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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Too Early for Mopping Up?

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The Kremlin has begun to withdraw combat troops from Chechnya. Trainloads of men and armor of the 74th motorized rifle brigade are on the move through Russia into Siberia. Three other regiments from the Moscow military district are scheduled to be withdrawn in the next few weeks.

According to official information, there are approximately 80,000 Russian troops in Chechnya, about 40,000 of which are from the Defense Ministry and the rest from other forces. Chechen sources claim that the Russian occupying army is 120,000 to 160,000 strong, but these figures seem inflated.

Official Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky put the number of troops in Chechnya (including logistical units) at the end of January as 57,000 from the Defense Ministry and 36,000 from the Interior Ministry (a total of 93,000). This figure did not include garrisons stationed close to the border in the Northern Caucasus or logistical and support units stationed outside of Chechnya but involved in the fighting (including air force squadrons flying bombing or reconnaissance sorties into Chechnya). Taking this into consideration, perhaps there is some measure of truth to the inflated rebel figures.

The Kremlin has insisted that the present troop withdrawal is the beginning of the end of the war and that other units will soon follow, leaving a permanent garrison of some 25,000 consisting of an enlarged motorized rifle division of 16,000 men and an Interior Ministry brigade of up to 6,000 men, plus support and specialized units. The Kremlin has announced that this permanent occupation force will be supplemented by pro-Moscow Chechen armed militias.

But it will still be some time before the present force in Chechnya is reduced to such levels. The military plans to keep a division-sized group of Russian paratroopers in the southern mountains and to maintain a significant concentration of armor and motorized infantry in the southeast near the Dagestan border.

The units currently scheduled for withdrawal consist of about 5,000 men. Moreover, it should be noted that the authorities have often withdrawn various units with great fanfare, only to quietly replace them with other units later. Essentially, they try to depict the normal rotation of units as a cutback.

It appears that the Chechen resistance has recovered from the heavy losses it suffered after Russian troops captured Grozny and chased the rebels into the mountains a year ago. For the last few months, the rebels have been running an increasingly deadly guerrilla campaign: mining roads, ambushing columns and killing Russian solders daily.

Russian commanders say that in "liberated" Grozny troops can move only in large detachments even during the day, usually supported by armor. Going out alone means certain death or capture. At night, Russian troops in Grozny barricade themselves in strong points while the rebels move around freely.

Soldiers believe that virtually all pro-Moscow Chechen support troops are actually armed rebels in disguise, ready at any moment to shoot them in the back. This notion seems to be at least partially true: A Chechen rebel commander told me recently that he often moved through Russian checkpoints posing as a member of a pro-Moscow militia, sometimes escorted for safety's sake by a genuine pro-Moscow Chechen official.

The Russian public, brainwashed by official propaganda, may believe that victory in Chechnya is around the corner. But soldiers and officers in Chechnya know that this is not true. However, there are powerful reasons why the Defense Ministry is beginning a partial pullback now. Some of the units being withdrawn should soon be disbanded in accord with the newly approved military reform plans to dramatically reduce Russia's military manpower. Also, in recent months the war has evolved into a series of small-scale engagements, meaning that fewer large-caliber guns are needed and some howitzers and other heavy equipment are being removed.

The present campaign was planned as a relatively short victorious campaign followed by a long low-intensity, low-casualty mopping-up operation. Now, with the global economy apparently heading toward recession and world energy prices predicted to fall, the government seems eager to try to curtail the cost of its Chechen adventure. The government may be trying to move to the mopping-up phase before all organized rebel resistance has in fact been broken. And that would be a mistake sure to end in disaster.

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