Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Withdrawal Is a PR Fudge

The Russian authorities have once again announced a troop withdrawal from Chechnya. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin that 1,270 men will be sent home this month, but that the pullback of "surplus troops" will not affect the security situation in the rebellious republic.

During the televised meeting, Putin asked Ivanov: "How many troops will be left in Chechnya after the withdrawal?" Ivanov's answer was so weird that international news agencies immediately began phoning me for an explanation.

Ivanov stated, "30,000 to 35,000 servicemen will stay in Chechnya on a nonpermanent basis." After some hesitation he added: "They will all be involved in special operations."

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Of course, Ivanov's assessment that 30,000 to 35,000 servicemen are or will ever be assigned to special operations in Chechnya is sheer fantasy. Russia does not have that many special service units. It has been officially confirmed several times recently that there are approximately 80,000 federal servicemen in Chechnya today. If you subtract 1,270 from 80,000 how do you arrive at the figure of 30,000 to 35,000?

During communist rule, the number of troops deployed during wars and casualties were either not reported at all or grossly falsified. The collapse of communism and the introduction of democracy has not improved the situation: Today, the Defense Ministry either does not give any figures at all or crudely miscalculates.

Last month, the Defense Ministry officially announced that from 1999 to the end of 2002, 4,572 servicemen were killed in action and 15,549 were wounded in the Caucasus. The same report states that during the first Chechen war in 1994-96, 3,927 servicemen were killed and 17,892 wounded. The authorities estimate the number of Chechen rebels killed since August 1999 at 15,500. Human rights activists estimate Chechen civilian losses at 100,000 or more.

The Soldiers' Mothers Committee estimates up to 10,000 federal servicemen may have died since 1999. The Defense Ministry itself has also produced figures that do not tally. At the end of 2000, the Institute of Military History of the Defense Ministry published a book that quotes official figures of 5,551 dead and 51,387 wounded during the Chechen war of 1994-96.

This Defense Ministry book lists 1,624 more dead than other "official" figures, while the number of wounded servicemen is almost three times higher. One can guess that the Defense Ministry publicly accepts as "wounded" only those who became invalids.

A defense minister gives the president and the nation a figure for the number of troops left in Chechnya after a planned withdrawal with a 5,000-man margin of error. Maybe Ivanov does not know exactly how many soldiers in Chechnya are actually alive? (If one adds Ivanov's 5,000-man margin of error to the 4,572 official body count, you get a figure close to the Soldiers' Mothers Committee estimate.)

Some of the dead may still be alive to all intents and purposes, receiving a salary and special combat bonuses that can instantly be commandeered.

It is reported that unit commanders in Chechnya often do not allow their soldiers to write letters to their families or that the letters get "lost." Families may not know for months (or more) about the fate of loved ones in Chechnya.

The authorities have several times in the past announced major troop withdrawals from Chechnya. And some units have indeed left with pomp -- only to be replaced by others almost immediately afterward.

Now 1,270 men will leave, hardly shifting the overall balance. It has been announced that the 42nd army motor-rifle division (15,000 troops) and the Interior Ministry's 46th brigade (8,000) will stay in Chechnya as a permanent garrison. Also, the Border Guards near the Georgian border (some 3,000) will stay as "permanent" units. The so-called commandant companies will stay -- permanent garrisons in all major Chechen towns and villages comprised mostly of contract soldiers, other "permanent" federal agents and officers. All in all, this amounts to an estimated 50,000 in a "permanent" occupation force.

On top of that come Ivanov's 30,000 to 35,000 "nonpermanent" forces, making a grand total of 80,000 to 85,000 men.

So there is in fact no withdrawal at all or "normalization," only another PR prank by the Kremlin, while the anti-guerrilla campaign continues as before.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.