Boost for Putin’s Chechen Offensive

Rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov’s killing hardens Moscow’s anti-terrorist policy


WANTED MEN: Aslan Maskhadov (right) and Shamil Basayev, the most important Chechen rebel leaders before the former’s recent killing by Russian federal forces

Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, the Kremlin’s most-wanted man, was killed in a military operation carried out by Russia’s special forces in a village near Grozny, announced Ilya Shabalkin, Spokesman for the North Caucasus counter-terrorist command center, on March 8.

According to the spokesman, a bunker where Maskhadov had been hiding was blown up. Maskhadov’s body was identified by local citizens and members of the federal forces. “He was in an underground concrete bunker. We had to blow it up, and the bandit was killed,” Shabalkin said.

The 53-year-old Maskhadov led his troops to battle Russian armies in the North Caucasus republic for more than a decade. The exiled leader was elected president of Chechnya, defeating the man whose name is still almost always linked to his, Shamil Basayev, in 1997. By 1999, with the republic roiled by lawlessness, Basayev launched an attack on neighboring Dagestan, and Russian forces poured in again, driving the rebel leaders from Grozny and eventually most of Chechnya.

Kremlin saw Maskhadov as a terrorist and accused him of masterminding a series of attacks in recent years that killed hundreds of civilians from the Caucasus in south Russia to the heart of Moscow.

After the bloody school hostage-taking incident in North Ossetia last September, in which more than 300 civilians were killed, the authorities offered a reward of $10 million for information leading to the arrest of Maskhadov and Basayev, in the wake of the latter’s claim of responsibility for the attack.

Two days after Maskhadov was killed, Chechen rebels chose a local cleric as their new leader, but observers believe warlord Basayev will wield real power.

“The leader of Chechnya will not just be Basayev, because no one can talk to Basayev after Beslan and the other attacks,” said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst from the Carnegie Moscow Center.

A Moral Victory

Maskhadov’s death will encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin to continue his campaign to crush the separatist forces in Chechnya, say observers.

Dmitri V. Trenin, Deputy Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center called the Maskhadov killing a “political and moral victory” for the Kremlin. “I think it’s significant for Putin. He can produce evidence that the anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya is yielding results. He needed that, especially after Beslan,” noted Trenin.

“Killing Maskhadov is a great victory for Russia’s anti-terrorist campaign,” said Li Wei, Director of the Anti-terrorism Studies Center of the China Institute of Contemporary Inter-national Relations.

According to Li, the Russian authorities had made thorough preparations for the attack on the Chechen leader. Before launching their assault, the federal forces had been informed that Maskhadov would launch large-scale terrorist attacks in Chechnya. “For the result, Kremlin had made great efforts,” Li pointed out.

After the shocking Beslan carnage last September, Russia tightened measures against the Chechen separatists. It strengthened anti-terrorism lead agencies to improve the coordination of the actions of related departments. Putin appointed 14 officials to various republics in North Caucasus to take the full responsibility for the anti-terrorist campaign.

As military strikes on Chechen rebels increased, not only were many terrorists killed but many also surrendered to the Russian authorities, revealing much-needed information about Maskhadov’s hideouts.

The Russian Government has also accelerated economic reconstruction in Chechnya, thereby lifting the living standards of the local people. This plays a key role in weakening popular support for the separatists.

However, not all countries and experts applaud the Maskhadov killing. Some Western media deem Maskhadov Moscow’s most likely chance for a negotiated peace in Chechnya as the slain “moderate” rebel leader had been frequently making overtures for talks with Moscow since last October. They say Maskhadov’s death will make Kremlin’s job for peace in Chechnya through talks much more difficult, as other Chechen separatists may turn to the hardliner Basayev.

However, Li Wei said he did not agree with the label “moderate” for Maskhadov. “Viewing from various terrorist attacks in Russia, especially the Beslan hostage crisis, we can see signs that Maskhadov had always been cooperating with Basayev,” he said.

