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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: No Safety in Numbers




The "special anti-terrorist operation" against Chechen rebels will go into its tenth month of hostilities next week, but there is no end in sight to the fighting. President Vladimir Putin and other officials said last fall that federal troops would free the Chechen population from the yoke of bandits and that many "liberated" Chechens would join the fray on Russia's side. It was announced that the Chechen population itself would "drive the terrorists out," that good Chechens would fight bad Chechens to ensure that military casualties were minimal.


For 10 months, the authorities have been seeking out staunch Chechen collaborators to give credence to their propaganda. Beslan Gantamirov - a felon who was serving time for embezzlement - was pardoned specifically to lead a pro-Moscow Chechen militia to fight side by side with the Russian military. But this week, Gantamirov was relieved of his official position, and most of his militia was disbanded.


Just a couple of weeks before Gantamirov was fired, another powerful pro-Moscow Chechen warlord, Sulim Yamadayev - the oldest of the six Yamadayev brothers who virtually control Gudermes, the second-largest city in Chechnya - announced that he would disband his militia and would work as a carpenter from now on. Last year, the Yamadayev brothers surrendered Gudermes to the Russians without a fight, but their relations with Moscow have been difficult since.


Of course, no one expects that Yamadayev will indeed fully disband his forces, or that Gantamirov's militiamen will now become law-abiding civilians. Actually, both warlords wanted the authorities to legalize their private armies and pay them salaries. The authorities balked, suspecting, not without reason, that some of the pro-Moscow militiamen were indeed anti-Moscow guerrillas in disguise, getting a salary during the day and shooting at military outposts at night.


This week, Russian Colonel Sergei Zverev, who served as acting chief of the Russian civilian administration in Chechnya, was killed when his car was attacked in Grozny. The Russian-appointed mayor of Grozny, Subian Makhchayev, who was traveling with Zverev, was seriously injured. The Russian authorities say that Makhchayev was the main target.


This attack not only proves that the Chechen resistance is very much alive, but also that being a Russian collaborator is an increasingly deadly profession in Chechnya. The "antiterrorist" campaign has been cruel to all: Chechen civilians, Chechen fighters, Russian servicemen. There is so much hatred between all parties that revenge attacks are inevitable. Russian troops attack Chechens indiscriminately to avenge dead comrades, while the rebels hit anyone in uniform or those close by.


Raising a genuinely loyal and disciplined pro-Moscow Chechen force has turned out to be an impossible mission because most Chechens who still live in Chechnya, and many of those who have fled the republic, still support the rebels, provide them with food, money and often manpower for swift mobilization.


Moscow's official military spokesman, General Valery Manilov, first deputy chief of the General Staff, announced at a news conference recently that there are 80,000 Defense and Interior ministry servicemen in Chechnya today confronting "a maximum of 3,000" separatist rebels. Such a significant imbalance of forces would no doubt lead to the swift annihilation of all rebel forces if the resistance did not enjoy widespread support.


Chechnya is a small country, about 160 kilometers long and 100 kilometers wide. It is impractical and often virtually impossible to maintain large guerrilla formations hiding in the hills. So the rebels actually maintain only a small core of seasoned fighters at any given time. But when any major operation begins, this core of fighters is joined by hundreds and sometimes thousands of well-armed, battle-ready volunteers, which allows the rebels to achieve local manpower superiority and the ability of launching punishing attacks on military units.


A trademark of such Chechen attacks was the assault on the Chechen capital, Grozny, in August 1996, when several hundred rebels entered the well-guarded city (where the military garrison was more than 10,000 strong). The attack seemed suicidal, but the number of armed rebels in Grozny swiftly proliferated to 10,000 or more; the Russian garrison was overwhelmed, and the war ended in a victory for the Chechens.


Today, continued effective rebel attacks on military columns have forced the command to impose strict convoy instructions: avoid travel in small numbers and without armor, avoid travel at night in bad weather when close air support is impossible. The federal force in Chechnya has become increasingly immobile and defensive in its posture. Military forces are occupying hundreds of fortified garrisons disseminated throughout Chechnya, awaiting attack every night, not knowing for certain where the enemy is and in what strength; the rebels are agile, can concentrate forces for deadly attack and then disappear.


Manilov may be right in his assessment of the number of fighters at "a maximum of 3,000," but their number can swell rapidly. As the federal forces in Chechnya are cut back, a serious Chechen counteroffensive that may rock the foundations of the Putin regime becomes not only possible, but almost inevitable.


Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst.