The capture last month of ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may have played into the hands of those members of the Russian leadership who seek, for whatever reasons, to prolong indefinitely the ongoing low-level hostilities in Chechnya. Under the pretext of yielding to pressure from an indignant top brass, the Kremlin may finally give the green light for rounding up Aslan Maskhadov, the more moderate of the two leading Chechen resistance commanders, leaving his more radical rival Shamil Basaev to continue a campaign of terrorist bombings that indiscriminately target both Chechens and Russians, soldiers and civilians.
Maskhadov, who was elected Chechen president in January 1997 in a ballot recognized by both Moscow and the international community as free and fair, has constantly impressed on his men the need to observe the Geneva conventions, to avoid any military action that could harm civilians and not to launch military operations outside Chechnya. By contrast, Basaev boasts of having masterminded the Moscow theater hostage-taking in October 2002 and a string of suicide bombings in the North Caucasus and Moscow in 2003. The Russian leadership adduces Basaev's alleged links with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to substantiate its argument that the Russian military operation in Chechnya is not a war but a counter-terrorism operation against Islamic fundamentalists. The U.S. State Department last summer designated Basaev's battalion a terrorist group and froze its financial assets, while at the same time meeting with Maskhadov's envoy Salambek Maigov.
For over four years, Maskhadov and Basaev have eluded capture by Russian troops, constantly on the move from one hidden location to another. But time may now be running out, at least for Maskhadov. Basaev's website reported on 31 December that Maskhadov narrowly escaped an ambush by Russian forces four days earlier. Russian President Vladimir Putin faces reelection on 14 March. True, in the absence of a convincing challenger, Putin's victory is virtually assured. But announcing Maskhadov's capture or death in the runup to the ballot could further boost Putin's popularity. And in the longer term, Putin cannot afford to alienate the upper echelons of the Russian military, many of whom undoubtedly resent the fact that Maskhadov and Basaev remain at liberty more than four years after Russian troops marched into Chechnya in October 1999, while the U.S. troops in Iraq succeeded in locating and apprehending Saddam Hussein in less than eight months.
The Russian military's failure to capture either Basaev or Maskhadov raises doubts whether there is a consensus within the Kremlin over the desirability of doing so. Those few Russian and foreign journalists who have managed to travel to Chechnya are unanimous that it is difficult, if not impossible, for field commanders' whereabouts to remain a permanent secret in what is a relatively small region. Russian servicemen have recounted instances where an attack on Chechen fighters was thwarted by an unexplained delay in obtaining the required permission from the Defense Ministry. The former commander of Russia's airborne troops, Colonel General Georgii Shpak, told the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta last September that given the opportunity, his men would have had no problem in rounding up Maskhadov and Basaev, but that he had no right to challenge the Federal Security Service (FSB -- the successor to the Soviet-era KGB), which until July 1, 2003 was responsible for coordinating all military operations in Chechnya.
Some observers explain the Russian military's failure to move decisively to neutralize the remaining Chechen resistance fighters in terms of the economic interests of senior military personnel who are amassing fortunes from the theft and clandestine sale of Chechen oil and scrap metal. Officials from Grozneft, the largely state-owned company that oversees development of Chechnya's oil resources, have told Russian journalists how, on occasion, Russian commanders send armored personnel carriers to protect Russian troops who tap into pipelines to steal crude.
Other experts suspect that the FSB may, in a "false flag" recruitment, have coopted Basaev and encouraged his incursion into neighboring Daghestan in August 1999. It was that ill-fated attack, from which Maskhadov disassociated himself, that served as the rationale for Russia's invasion of Chechnya two months later.
A third, and possibly related hypothesis, is that the ongoing low-level fighting in Chechnya serves as a convenient means of undermining Georgian aspirations to membership of NATO and the EU. In late 1999, senior Russian generals repeatedly predicted that the war would be over within months, and, in February 2000, Russian forces succeeded in taking Grozny for the second time. But in December 1999, then Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze told the Financial Times that he would be "knocking vigorously on NATO's door" by 2005; in March 2000, Vladimir Putin was elected Russian president with a mandate to restore the country's battered prestige; and just days later, Russian officials began accusing Georgia of permitting Chechen militants to use the Pankisi Gorge in northeastern Georgia as a rear base.
Last year, Moscow set about creating the illusion that despite occasional skirmishes between Chechen fighters and federal troops, the situation in Chechnya has returned to "normal." Following the adoption in March, in a rigged referendum, of a new Chechen constitution, pro-Moscow puppet leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov was elected president in October in a ballot from which all serious challengers were excluded, and the fairness of which the U.S. State Department called into question. Kadyrov immediately advised Maskhadov to surrender and face trial, or to go into exile, rather than risk being hunted down and killed.
Having sidelined Maskhadov by installing an alternative "legitimate" president, the logical next step in "restoring order" in Chechnya would be for Moscow to round up either Maskhadov or Basaev or both. Failure to do so, or the capture of Maskhadov but not Basaev, will only compound suspicion about the Russian leadership's true motives in continuing to pursue what Maskhadov has branded a campaign of genocide against the entire Chechen people.
Elizabeth Fuller is Editor-in-Chief of RFE/RL Newsline and covers developments in the South Caucasus, the North Caucasus and Central Asia for RFE/RL Newsline and writes the weekly "RFE/RL Caucasus Report."