According to Li, after a terrorist attack Maskhadov would be quick to deny responsibility thereby putting up a moderate face to Moscow while Basayev stuck to his hardline views. “Thus, they can gain international assistance from different sources,” Li said.

Other observers argue that Maskhadov’s death will also weaken the finances of the Chechen separatist forces. After Maskhadov was exiled and his presidency declared illegal by Moscow, he continued to seek, and receive, financial assistance through a variety of channels. A Russian official predicted the rebel leader’s death would stem the flow of money from Western countries to the Chechen separatists.

A Long Way to Go

Although Maskhadov’s death will weaken the Chechen separatist forces, experts agree it will not fundamentally alter Russia’s anti-terrorist situation. Moscow is well aware that the other wanted separatist leader Basayev, who has claimed responsibility for most of the terrorist attacks in Russia, is still at large.

According to the Chechen administration, the strength of rebel militants holed up in the republic’s mountainous regions remains 1,500, including 300-400 elitists and Arabian troops directly under Basayev’s command. They may launch a series of retaliatory attacks soon, Chechen officials warned.

But the main block to a resolution of the Chechen issue comes from some Western governments that accuse Moscow of human rights violations in Chechnya. Some Western organizations reportedly supply funds to the Chechen separatist forces in the name of human rights.

“There is still a lot of work to do there,” said President Putin, referring to Chechnya, after Maskhadov was killed. “We have to build up our forces to protect the people of the republic and citizens of all Russia from the bandits.”


A Bloody History

PAINFUL MEMORIES: A Russian child mourns the loss of his relatives killed two years ago in the Dubrovka Theater hostage-taking incident in Moscow

Here is a short chronology of events in Chechnya since the Moscow-backed President Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated.

Year 2004:

May 9 A bomb blast at a stadium in Grozny kills Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov and five others. Russian and Chechen officials blamed rebels for the assassination. But Aslan Maskhadov, in an interview with the rebel news agency Chechenpress, denied any involvement.

May 11 Russian President Vladimir Putin makes a rare lightning visit to Chechnya to honor murdered leader Kadyrov and orders more than 1,000 extra forces to the province.

July 6 Maskhadov says he has enough men and firepower to fight Russian forces for another 20 years, and issues a death threat to Chechnya’s next president.

July 13 Eighteen government soldiers are killed in an overnight battle with separatist rebels outside the village of Avtury, in Chechnya’s southern mountains.

August 21 Gunmen attack a police station and voting centers in Chechnya, killing at least 11 people.

Aug 22 President Putin visits Chechnya, a week before elections for a successor to assassinated President Kadyrov.

September 1 Gunmen seized a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. More than 300 people were killed in ensuing rescue operations. Moscow blamed Maskhadov and another Chechen separatist leader, Shamil Basayev. But Maskhadov denied involvement in the event.

October 5 Alu Alkhanov, Chechnya’s pro-Kremlin leader, is sworn in as president of the republic and acknowledges immediately that he is a prime target for assassination.

November 8 Russian troops kill at least 22 rebels in Chechnya’s turbulent Vedensky region, including Emir Suleiman, a man linked to the assassination of former President Kadyrov.

TEARS FOR VICTIMS: A woman lays flowers before the representative office of the Chechnya Republic in Moscow to express condolence over people killed in last September’s school hostage siege in Beslan, North Ossetia

Year 2005:

February 2 Maskhadov says he has ordered all Chechen fighters to observe a ceasefire in their separatist war against Russian troops. Chechen Government dismissed the ceasefire declaration the next day.

February 18 Yunadi Turchayev is killed by Chechen security forces. Turchayev led rebels in central Chechnya and in the capital Grozny for at least a year.

March 8 Russian anti-terrorist department announces the death of Maskhadov. Local television showed Maskhadov’s body.

March 10 Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev reportedly succeeds Maskhadov as new rebel leader.

Source: Reuters