, which is concerned for preservation of this conflict, has shaped in Russia long ago.” Their concern is mercantile: “The second Chechen war began after huge amounts of money aimed for revival of Chechnya had flown into the pockets of various heads. The war has written off everything.” The same is taking place now: “Lots of money is being spent on restoration purposes, but not a single house has been restored and the people haven’t been paid compensations.” At the same time, the documents indicate that the restoration is underway.

“A new war may alone write everything off. Plus, a new war is profitable with money, ranks, titles. Thus, a recent attack is only a rehearsal, and main battles and coming up,” warns Martagov.

The pecuniary topic also bears another aspect in the Ingush tragedy. Chechen security structures link the fits of guerrilla activities with inflows of finance from abroad.

According to the press, the money streams have withered considerably. A new terrorist attack is committed each time a new transfer is received.

According to Chechen Interior Ministry, this time the money arrived with “a certain verbal message: supposedly you need a small time to hold out. The West will force Russia to withdraw from Chechnya.” This is undoubtedly an encouraging sign for Aslan Maskhadov – the idea of Ichkeria’s independence is still popular among his associates. According to Kommersant-Vlast, “even those of Maskhadov’s gang who have surrendered are sure Chechnya will obtain independence within a number of years.” Shamil Basayev has been constantly announcing disintegration of the Caucasus from Russia and constituting an Islamic state there. Therefore, the guerrilla sortie to Nazran is probably the first attempt of showing the influence of Basayev’s army outside Chechnya.

Ruslan Martagov commented on this point for Kommersant-Vlast: “They have everything in control in Chechnya. They know the people are on their side and they could raise them to war any moment now. Ingushetia has been more stable, but they showed their controls spreads across this republic either. Dagestan, Kabarda and Karachayevo-Cherkessia are to follow, because both the guerrillas and the military will take interest in that.”

In the opinion of Abdulla Istamulov, director of SK-Strategy center for strategic studies and civil society development in the North Caucasus, who published a spacious article with Moskovskiye Novosti weekly, it would be erroneous to underestimate the “Chechen factor” in the Ingush events – “regarding the Chechen resistance as the main culprit of the tragedy would be even more foolish.”

Despite Aslan Maskhadov’s statements that these events are linked to the repressive actions taken by the security structures, this shouldn’t be taken as a “mere election campaign demonstration of the viability of the Chechen resistance, timed for the anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union,” says Istamulov. According to the author, “Aslan Maskhadov’s leadership in the Chechen resistance and the pre-electoral consolidation are disputable.” Istamulov pays attention to the fact that Basayev’s attack on Dagestan had been aimed at “stirring up the Wahhabies and the government’s loss of control over the situation.” Basayev’s operation was defeated in 1999, but the author doesn’t rule out that if this invasion took place today, the republican leaders wouldn’t be able to prevent activation of armed religious extremists across the republic.

According to SK-Strategy center’s data given in Moskovskiye Novosti, the number of Wahhabies in Chechnya is now fluctuating between 2,000 to 4,000 people. Their rows in Ingushetia used to have some 1,000 members, “but the administrative system formed under Murat Zyazikov has reduced the public pressure on the extremist elements.” Dagestan is said to have some 10,000 of followers to Wahhabism, including at least 2,000 armed adepts. Expansion into the law enforcement agencies is their tactical task.” Approximately 3,000 Wahhabies reside Karachayevo-Cherkessia and at least 1,500 in Adygea.

Unfortunately, asserts Abdulla Istamulov, religious extremism in the North Caucasus is no more a half-mythical foe, “who appears only when a new fault of the special services or the law enforcement agencies needs to be explained,” but ? real opponent. Wahhabies have managed to enjoy wide support of the population, especially the socially unprotected strata, successfully integrate into the power structures, law enforcement bodies, the business and criminal groups of North Caucasian republics. Wahhabism has thus received access to diverse information and an opportunity to use the economic and corruption links.

In Ingushetia, says Istamulov, religious extremism has taken so deep roots that an invasion prepared in advance could actually become a success – the gang invaded may merge with gangs of local Wahhabies. “This will factually be what deceased Khattab had been counting on when planning invasion to Dagestan.”

Unfortunately, notes Istamulov, this hazard is being underestimated: “The work of pseudo-religious missionaries in Ingushetia was carried out right before the eyes of the security structures, which were gaining skills.”

According to Istamulov, religious extremists take effective actions in the North Caucasus now and have sufficient resources for that: “As compared to 1999, the proliferation of ideology of religious extremism, the human resources and the density of the network have increased by a multitude of times and have closely approached the line of jeopardizing Russia’s national security.”

Evidently, summarizes Moskovskiye Novosti, Russia is losing control over the events in the North Caucasus.

Either way, notes Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, “something other from what’s being reported is happening” in Ingushetia. It could be not quite true: it is becoming clearer that in the region the federal troops are countering well-trained, well-managed force, which could be unified by an aggressive ideology, rather than detached units of field commanders. The battlefield is not limited to Chechnya alone now, no matter how the authorities may insist that “the situation is under implicit control.”